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Stradivari's Genius: Five Violins, One Cello, and Three Centuries of Enduring Perfection [Paperback]

Toby Faber
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

11 April 2006
Antonio Stradivari (1644—1737) was a perfectionist whose single-minded pursuit of excellence changed the world of music. In the course of his long career in the northern Italian city of Cremona, he created more than a thousand stringed instruments; approximately six hundred survive, their quality unequalled by any subsequent violin-maker. In this fascinating book, Toby Faber traces the rich, multilayered stories of six of these peerless creations–five violins and a cello–and the one towering artist who brought them into being. Blending history, biography, meticulous detective work, and an abiding passion for music, Faber takes us from the salons of Vienna to the concert halls of New York, and from the breakthroughs of Beethoven’s last quartets to the first phonographic recordings. This magnificent narrative invites us to share the life, the intrigue, and the incomparable beauty of the world’s most marvelous stringed instruments.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 265 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade; Reprint edition (11 April 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375760857
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375760853
  • Product Dimensions: 20.3 x 13.1 x 1.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 652,453 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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5.0 out of 5 stars Enduring art 23 July 2011
A fascinating account for anyone interested in stringed instruments of the violin family, with many historical and contemporary references. The author makes it easier to understand the enduring appeal of this centuries-old craft.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply the Best 29 May 2005
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Quick, name a violin maker. For most people, there is only one name that comes to mind, Stradivarius (or in non-Latin form, Stradivari). It is not so surprising that the name lives on: "More than 250 years after his death, Stradivari's violins and cellos remain the best in the world." So writes Tony Faber in _Stradivari's Genius: Five Violins, One Cello, and Three Centuries of Enduring Perfection_ (Random House). The master made more than a thousand instruments and six hundred are documented as still surviving. Faber has chosen six Strads upon which to fasten a story of art, history, and science. He admits they aren't the most celebrated instruments, nor are they all now used by famous players (in fact, only two are being played at all). But in examining them, we get an idea of what makes the brand so special, and why they are so fervently beloved by listeners and players, and sometimes so firmly locked up by museums and collectors that they cannot come out and play.

Stradivari was born in 1644, in or near the Amati family home, Cremona, Italy. He lived to be 93, working all his years, and fathered eleven children, but not a family dynasty of instrument makers. His instruments, mainly violins and cellos, but also a few violas and a single harp, were valued in his own lifetime, and he was wealthy. The instruments were eventually perfect for playing in large halls because of their ability to project their sound. It was as if Stradivari predicted that larger halls and a romantic sound were going to come into permanent fashion. At least partially because of Stradivari, violins have a prominence as the chief instrument of the orchestra. Faber follows the fortunes of five of Stradivari's violins - the _Lipinski_, the _Viotti_, the _Messiah_, the _Paganini_ and the _Khevenhuller_ - and of one cello, the _Davidov_ (now played by Yo Yo Ma). Stradivari didn't name his instruments; they acquired names usually from famous owners. Not the Messiah! The way it got its name is typical of anecdotes in this book. The instruments have all been sold and handed down many times (some of them have holes in their provenance, periods of time when no one knows where they were). The yet-to-be-named _Messiah_ was in possession of a certain dealer, one Luigi Tarisio, a carpenter and violinist who loved instruments from Cremona. He made trips to Paris to sell off parts of his collection (sometimes with "a little judicious forgery," as he was a bit of a trickster), but he teased potential Parisian purchasers by not bringing along what he told them was a perfect 1716 Stradivarius. During one such visit, the violinist Delphin Alard exclaimed in exasperation, "So, your violin is like the Messiah, always expected and it never appears." The name stuck, and the _Messiah_ eventually appeared, of course, but it almost never made a sound. More than any other Strad, its lifetime has included being owned without being played.

That controversy was settled by science, but there has been surprisingly little scientific capacity to answer the big question: What makes these instruments so good? There are lots and lots of theories, and it is worth speculating about, because if there is a secret, it can be followed and instruments of this quality can be made again. Perhaps it is the varnish; no other part of the violin, and of Stradivari's violins in particular, has been argued about so much. Yes, a bad varnish can deaden a violin's sound; but can good varnish actually enhance the tone? And what varnish did Stradivari use? We don't know. Electron microscopy has revealed that there is Pozzolana earth, a volcanic ash, between the wood and the varnish; is it the key? Perhaps it was that the spruce was floated down the river for transportation, a soaking that road transportation subsequently eliminated. Or maybe it was deliberately soaked in salt water. There are, Faber shows, just too many variables to test. Even if test violins could be made to test all variables, they would still have to be played for long enough by good enough players to bring out their tone, and they would have to age fifty or a hundred years. Such requirements mock the capacity of the scientific method. The career of one violin here, the _Lipinski_, demonstrates the need for an answer, though; it was played for two hundred years, and restored, and revarnished, and internally patched. Perhaps all the work was necessary, but the sound understandably diminished, and since its last sale in 1962, it has not been heard from. Violins are machines for making sounds, and like all machines, they wear out, even the finest ones. It is thus fascinating and sad that our technological capacities have not been able to unlock Stradivari's secrets. Centuries later, no one is building instruments better than these, the ones that shaped the world's musical history.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lord of the strings 4 Nov 2004
By Eric J. Lyman - Published on Amazon.com
Like most people, I had heard of the renowned Stradivarius string instruments, but aside from a vague idea about how well made, rare, and expensive they are, I knew little else about them. If you are in that same category, then author Toby Faber's passionate and well-written Stradivarius: Five Violins, One Cello and a Genius is worth a look..

