Reference Library Articles

A Stradivari Cello

By any other name would sound as sweet? by Valerie Walden

Stradivari – a magical name for wooden boxes called violoncellos. Always admired, these instruments did not begin as the most highly sought-after cellos in the world. According to the Hill brothers, who published their findings on Stradivari in 1902, this was a state of affairs seen from the 1870s onwards as, 'the ever-increasing admiration for Stradivari's instruments has caused their value to rise by leaps and bounds…' In the first issue of The Strad, the magazine named after him in 1890, the romance with the instrument maker was unequivocal:

To Stradivarius, the making of stringed instruments was the whole world… No wonder then, that his labours were crowned with success and that as yet he stands alone in the world of violin making, surrounded by many, but surpassed or equalled by none!

Continued reverence for these instruments is reflected in current prices. The Countess of Stanlein, Bernard Greenhouse's cello, sold in 2012 for over 6 million dollars and the Duport and King of Spain (appraised by insurance adjustors when its neck was broken in 2012) are valued at 20 million dollars.

Success during Stradivari's lifetime had a different feel to it than the adoration of nineteenth and twentieth-century string aficionados. As a luthier (one who makes lutes), Stradivari began his career as a common tradesman, following in the footsteps of his probable teacher, Nicolò Amati, in Cremona. They made their living making instruments for wealthy patrons; aristocrats who provided instruments for their servants; or affluent amateurs looking for the latest and greatest model. In an era of rapidly changing expectations for violin-family instruments, Stradivari was an ambitious innovator, a trait most apparent in his approach to cello construction.

Among luthiers, cellos were a speciality for Stradivari: not all makers wanted to deal with these larger instruments and he built over 70 during his career. His early cellos, those constructed before 1707, were the workhorses of the period, being used to play incalculable Baroque bass lines – thousands of notes and no glory. These were the larger instruments, often called 'church basses', known for their deep, rich sonority. Discounting two conversions from viola da gambas, there are 24 of these instruments remaining, with just three in their original dimensions. Although several of these instruments were destined for such distinguished patrons as the Medici Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III and Philip V of Spain (the King of Spain cello didn't actually make it to Spain until 1775), the inglorious purpose of their use is reflected in the lower-grade woods of willow or poplar used for most of these cellos and the total disregard for their construction integrity as they were cut down in size in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

When Stradivari began his career in the 1660s, the concept of using cellos as solo instruments was unfathomable. However, during this decade in neighbouring Bologna, new developments in wire-wound string technology made it possible for cellos of smaller dimensions to make pleasing sound and cellists soon began to compose solo works. The earliest smaller-form cellos are associated with Francesco Rugeri and Andrea Guarneri, rival Cremonese builders, but Stradivari began to transition his cello sizing in the late 1690s, coming up with dimensions in 1707 that seem to have satisfied the luthier and his patrons for the subsequent twenty-five years. His final cellos, made in the 1730s, are experiments with even smaller sizing.

Stradivari achieved financial success as a respected workman during his very long life, but fame came after his death with the changing nature of recreation, as instrumental soloists became popular public entertainers in the second half of the eighteenth century. The development of the public concert was directly tied to the growth of the Enlightenment and the epicentre of both was Paris, where the Concert spirituel promoted virtuosi string players beginning in 1725. The need to amaze an audience with virtuosity and blanket them with sound eventually led to changes in fittings and bow design by the 1780s, events which seemed to suit Stradivari's instruments better than any others built by his contemporaries. The association of stardom and Stradivari is usually attributed to G.B. Viotti, whose debut with his Stradivari violin at the Concert spirituel in 1782 ignited the Parisian music scene, but it is likely that the Duport brothers, prominent in Paris since the 1760s, had already found Stradivari instruments to produce their ideal sound. The change in bow design was led by the Tourte family and the pre-eminence of both Stradivari and Tourte and their interdependence was affirmed by the early 19th century. In naming François Tourte the "Stradivari" of bow making in his 1806 La Chélonomie ou le Parfait Luthier, Abbé Sibire firmly dated the popularity of both makers.

