The Greatest Violin No One’s Ever Heard
Quincy Whitney on "Le Messie"
The most famous violin in the world has never been heard. What’s more, it gained its reputation by being invisible. “The Messiah” sits in its glass display case just outside the Print Room of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford. Measuring just less than 23 inches, with a 133/16- inch body, the famous fiddle soon grew gargantuan in stature not because of its sound but because of its story. In fact, the conundrum is that nobody knows how the old fiddle actually sounds. A big part of its mystique lies in the fact that, as the only Stradivari in existence still preserved in pristine condition, it has virtually never been played!
The Messiah is not unlike clockmaker John Harrison’s H-4, the last of the four famous clocks that reside in the Old Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, in the place where east meets west on the prime meridian—zero degrees longitude. All four Harrison clocks—H-1, H-2, H-3, and H-4—keep accurate time and so made the determination of longitude possible. But H-4 is the only celebrated clock of the four that never runs. As Dava Sobel explains in Longitude: “It could run, if curators would allow it to, but they demur, on the grounds that H-4 enjoys something of the status of a sacred relic or a priceless work of art that must be preserved for posterity. To run it would be to ruin it.”
“Le Messie” became an icon without anyone ever putting a bow to its bridge. Its story is much larger than air, wood, and strings. Sitting in its display case, or on an examining table in the Prints Room, the “Messiah” encapsulates the entire violin world, an exquisitely Italian icon inextricably linked to Oxford and the collecting legacy of W. E. Hill & Sons. One begets the other—the fiddle and the collector intertwined in a way that magnifies the legacy and esteem of both maker and collector.
The violin world is a world based on lineage, secrecy, and the “war” between authenticity and deception inside an elite group. It consists of a cloister of craftspeople, dealers, and “experts” passing very specific knowledge down to the very few willing to take the time to learn this time-intensive skill that for centuries has been based on copying old fiddles. It is a world in which even the player—especially the player—has been left in the dark without access to insider knowledge. The maker, expert, and dealer own the knowledge that each parcels out judiciously, less he or she dispel the mystique of violinmaking “secrets,” for there is power and money in marketing secrecy. It is a world in which a maverick questioning sacred tradition sticks out like a sore thumb or a diamond in the rough, depending on who stands to win or lose by the knowledge the maverick uncovers.
In a very real sense, one virtuoso may have inadvertently created the violin market. In 1782, when the violin virtuoso Giovanni Battista Viotti gave his Paris debut, he attributed his success to playing a Stradivarius. As a result, the French luthiers Louis Pique and Nicolas Lupot took note and began making instruments based on the “golden period” of Stradivari. By 1810, with collectors William Corbet and Count Cozio di Salabue reinforcing this preference, scarcity reversed the market, and suddenly Cremonese instruments were worth four times the price of the best contemporary instruments made in London and Paris.
When Pique and Lupot died in 1822 and 1824, respectively, without successors, the path opened for a new kind of dealer, one of whom was also a luthier and one of the greatest copyists of all time, French master luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. At this incredibly auspicious time, Vuillaume met legendary violin dealer Luigi Tarisio. Vuillaume was as notorious at bidding as Tarisio was at collecting. While most dealers tended to bid conservatively at first, Vuillaume paid whatever it took to procure these old fiddles. He appears to have been the only Parisian dealer to foresee the economic link between old violins and the much wider antiquities market.
Simultaneously, even as Vuillaume was promoting the “value” of Old Italian Master violins, he was also promoting his own copies — conferring status to both old fiddle and the facsimile copy, both valued as objets d’art. Timing was golden for Vuillaume—he came to prominence when the market for violins was relatively level and golden period Strads were rare. In addition, Vuillaume bet on the obsessive Tarisio—and won, thereby single-handedly inventing the violin market almost overnight. In his dissertation on the violin market, contemporary violin consultant Ben Hebbert explains the singular genius of Vuillaume: “His feat as a businessman was to invent an entirely artificial market by dovetailing the supply of rare violins into pre-existing bourgeois values. His feat as a craftsman was to sustain the market by making many of the finest copies of Cremonese work to this day.” In 1854, when Tarisio died, Vuillaume made the greatest purchase of his career—first, from the small farm near Fontaneto where Tarisio’s body was found, the six finest violins of the collection, including the celebrated “Messiah” and no fewer than 24 Stradivaris and 120 other Italian masterpieces; and second, another 246 fiddles found in Tarisio’s attic in Milan that Vuillaume purchased for the paltry sum of £3,166.
The Messiah is also valuable because it has a name. Naming a violin actually enhances market value. But names of fiddles never actually appear on the instrument. Instead, the label inside a violin ostensibly acts as the maker’s signature. In reality, fraudulent labels are as old as the violin itself. Documentation shows that as early as 1685, violin labels were being falsified in Italy. Early dealers got into the fraudulent label game. Count Cozio di Salabue collected not only violins, but violin labels. Vuillaume often inserted copies of Stradivari labels in his copied instruments. Evidently, Tarisio often placed a label by a premiere maker into a second-rate fiddle—it was a common practice.
