Violin smashes price records at charity auction

A 290-year-old 'Stradivarius' violin has sold for record £9.8 million at auction. What was the Stradivarius secret and how can a musical instrument be worth that much?

Min-Jin Kym was at London's Euston station, when she decided to put down her luggage and nip into Pret A Manger for a sandwich and some coffee.

When this famous violin player returned, her luggage – which included a 314-year-old Stradivarius violin worth £1.2 million – had been snatched by thieves.

Now another violin made by the Italian craftsman Stradivari has been sold this week for £9.8 million, to raise money for disaster relief in Japan. And the question is: how can a bit of wood and some catgut be so valuable?

Born in 1644, Antonio Stradivari is the most famous violin maker in history. Based in Cremona, he made over 1,000 violins, violas and cellos of which around 600 have survived.

At the turn of the 18th Century, the instrument faced a crisis. Previously, violin performances were confined to people's homes or to chamber music which did not require a huge sound.

But now Italian composers were writing for large concert halls. Could the violin make the leap? Could it be adapted to increase volume yet retain clarity? Stradivari got to work.

'Each Strad is a character of its own,' says Paul Barritt of the Hallé orchestra. 'Each has a very strong personality that makes them something to deal with. It doesn't always do exactly what you want. You have to go with the character of the instrument and then you will get great rewards.'

What is the secret of the Stradivarius sound? In 2003, scientists in the US claimed that reduced solar activity in the 17th Century could be the cause.

They said the colder winters and cooler summers at the time produced slower tree growth that in turn led to denser wood with superior acoustic properties – circumstances not repeated since.

Other researchers believe the answer lies in a chemical treatment used by Stradivari to kill woodworm and fungi or perhaps in the varnish. It was once argued that he used wood from ancient churches or soaked it in a mysterious ingredient.

What's in a name?

But many claim a Stradivarius is no better than other violins.
Top performers such as Paganini and Yehudi Mehuhin preferred violins made by Guarneri, a less well-known contemporary of Stradivari. And repeated sound tests have shown that people are unable to distinguish the Stradivarius from other violins.

In shops, a brand name like Nike multiplies the cost of a shoe – even if it's no better than others. Might this also be true in the expensive world of antique violins? Was Stradivarius the first musical brand?

You Decide

  1. 'A Stradivarius in the wrong hands is a nightmare. It's about the player not the instrument.' Do you agree?
  2. 'Violins as investments rather than instruments? Stradivarius would turn in his grave!' How would you feel if you were Stradivarius – proud or sad?

Activities

  1. Compose a piece of music for the violin and record it.
  2. 'A quartet is four people listening to each other.' Whether with instruments or voice, create a quartet of sound in which each player/singer is responding to what the others are doing. Try it!

Some People Say...

“It's the name that's worth millions - not the instrument.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who sold the violin for £9.8 million?
The Nippon Music Foundation. 'While this violin was very important to our collection,' said their President, 'the needs of our fellow Japanese people after the tragedy have proven that we all need to help, in any way we can.'
Are Stradivarius violins still played?
Yes, but very few musicians can afford them, so most are in museums or the vaults of private collectors. They're an investment. Over the past 50 years, few things, if any, have gone up in value as dramatically as antique violins.
Yet really it's just a bit of wood.
Robert Bein, a Chicago dealer, wouldn't agree. 'Except for these fiddles,' he said, 'not one single object on this earth works better than it did 200 years ago. Stradivari is the ultimate icon of Western civilization. I mean, what finer thing exists?'

Word Watch

Catgut
A type of cord that is prepared from the natural fibre in the walls of animal intestines. Stradivarius would have used them for the violin strings and they are still used for performance playing because of their tone. But most violins now use a synthetic substitute.
Cremona
Ancient town in north Italy with strong musical tradition where where both Stradivarius and Guarneri worked.
Chamber music
A form of classical music for a few instruments, which could be played in a Palace chamber. It is intimate, sociable music which requires both skill and listening.
Acoustic
Anything related to sound or the sense of hearing; the science of sound that is particularly important in creating performance venues.
Brand
The identity of a particular product or service, which can be legally protected. Perhaps the most famous brand name is Coca Cola. The word arose from people branding their cattle so they were distinct from other people's cattle.

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