I didn't say it is a must-read, because any conclusions one draws about these outstanding instruments after reading the book's 300 or so pages comes from a kind of triangulation based on the six chapters, one each about the six best-known examples of violin-maker Antonio Stradivari's work. Each story is compelling in a different way -- my favorite is about the so-called "Messiah," believed to be the only Stradivarius in existence that has never been played -- but the quality of each tale varies a bit.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is from the writer George Eliot. "Tis God [who] gives skill," she wrote, "but not without men's hands ... He could not make Antonio Stradivari's violins without Antonio." Quite an endorsement from a writer not known for hyperbole.

The most interesting theme with a subject like this one is how and why these instruments made with relatively crude technology and tested by Mr. Stradivari's more or less untrained ear during a brief span starting more than 300 years ago have elicited praise like Ms. Eliot's and, according to most experts, have never been equalled in quality. But that important story is told here as much by implication as by intent; I would have liked to have seen more discussion or analysis in this area, perhaps in some kind of concluding or summary chapter.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Do we know Stradivari's secrets yet?? 7 Jun 2005
By Alan Lekan - Published on Amazon.com
Some will be curious to see if Toby Faber has any new or definitive revelations as to just what exactly were the deep secrets of Antonio Stradivari. While he doesn't quite completely reveal the mysteries of Stadivari, author Faber does present the two most probably technical hypothesis in the very last chapter as to what exactly was responsible for producing the legenday Stradivari tone and power. Hint: one has to do with a pretreatment of the wood and the other what appears to be a unique "base coat" applied prior to that famous red varnish. But, you'll have to read it to find out exactly what.

This book follows the paths of five Stradivarius instruments throughout history - from the 18th century workshop in Cremona through the 19th and 20th century's wars, virtuosos, concerts, and tradings to the present musicians who play them now. Highlights for me were the chapter on Paganini (who collected many Strads but favored his mighty 'des Gesus') and the later chapter recalling how the famous 'Davidov' cello found its way into the hands of (the late) Jacqueline du Pres and then later, Yo Yo Ma. And my favorite was the final chapter on how Baroque craftsmanship still continues to elude and trump science's attempts to characterize and reproduce Stradivari's magic ... so Antonio's secrets will remain, which is probably just as well.

This book will most likely appeal to the more "serious" classical fan or violin enthusiast but maybe less to the "less serious" classical listener. The writing style to me was sometimes langoring not engaging enough to pull an average reader (like me) into these historic settings and dealings. A mainstream press reviewer from 'The Week' did not rate it very highly either saying it is sometimes hard to stay interested through all the "wonky collector talk." But, to those really into the subject, it probably will be a fascinating story to follow as there are some really interesting tidbits and stories about Stradivari and these instruments ... like the fact that there are a only a rare few VIOLAS from Stradivari to the reality of how great instruments like these can and do wear out with time (and actually LOSE value) to how most top professionals still prefer 17th/18th century violins as compared to modern ones - well, at least according to the author. There is a reason these precious stringed instruments remain so mysterious and coveted and Toby Fabor seeks to tell that story through the history of these five instruments. Just don't expect to see any sexy, full-color glossy photos found in those $500 violin books. Rating: 4 stars for serious classical/violin enthhusiasts; 3 stars for the otherwise-curious public.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting - but could be more so. 12 Aug 2005
By Alan M. Polansky - Published on Amazon.com
An interesting book which gives a brief history of the famous insturments made by Stradivari. The book then follows five specific insturments from their creation to present time. The book also gives a good look at the development of the violin, from its inception to its current configuration. Those, like me, who are unfamiliar with this history will find it interesting. I only find two problems with the book. Much of it reads likle an overdone book report from someone who did not enjoy their topic. While there are many interesting tidbits here and there, few of them are developed in a way to make them interesting, and may be missed completely if the reader is not careful. The only other fault I find in the book is that I would have like to have seen photographs of the five insturments in question, and in color. The book of refers to specific details of these insturments, including the color of the varnish used, and photographs would aid the reader greatly.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Intrigue & Fame of A Stradivari 8 Jun 2005
By rodboomboom - Published on Amazon.com
One of the fun things for this reader is to search the New Non-Fiction Display at my favorite bookseller. There I look for the fascinating work that is not one of my areas of interest, e.g. recently I have found three such of these: Bobby Fischer Goes to War; An Imperfect God: George Washington's Slaves & The Creation of America; and now this fascinating work on the infamous violin maker.

What strikes one about this attempt to probe this mysterious violin giant is that the mystery like so many remains unsolved. How did he manage to create instruments that no one has been able to duplicate to date? The angles, the varnish, the wood, the maturation. They all continue to be analyzed. Even all the modern technology hasn't been able to understand nor exceed this Italian craftman's abilities.

Faber, a young violinist once, becomes intrigued with the mystery after reading about the contention over the possible forgery of "The Messiah," Strad's most popular instrument. So he begins looking at this man from Cremona, Italy and tracing six of his instruments, and their players, their owners, their trading.

So the epicenter of the stringed instrument world has shifted from Italy to Paris to London to NY City. Could the Third World be next. Authenticity for buyers becomes solely word of expert analysis and insight. Millions paid for one Strad.

Most readers will be exposed to giants of the stringed instrument world that they never have known, such as Davidov, Lipinski, Bohm, Marie Hall, Tarisio, et al. Strads go through many players that many will recognize, e.g. Yo-Yo Ma, Paganini, du Pre, etc.

This is really a most interesting journey through one of the most popular musical instrumnet and its genius maker. Faber pokes and probes this mystery from many angles and views, leaving much of this intrigue an open question, but not forsaking his research conclusions.

Great appendices with a useful glossary, chronology, exhange rate analysis.

A wonderful, enlightening read.
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