Issues of authenticity lead to the need to consult violin “experts.” An expert is a dealer, maker, or scholar of the craft who has studied the work of at least twenty-five to thirty of the most important makers and can readily recall defining details of a fiddle to ostensibly “prove” authenticity. But when the “expert” has a vested interest as a dealer, the waters get murky. As the Boston violin dealer Christopher Reuning attests, “The very people who know enough to help often have a financial interest in the deal—or in killing the deal, or trying to ruin the reputation of another expert or dealer. . . You really have to have your commerce and expertise separate. . . . You have to be objective and look at those objects as they are. And if you’re not, your reputation suffers.”
The lineage of “experts” leads to the dealers themselves — of which there have been surprisingly few over the past four centuries. American violin dealing began before the Civil War with the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company of Cincinnati, Ohio. When Rudolph Henry Wurlitzer, son of Rudolph, saw the commercial potential in the violin business, he founded a branch of the company in New York City and encouraged his son Rembert to study violinmaking and specialize in rare stringed instruments. Rembert Wurlitzer joined the firm in 1930 and became one of the world’s most respected “experts” in the field. When Wurlitzer died, the baton eventually passed to two luthiers who had worked with him—Jacques Français and René Morel—both of whom came from a distinguished line of French violinmaking families trained in Mirecourt.
During their thirty-year partnership, Français and Morel were the dealers at the center of American violinmaking world. Working alongside Fernando Sacconi, Stradivari expert and master luthier, Morel brought restoration to a high art, bordering on alchemy. With tools, measuring devices, powders, tiny mirrors, peroxides, and palettes of varnish, they restored each fragile hundred-year-old plate (weighing less than six ounces) by patching , grafting , soaking , and reshaping , then covering each repair meticulously.
Morel repeated the dealers’ mantra: “Modern instruments cannot compare except in decibel levels. A musician can only really sculpt sound out of an instrument that is old. It is like wine, improving with age.”
Or not. When does repair go way beyond reason and recognition? In fact, this two-century-old fetish for violin repair and restoration created a violin world composed largely of smoke and mirrors — according to Joe Peknik, former Metropolitan Museum of Art principal technician in the Musical Instruments Department. “I hate to say it, but it’s all a sham. To modernize an old violin to be played and sound well in a modern concert hall, one has to first stabilize the instrument by removing the top and in many cases, relining or doubling the edges, putting in a breast patch, and in some cases, make it thicker or thinner. Then a new, longer and thicker bass bar must be added, lengthening the neck and tilting it back a bit to put more tension on the top—all to make an instrument louder and stronger. These changes are all made to make an instrument more effective in a large concert hall, the size of which the original maker could never have imagined. The violin is the only object in the world of antiques that increases in value with this large amount of restoration. Most other objects that are restored to this extent would be devalued by half or less.”
Peknik explained further: “Because of the fetish to rework the Old Masters, there are very few great master violins that remain in original condition. The modern violinmakers who are making instruments to fill the modern large concert hall get a small fraction of what these souped-up Old Masters make in the marketplace.” He recalled the time he saw an ultra-violet light beamed on a cello to highlight the spots where it had been repaired. “An early eighteenth century Goffriller cello was being offered to the museum by an eminent New Yorker dealer. When we opened the case, we were astounded by its magnificent varnish and condition — a beautiful dark, reddish brown with a light crackling in the varnish here and there that you would expect of an instrument of this age. When we put the uv light on it, the entire body of the instrument turned an opaque, milky white except for a perfect rectangle in the middle of the back—the only place that you could actually see the grain of the wood. The conservator remarked that this was a sign of a non-u v, penetrable over-varnish that’s used by art dealers to mask restoration. The cello was going to be used in a concert that week. After rehearsal, the cellist approached us to complain that the varnish had come off on his shirt! It turned out that the entire instrument had been completely revarnished.”
In fact, there has always been a fine line between restoration and fraud, as forgery and fakes have been a huge part of the violin world since its inception. The most commonplace violin frauds are “trade” fakes, pretending that a common violin is a valuable “old” one. There are handmade fakes deliberately built in the style of a copied maker; modern instruments imported from foreign factories in the white, then varnished and “distressed” to look old; and genuinely old instruments, often of good quality, into which a fraudulent label is inserted.
In 1894, one bold violin forger actually described his methods in copious detail, highlighting sixteen steps. The eleventh reads: “Eleventh, take off the belly, and put it on again, letting the glue be quite hardened, at least three times, using different coloured glues and letting a little encroach each time upon the linings to show how many times it has been repaired. . . . By observing these rules you can also detect when you buy a piece of violinswindling.” Much more recently, the Times of London, May 27, 1982, reported that in 1978 Sotheby’s actually offered for sale a forger’s kit consisting of a collection of modern blocks engraved with good imitations of fine makers’ labels. Great alarm was caused by a successful Japanese bid, and Sotheby’s bought the kit back, with the collaboration of the International Society of Violin and Bow Makers. Interpol has since investigated violin dealing rackets, and a leading Tokyo instrument dealer was arrested. Later, an international ring of fraudulent dealers was uncovered.