Cozio records indicate that both J.P. and J.L. Duport owned Stradivari cellos; J.P. the 1700 instrument known as the Cristiani (name after Lisa Cristiani) and J.L. the 1711 cello named after him and immortalised in its ownership by Mstislav Rostropovich. J.P.'s relationship to Strads is lost in history, but the Hill brothers recount that J.L. bought his cello (originally built for a Lyons doctor) while he was in the employ of the Prince de Soubisse and the Prince Guémenée. The Prince Guémenée went bankrupt in 1782 in a massive scandal that would have restricted his support of musicians, the inference being that Duport likely bought the instrument before 1782. Regardless, J.L. Duport and Viotti became very good friends and musical associates. Both promoted the innovations of Tourte, whose bows further enhanced the capabilities of Stradivari's instruments as they were reconstructed with 'modernised' fittings. Duport seemed to think that the Stradivari far outshone the Amati that he was playing at the time of his purchase.

The other cellist associated with the 'Stradivari revolution' was Bernard Romberg, who offered the measurements of his c.1711 Stradivari as perfection in cello construction (he is also thought to have owned a 1728 model, as well as a Tecchler) and was responsible for designing the modern shaping of the fingerboard. Romberg initially came into contact with Viotti and J.L. Duport in 1785, when he first visited Paris. When he bought his Stradivari is speculative, but he is believed to have purchased Boccherini's instrument, likely acquired in 1800 when he visited Boccherini in Madrid (both the Duport and Romberg cellos probably sat side-by-side at the Prussian court orchestra from 1805-1806). What is not arguable is that Romberg was as influential as Viotti in popularising refitted Stradivari instruments and Tourte bows by performing throughout Europe for the ensuing thirty years. Every cellist of the era wanted to play like Romberg.

Duport and Romberg bought their cellos before prices started to inflate, but the cellists who sought to emulate their sound were not so lucky. By the early nineteenth century these instruments were becoming coveted commodities and as the Hills noted, by the 1870s Stradivari instruments had become the ne plus ultra. Nineteenth-century owners tended to be French, English or Russian; players, like Duport, associated with the Paris Conservatoire; affluent Russian nobility who came into contact with Romberg during his stays there; or French and British entrepreneurs, particularly J.P. Vuillaume and the Hill family. In the twentieth century, Stradivari cellos have had owners from all parts of the globe.

For anyone not a string player, the monetary worth of Stradivari instruments is staggering. It is all about the sound and whether describing the playing of Romberg or Rostropovich, the characteristics of Stradivari cello tones are described similarly. 'Clear, firm, penetrating,' described Romberg's playing, while Rostropovich's Duport possesses 'A clear and articulate tone and a fast response with strong projection and full bass register.' Steven Isserlis notes the laser-like qualities of the sound, while Yo-Yo Ma sensuously describes the Davidoff (previously owned by Jacqueline Du Pré) as having, 'A remarkable combination of attributes. The pianissimos float effortlessly. The instrument's response is instantaneous. The sound can be rich, sensuous or throbbing at every range, yet can also be clear, cultured and pure.'

Be forewarned, however, if wishing to play a Stradivari, they are reported to have egocentric personalities. The Davidov and Ms. Du Pré did not always get along, as she thought it to be idiosyncratic. Ma notes about this cello that: 'You have to coax the instrument. The more you attack it, the less it returns.' Isserlis concurs, stating that his de Munck: 'Likes being talked to, sung to, dreamed over.' It is not unusual for players to humanise their instruments, but Janos Starker, who owned the Lord Aylesford, considered his cello to be possessed of more than just personality, stating that: 'Although his Lordship was created by man's hands, he definitely has a soul.'

Linked forever by name with previous owners, most of Stradivari's cellos have been hugged by the world's greatest players and several of them have had perilous adventures. The Castelbarco was marched in street parades, the Duport spurred by Napoleon, and the Mara drowned first in liquor and then in a shipwreck. The poor Prince Gursky was completely unglued so it could be smuggled out of Russia in 1922, before being reassembled in Germany. The General Kyd was recently rescued from a Los Angeles dump. These wooden boxes give so much and perhaps that is the enduring magic of Antonio Stradivari. He has given cellists a means to express the full range of human emotions with incredible beauty, power, and love. As Gregor Piatigorsky, the owner the Aylesford, the Baudiot, and the Batta cellos, explained, 'The violoncello is a part of all things, and a central substance of this universe.'

The London Cello Society presents our tenth anniversary event 'Simply Strad' at the Royal Academy of Music on Sunday 3rd November 2013. To book tickets, please visit www.londoncellos.org