"Supremely important" Stradivarius show reveals the secrets at the Ashmolean in Oxford

By Culture24 Reporter | 11 June 2013

Exhibition preview: Stradivarius, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford, June 13 – August 11 2013

A brown photo of a man looking at a violin hundreds of years ago
Alfred Hill holds the Messiah in 1912 - the violin is considered perhaps the best-preserved and most famous Stradivarius violin, housed at the Ashmolean in Oxford© Courtesy Charles Beare
Mystery still shrouds the magic of Antonio Stradivari. The master Italian craftsman whose valauble instruments had a power and exquisiteness revered as highly as the greatest composers of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Few can speak with certainty when discussing the exact techniques he used. But with 20 magnificent, sometimes unseen instruments on show, including an example of his famous violins dating from more than 300 years ago and various designs from his “Golden Period”, between 1700 and 1720, this is an extremely rare opportunity to try and deduce how he made his musical works of art.

The most telling display might come in the gallery embracing an impression of his workshop. The original tools, wooden models and patterns have been borrowed from the Museo Stradivariano in Cremona, allowing the path of a violin, from spruce wood log to finished article, to be followed.

“This exhibition is of supreme importance,” believes Charles Beare OBE, a modern day craftsman and violin authority who has helped shape the show.

“Of roughly 700 Stradivari instruments that survive, the 20 on show will be the very finest and best preserved examples. It will be an inspiration to all violin enthusiasts, players, and makers world-wide.”

Beare echoes the words of one of his predecessors, Gregor Piatigorsky, whose instrument, the Batta-Piatigorsky cello of 1714, will appear.

“It spurred me on to try to reach its depths,” Piatigorsky wrote in his autobiography.

“I have never worked harder or desired anything more fervently than to draw out of this superior instrument all it has to give.”

James Ehnes, who will give a gala concert in Oxford as part of the opening, is one of several contemporary players to contribute insights to the show.

“Performing on a Stradivarius is a dream come true for a string player,” he says, discussing the violins.

“The beauty of tone, range of dynamics and possibilities for tonal nuance one finds in a great Stradivarius is unsurpassed, and the inspiration one receives from working day-in and day-out with one of these marvellous instruments cannot be overstated.”

The Ashmolean is home to one of Stradivari’s best-preserved violins, known as the Messiah.

“In bringing together other examples of his finest work from around the world, this will become a Mecca for all enthusiasts and anyone who wants to learn about the greatest of all violin makers,” says Professor Sir Curtis Price, the former Principal of the Royal Academy of Music and Warden of New College Oxford.

“By observing and listening to the instruments themselves, all of Stradivari’s secrets will be revealed. Well, almost all.”

  • Open 10am-6pm (closed Monday). Admission £6/£4. Follow the museum on Twitter @AshmoleanMuseum.

More pictures:

An image of an oil painting of a 17th century man holding a violin
Cremonese Artist, Portrait of a Musician (circa 1570-90). Oil on canvas© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
An image of an illustration of a man playing a violin as part of a 17th century stage show
George Cruikshank, The Dancing Lesson, The Minuet (published August 1 1835). Coloured etching© Courtesy Charles Beare
An image of a black and white photo of a towering cathedral-like building in a city
The Church of San Domenico, Cremona shortly before its demolition (1870)© Courtesy Charles Beare
An image of illustrations for the making of a violin
John Pringle, Violin by Antonio Stradivari (1980)© 1980 W E Hill and Sons
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