The saving of a Stradivarius

One of the world's most famous violins - said to be the gift of Catherine the Great to a virtuoso musician - is at the centre of a feverish fund-raising campaign. Jonathan Brown reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Giovanni Battista Viotti arrived at the Tuileries Palace in Paris, even a young man of his prodigious confidence and talent could not have known the impact his performance would have on the world of classical music. There in the cavernous surroundings, vacated by Louis XIV for the splendour of Versailles, three reputations were to be made: his own as a musician; that of the violin as a virtuoso solo concert instrument, and the name of its maker, Antonio Stradivari.

The violin he played that day at the Concerts Spirituel of 1782, has become the focus of an extraordinary campaign - launched yesterday - to keep what is now known as the Viotti Stradivarius in Britain. Last week, for the first time in 200 years, the violin was played before a public audience, at the Dukes Hall of the Royal Academy of Music. "It was magnificent. Those of us that were lucky enough to be there had tears in our eyes," said Curtis Price, the academy's principal.

The academy must now raise £1m before 31 March in order to add the instrument to its renowned collection at York Gate. There it will be available to be played by musicians under "controlled conditions" and remain on show to the public six days a week.

The estate of the son of the last purchaser of the violin - which is donating the instrument on condition of anonymity - proposed a deal with the Inland Revenue when he died in 2002. It offered the violin to the nation in lieu of £1.4m in taxes. The violin itself has been valued at £3.5m although it could fetch more than double that if it were to be sold at auction.

The Viotti is on a par with the "Messiah", or Le Messie, Stradivarius in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which, the conditions of its bequest state, must never be played. But the Revenue wants its money and wants it fast. The National Art Collections Fund, which has already helped save such masterpieces as Velazquez's Rokeby Venus, has given a grant of £100,000. An emergency application to the National Heritage Memorial Fund is being considered.

But time is running out. The academy must now rely on an unprecedented display of public generosity in order to ensure the future of the instrument lies in Britain.

What is at stake is a violin that marked the turning point in the history of Western music. Viotti's arrival in pre-revolutionary Paris, with its huge publishing industry and vast population of musicians, saw him arrive at the centre of the musical world. It was a world he took by storm. He played faster than anyone else before him, louder and with a greater range of tone and texture.

Much of the success of this so-called Italian-style was down to the genius of its creator. Thanks to his skill, Viotti's instrument was loud enough to be heard in the new concert venues. Music had moved from the drawing rooms of the grand houses to reach new audiences in new public spaces. The violin could compete with the increasing size of the orchestra and suited the demands of the emerging Romantic composers. According to Toby Faber, author of a biography of Stradivari entitled Five Violins, One Cello and a Genius: "Before Viotti, Stradivari was just one violin-maker among many. After him everyone wanted to play a Strad."

The story of Viotti's violin began some 70 years earlier in Cremona, Italy. A woodcarver turned instrument-maker, Antonio Stradivari had already set himself up in the Piazza San Domenico after serving an apprenticeship to the great Niccolo Amati. But Stradivari was not poor. "He was never the kind of artist that starved in his garret," said Mr Faber who will deliver a lecture to the Royal Geographic Society next week on the violin-maker. "There were three things that made him so great. There was his craftsmanship, his ability as a wood carver which gave his instruments such fine detail. There was the innovation of his design, and the exceptional quality of his materials. His golden period lasted for some 20 years until 1720, and this instrument was made right in the middle of this period."

It is thought that during this period Stradivari had managed to acquire some spectacularly good quality wood. The soft wood fronts of his violins were fashioned from alpine spruce. The hardwood backs, cut in birthday cake-shaped segments, were made from maple. The back of the Viotti, with its distinctive "tigerskin" finish, was made from a single piece of wood.

One theory is that the unusually high density of the wood used endowed each instrument with special properties. Europe was undergoing something of a "mini ice age" in the late 17th century, the theory goes, and the trees felled at this time had undergone particularly slow growth and had been chilled during transport in icy Alpine rivers. Others say the secret lies in the quality of the varnishes. A more poetic theory has been proposed by the composer and violinist Niccolo Paganini. He claims Stradivari only used "the wood of trees on which nightingales sang." Perhaps - but then Paganini himself was no stranger to myth and legend. He was rumoured to have sold his soul to the devil in return for his virtuoso technique.

Whatever the reason, the conventional wisdom is that instruments made during this period have never been surpassed in quality and most of the world's top players still insist on owning one. During his long life - he died at the age of 93 after fathering 11 children - Stradivari made some 2,000 instruments, including harps, guitars, violas and cellos. About 650 remain. Typically Stradivari's customers were the European nobility, including the court of King James in London.

