April 2013

Arts & Letters

The violin through time

By Sheila Fitzpatrick

Kreutzer Sonata (1901), René François Xavier Prinet

The devil’s instrument

Benito Mussolini, Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam had at least one thing in common: they were all passionate amateur violinists. Farrakhan, perhaps the most ambitious, returned to his childhood avocation at the age of 60 and not only performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in public but persuaded the New York Times to review it. As for Einstein, goes the joke, he was a fine quartet player except in as much as he couldn’t count.

David Schoenbaum, an American historian of Nazi Germany and amateur violinist himself, leaves out the Einstein joke but not much else in this new history of the violin (Norton; $47.95). In this immense tome Schoenbaum sets out to include everything you could possibly want to know about violins: how they are made, sold, played, even their representations in art and film. It’s an encyclopaedic plum-pudding of a book, long on detail if short on overarching argument, and anyone fascinated by violins will find plenty of plums.

Schoenbaum’s story starts in Cremona, Italy, in the late 16th century, when the Stradivari, Amati and Guarneri families perfected the craft of making violins, which had evolved from the viol family. The centre of violin-making later moved north before the rest of the world joined in, with the Chinese being one of the largest producers in the early 21st century. But the consensus remains that the old Italian violins are as good as it gets, and many unproven theories have been put forward as to what the magic might be. An equally intriguing question is whether the legendary superiority of the Cremona instruments has any objective basis. When the BBC broadcast a live test in 1977, with a Strad, a del Gesù (Giuseppe Guarneri) and two more modern instruments, the panel, including violinists Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman, couldn’t reliably tell them apart. Neither could the players themselves, in a more rigorous 2010 experiment, when they were decked out in welders’ goggles to prevent identification of the instruments by look or smell. “Blind tests of violin tone were about as reliable as wine tastings,” concludes Schoenbaum.

Dealers and players prefer to ignore these findings because of their heavy investment in the old Italian violins, whose prices have skyrocketed in the past half century. If a London orchestra player could buy a Guadagnini for twice his annual salary in 1960, by the late 1990s the ratio of price to salary had soared to ten to one, with Strads fetching millions. This means that rising young players are in a real bind. They need quality instruments for credibility as soloists, or even for chamber music and string orchestras, but how can they afford them? After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet state solved this problem by nationalising the instruments and giving them to promising players on loan. When Prince Felix Yusupov (misspelt “Yossupov” in the book) fled Russia in 1917, he left behind a late-17 th  century Strad that was successively played by the great David Oistrakh and others. In the West, it is patrons and sponsors who play this benevolent role – though readers of Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music will remember the anguish of the young violinist in a string quartet whose patron wants the violin back.

The world’s great violin shops all have a family resemblance: signed photographs of famous soloists, instruments and bows hanging on the walls, a smell of wood and varnish. For me, the ur-violin shop is Bill Dolphin’s in Bourke Street, Melbourne, functioning in the 1940s and ’50s as a left-wing salon that my father and others would drop into on their way to the Swanston Family Hotel.

Schoenbaum doesn’t know about Bill Dolphin, but as a Midwesterner he gives a lot of space to Chicago’s Bein & Fushi, likely the world’s only violin shop run by Scientologists. It boasts a magnificent view over Lake Michigan and, atypically, something of the spirit of a luxury car dealership.

The great solo violinists are all covered, though in the absence of an appendix with basic biographical data I found myself using Wikipedia as a supplement as I read. The canon starts with the virtuoso Niccolò Paganini in the first half of the 19 th century, and goes on to Brahms’s friend Joseph Joachim, Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Mischa Elman, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh. The Wunderkinder, usually with a pushing parent behind them, are not forgotten; their little Lord Fauntleroy looks, and a couple of years lopped off their age for PR purposes. The women who appear in the book are mostly American, with one exception being Ginette Neveu, the great French violinist, who died in an air crash aged 30 in 1949, just a year after performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto in Australia. One omission, probably because she left no recordings, is Australia’s Alma Moodie. Recently rediscovered by the musicologist Kay Dreyfus, this Queensland-born violin prodigy went off to Europe in 1907 at age nine and made her career in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s as a protégée of Max Reger, and was the dedicatee of Ernst Krenek’s Violin Concerto.

The great teachers are in here too. Two German-speaking, Hungarian-born, Vienna-trained Jews are at the top: Leopold Auer, born in 1845, who studied for two years with Joachim and taught for nearly half a century in St Petersburg before leaving after the revolution for the United States, and Carl Flesch, 28 years younger, whose “class in Berlin was to the violin what Göttingen was to physics”. Flesch’s pupils included Max Rostal (for many years his assistant), Ginette Neveu and – his favourite, he said – Alma Moodie.

Piotr Stolyarsky had a remarkable career training Wunderkinder in Odessa, first under the Tsarist government, then under the Soviets. At the first Queen Elisabeth music competition in Brussels in 1937, won by David Oistrakh, five of the top six prize-winners were Soviet, and all but one of the Soviet winners had been trained by Stolyarsky. The Odessa students on the list were all Jewish, and this was not just a Soviet phenomenon but, for much of the 20 th  century, an international one. In their popular song ‘Mischa, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha’, written in 1922, the Gershwins celebrate the violinists from “darkest Russia” who were beating everyone else (“outside of dear old Fritz”) in the race to Carnegie Hall. Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Toscha Seidel and Sascha Jacobsen, the violinists of the title, were not just of Russian origin but Jewish. Even the wildly popular Fritz Kreisler, though baptised as a Christian at age 23 and always identified as Austrian, was born Jewish, though his American tobacco-heiress wife denied it. As Isaac Stern (born in a Polish shtetl that was later part of the Soviet Union and is now in Ukraine) quipped about Soviet–American cultural exchanges during the Cold War, “they send us their Jews from Odessa, and we send them ours.”

The violin has been seen as the devil’s instrument (Tartini’s Devil’s Trill, Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat), and in his novella The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy represented Beethoven’s eponymous violin and piano sonata as so erotic as to drive men mad. However, sex and the violin are not usually coupled. That has changed more recently as sexy young female violinists have become de rigeur on concert programs. Australia’s Tania Davis, a blonde from the Sydney Conservatorium, led the way with her Bond quartet, a crossover group (“the Spice Girls of classical music”) that was a big hit a decade ago. On their website they brandish electric instruments, and perhaps it’s electric violins – as played by Richard Tognetti in a new Brett Dean piece presented by the Australian Chamber Orchestra in February – that will finally challenge the Stradivarius brand at the top end of the market, along with bows made of carbon fibre instead of endangered pernambuco wood from Brazil. Then again, perhaps not. Any technology that stands on its own for more than four centuries has to be approximating perfection.

Sheila Fitzpatrick
Sheila Fitzpatrick is a historian. She is the author of My Father’s Daughter and an honorary professor at the University of Sydney.

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