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.