Last weekend I was in Oxford for a conference of the British Violin Making Association.
The title of the conference was Messiah 301, focussing on one of the most famous and notorious Stradivari violins, nicknamed the Messiah, which is in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The violin was made 301 years ago. By a strange coincidence, I’m currently varnishing my instrument no. 301, and this month marks 40 years since I started my training at the Newark School of Violin Making, where our school pattern violin, which I made five rather indifferent versions of, was none other than the Messiah.
The Messiah is the best preserved of Stradivari’s instruments. It remained in his family on his death, in the hands of his son Paolo, and only changed hands 60 years later, when it was sold to the collector Count Cozio di Salabue. At the time it was made, there were probably four people working in the Stradivari workshop; Antonio himself aged 72 and three of his sons, Francesco, Omobono, and the young Martino who was just starting his apprenticeship aged 13 (he died young in 1727).
The Messiah sits slightly uncomfortably in Stradivari’s output. It has been little played; from Cozio it passed via the violin dealer Tarisio to the great French violin maker and dealer J B Vuillaume. From this time its nickname arises; on his visits to Paris Tarisio kept talking about this mint condition, extra-special Stradivari violin, but not bringing it, so jokes were made about it being like the second coming of the Messiah, often promised but not delivered. Because of its near pristine condition, we are surprised by the even golden-red varnish and the crispness of the work, unlike the well-used instruments we are used to. The arching of the front is a little unusual too, flatter than normal above the f-holes. So a whole industry of conjecture has grown, suggesting that it’s not a Stradivari at all, but a clever fake by Vuillaume.
The conference refuted this comprehensively. Carlo Chiesa’s extensive research in the Cremonese archives gave us more detail on the circumstances of the Stradivari workshop at the time, and the tantalising prospect that the young Martino might have had a hand in this instrument. The dendrochronology expert John Topham (dendrochronology is the science of dating wood, in this instance the spruce of the violin front, by the tree ring spacing; not unlike bar codes, spruce from different locations and periods has a unique fingerprint) has been able to match the spruce of the Messiah with other Stradivari instruments. But interestingly, 1716 is one of the hardest years of Stradivari’s output to cross-reference accurately with dendrochronology. Maybe with the arrival of the youngest apprentice in the workshop, Stradivari planned to take a back seat and had run down his wood stocks, and his sons hadn’t yet established a new source.
The American violin maker Greg Alf gave a fascinating insight into how modern techniques of analysis have shed light on the violin’s authenticity. One of the debated points of this violin was that the inked letter inside the pegbox of the violin which is thought to correspond to the mould that the violin was made from is wrong; he showed CT scans of the ribs of the violin superimposed on an image of the extant mould labelled PG, a near perfect fit. However, the inked letter inside the pegbox is G. But… analysis of the ink shows that it was the ink used by Count Cozio, and is over the varnish, rather than Stradivari ink. Cozio’s attempt to identify the mould of the violin was inaccurate.
At the end of a fascinating weekend with many insights into the working practices of the Stradivari workshop and also the huge strides that modern technology has made in opening up new areas of research, it was time to nip up the road to the Ashmolean and see the real thing. The musical instrument gallery has recently been refurbished, and you can now clearly see this violin from all sides. And it is a peach, the varnish glows like a jewel, the workmanship is clean but unfussy. It’s only sad that the condition of the donation of the W E Hill family who gave it to the museum is that it should never be played.