Little is known of the early history of the violin owned by Viotti. For the most romantic explanation as to how the son of a humble blacksmith came to acquire such a coveted instrument, historians have journeyed east to the House of Romanov.

Viotti was a musical prodigy. He startled his first benefactor, the Marchioness of Voghera, with his ability to memorise music and sight-read faultlessly at the age of 12. He became a member of the royal chapel in Turin before beginning a tour of European courts with his friend and mentor Gaetano Pugnani. Arriving in St Petersburg, then the Russian capital, Viotti was introduced to Catherine the Great by her lover Grigori Potemkin. It was a perilous thing to be too close to the Empress of Russia, especially for a musician. Her previous lover, the violinist Antonio Lolli, learntthat his romantic attentions were no longer required when the secret police arrived at his door with orders to have him stuffed and put in a glass case. Luckily, he escaped unscathed. Viotti was luckier still. To him Catherine gave the Stradivarius.

Within two years, during which time he had befriended the King of Poland and met Voltaire, the violinist and his instrument were the darlings of Parisian society. But being a concert performer was never the most lucrative of professions and Viotti wanted to make money. As well as composing his own music he was becoming an impresario. His association with Marie Antoinette was proving particularly lucrative - if politically shortsighted - and he even began a venture with the Queen's hairdresser. He returned to the scene of his triumph at the Tuileries Palace to open the Theatre de Monsieur.

But these were violent times. As the Terror tightened its grip on Paris he fled to London in 1792, armed with nothing but his violin. It was back to life as a concert performer. He played a series of concerts with the Stradivarius during the 1790s, appearing at Hanover Square and the Kings Theatre in Haymarket. His fame spread. A review in the Morning Chronicle of 1793 demonstrates the awe in which he was held. "Viotti, it is true ... astonishes the hearer; but he does something infinitely better - he awakens emotion, gives a soul to sound and leaves the persons captive," it said.

In the middle of the decade he came into contact with Joseph Haydn and performed at venues across Britain - at Bath, Manchester and Edinburgh. But Viotti was once again to fall victim to the political tensions of the time. He had been spotted dining in the company of two Irish nationalists. In the claustrophobic, suspicious atmosphere of the day he was denounced for his "Jacobin sympathies". He fled to Hamburg where he concentrated on composition but returned to London in 1801, making the acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron.

Meanwhile, Viotti's entrepreneurial spirit had remained undimmed and he began a fresh career as a wine merchant. In the same year he played his final concerts with the Stradivarius in Paris and at Hanover Square in London. It was the last time the public was ever to hear the father of the modern violin - or anyone else - playing this most celebrated of instruments. In a prescient nod to what was to happen two centuries later, Viotti stated in his will that the instrument should be sold to repay the debts he owed to his London friends, the Chinnerys, his wine business having collapsed in failure. The Viotti Stradivarius was sold in Paris for 3,816 francs- the equivalent of £10,000 today. During his lifetime the instrument had increased 25-fold in value. Viotti was well aware of its worth - even commissioning a replica of another Stradivarius to pass off as the real thing.

In France, the Viotti was admired and highly sought after among the instrument-makers of the time, most notably Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. The first biography of Stradivari appeared in the middle of the century by François Fetis. It sought to explain the unparalleled quality of his instruments - and it contained a list of the best examples, placing the Viotti third.

The instrument itself was to begin an unsettled period. It returned to England in 1897, in the care of WE Hill and Sons, the family company that dominated the world trade in violins for nearly two centuries. One of the sons Arthur, recorded the moment he first saw it in his diary: "Silvestre arrived this morning from Paris bringing with him the Strad violin that he and Alfred and I had been corresponding about. It is one of the handsomest I have ever seen, and the figure of the wood and the colour of the varnish are both of the most magnificent description ..."

Six months later, however, it was sold again, this time to Baron Knoop, the son of a textile magnate from Estonia. The Baron held the Viotti for a few years before selling it back to the Hills. In turn it was sold to another enthusiast, Richard Baker, to add to his Stradivarius collection. Once more the Hills bought it back this time only to sell it once more for the sum of £8,000 in 1924 to a young Scottish aristocrat. And there it remained, largely unplayed, languishing at the family seat in the Home Counties.

There were one or two notable exceptions - Yehudi Menhuin played it, and so did Gyorgy Pauk during efforts to convince the Inland Revenue of its value. The last person to do so was Clio Gould, professor of violin at the Royal Academy, whose performance was broadcast on BBC2's Culture Show last night. Since the death of the son of the last purchaser in 2002, the instrument has been entombed in the vaults of Christie's.

Its condition is said to be remarkable, having sustained a crack on either side of its front at some point before it was first acquired by the Hills. Ironically it is not the forces of decay which threaten the future of this remarkable instrument, but the British Government.