Contributor: Robert Samuels
Location: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Description: You can see the ‘Messiah’ violin today. It is on display at the Ashmolean Museum as the centrepiece of their collection of musical instruments. It was made in 1716 by the most famous of all violin makers, Antonio Stradivari of Cremona. It is, indeed, a ‘Stradivarius’, a ‘Strad’, the most perfect example from the hands of the man reputed to make the most beautiful-sounding instruments the world has ever known.
You can see it today. You can see it, but you cannot hear it. No-one can. The violin rests in its glass case, mute symbol of perfection in sound, unplayed, forever. It has never been played. It was kept by Stradivari himself in his workshop, its perfection such that he wished never to part with it. Kept after him by his son Paolo, sold on Paolo’s deathbed in 1775 to Count Cozio di Salabue, a collector who never touched it. Bought from him by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, a violin maker and collector who kept it under lock and key, but told everyone of its worth, causing it to be named ‘Le Messie’, because like the Messiah its coming was eagerly awaited but never seen. It may possibly have been heard, once, at the London World Exhibition of 1862, where, in a competition organised by himself, he entered an unidentified violin anonymously, which was declared superior to all others played against it. The Messiah did eventually come to London, exhibited in 1871 at the Exhibition to celebrate the opening of the Royal Albert Hall. But still it was not heard. Bought at last by the London dealers W. E. Hill and sons, it was those sons, Arthur and Alfred, who quite rightly bequeathed it at last to a museum where its perfection could remain unchallenged forever.
The mythical status of this unheard and yet peerless instrument is of course a Romantic trope. While all of the history recounted above is true, it is also couched in terms which betray its Romantic intent.
The ‘Messiah’ not only participated in the myth of Stradivarius as the greatest of all violin makers, it also to some extent created that myth. When John Meade Faulkner made the obsession with the vanished sound of a violin the centre of his ghost story of 1895, of course he called the novel The Lost Stradivarius. It could be no other; it could have been the ‘Messiah’. This single object encapsulates the Romantic elevation of music as the Prince of the arts, capable of transcending the phenomenal world; as Schopenhauer claimed, not just presenting an image of the Will but allowing us to glimpse the Will itself. This primal, world-creating music is ideal; as Robert Schumann put it, the meaning of music is heard only in the silence that follows performance. What could be more perfect than a perfect instrument only contemplated in silence, the silence that follows every performance of all conceivable music?
There is no doubt that Stradivari created the ‘Messiah’ in 1716. The science of dendrochronology dates the spruce wood of its front to the 1680s, the microscope reveals the exact measurements of one of his forms for shaping its body. Perhaps parts of it were made by apprentices; but perhaps the whole is the work of the Master. There may of course be many reasons why Stradivari never sold it; one obvious possibility is that he did not consider it a very fine instrument. It has a repaired flaw in the wood near its neck; it has a scroll at its end that appears not to match its body. Its perfection as an instrument that shows no signs whatsoever of wear may be of more interest to the scholarly organologist than a guarantee either that it sings today as it sang in its creator’s hands, or that it sings with a voice unmatched in the history of sounded music.
Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, who owned it and hid it for so many years, was a skilled craftsman himself, and he both replaced its bass bar and lengthened its neck, so that even in its glass case, the ‘Messiah’ does not display quite the untouched perfection that it so unquestionably embodies in myth.
So where is its sound? What is its sound? Does it indeed soar and sing with the rich, evocative voice of Stradivari’s greatest creations? One such is the ‘Titian’ Stradivarius, made in 1715, which may have sat alongside its slightly younger brother in the Cremona workshop, but which has been played and played for more than three centuries since; owned by many, played by some of the greatest: Efrim Zimbalist, Arthur Grumiaux, and, today, Cho-Liang Lin.
This is the sound of the Stradivarius, although it is also the sound of an instrument whose gut strings have been replaced with metal, whose sound-post and bridge have been replaced and adjusted, whose sound has not remained unchanged over the centuries but has rather adapted to the changing notions of Romantic purity that require, as they have always required, for the wordless voice of the violin to sing with the transcendent beauty of tone that speaks unheard and therefore ineffable words to the soul of the listener.
Creator: Antonio Stradivari
Subject: The Stradivarius violin
Media: Image from https://www.ashmolean.org/messiah-violin-stradivari or Bridgeman Images 1217506. Recording of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy played by Cho-Liang Lin with the Chicago SO conducted by Leonard Slatkin, Sony Classics, recorded 1987.
Media rights: Image publicly available from the website above, and from Bridgeman Education. Recording copyright by Sony.
Object type: Musical instrument
Format: Maple and spruce wood
Publisher: Presented by Alfred and Arthur Hill in 1939 to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Digital collection record: https://www.ashmolean.org/messiah-violin-stradivari