One notorious case involving two violin dealers and one obsessive collector highlights another aspect of the violin marketplace—dealers fiddling with “value” to take unfair advantage of eager but unsuspecting clients. In a large collectors’ arena like art or antiques, one individual dealer or collector does not hold such all-pervasive power. But in a world as small and inbred as rare violins, powerhouse violin dealers hold all the cards, playing the roles of buyer, seller, investor, broker, appraiser, wholesaler, and retailer and are able to control both the flow and price of antique instruments. “They generally provide expert appraisals to a seller who has no other way to determine the true market value of an instrument.” One such dealer, Robert Bein, was not the least bit repentant: “Is it scandalous to make a profit? If this were a criminal charge, would I tell my lawyer to plead to ‘first-degree violin dealing’? Fiddles are a universe, a pretty self-contained universe. It has gods and lesser gods and people who dirty the universe.”
In the determination of whether a violin is authentic or fake, the violin world, the violin culture, the violin market sits squarely in the camp of these violin experts. One such expert works with the Musikmuseet collection in Stockholm, brokering old violins to young players at the Royal Academy. He said of violin experts: “They are good guys mostly with morals accommodated by economic necessity.” That is to say, if times are lean, an “expert” might change his or her appraisal, not because of acoustics, but because he needs the money. Though he used to know Hutchins and back in the 1960s actually collaborated with her in comparing violin and guitar plates, this dealer, in an interview in 2004, now sang a very different tune and had very little praise for Hutchins. He said: “Joseph Curtin is possibly the best violinmaker in the U.S.A. You must talk to the experts and ask what they think of Carleen. . . . They will say that Hutchins has had virtually no impact on anything in the violinmaking world. Why? Because she has had no impact.”
In June 2013, two events took place in Oxford that encapsulated the “smoke and mirrors” violin world, which revolves around old violins and the perceived impeccable value of a Stradivari. First, on June 12, the Ashmolean Museum hosted its pre-opening reception for Stradivari, an exhibition featuring the largest collection of Stradivari instruments ever gathered in one place. Two days later, the Sheldonian Theatre hosted a very special concert featuring Canadian violin virtuoso James Ehnes performing on three Stradivari violins — the first time such a thing had been done in a concert setting.
On stage with Ehnes was Sir Curtis Price, former principal of the Royal College of Music, King Edward Professor of Music, Kings College, London; owner of the “Viotti” Stradivari; former chair of the British Violin-Making Association and head of the jury for the 2006 Cremona International Triennale Violin-Making Competition; and member of the Nippon Music Foundation, knighted for his services in 2005. Also on stage was renowned British violin dealer Charles Beare. One could not have expressed “the lineage” of the violin world any better.
The evening concert turned into a tale of two virtuosos.
“How many Stradivari violins have you played?” Sir Curtis Price asked Ehnes. On the table behind them were three Stradivari violins — the 1666 “Serdet” Strad, the 1711 “Parke” Stradivari, and the 1715 “Marsick” owned by Ehnes.
“This will be the ninety-second and the ninety-third!” Ehnes exclaimed triumphantly.
There was an audible gasp in the audience. When Beare asked Ehnes to compare Guarneri and Stradivari, Ehnes waxed eloquent: “The ‘del Gesù’ is very different from the Strad — they respond in different ways. The Guarneri requires a dense bow. Stradivari violins create their own acoustic. A great Strad relies on its acoustics environment. I’m a Strad guy — but I adore Guarneri.”
After intermission, violinist Adrian Chandler led his group, La Serenissima, on stage—two violins, two violas, a giant lutelike instrument, a harpsichord, and cello—seven players for the first piece—“Sinfonia” by Navara. Chandler addressed the audience: “Needless to say, we play violins that are much less expensive.” The audience laughed. Then just before he launched into the next piece, he added as an afterthought: “The cheapest instrument here cost ten quid—I’m not joking!” In the last two pieces—the Vivaldi and the Valentini—the audience discovered the virtuosity of Chandler as a soloist. Both Ehnes and Chandler received a bouquet of flowers at the close of their performance. But, given the focus of the evening on the violins made by the master, similarities between the two players stopped just short of the auction house.
On February 16, 2010, thanks to the generosity of Ashmolean Museum curator Jon Whiteley, research for the Hutchins biography took me to Oxford, where I had the good fortune to have a private audience with the most famous of fiddles—white gloves in hand. Holding the “Messiah,” I thought of all the recent controversies surrounding it. Though its provenance was relatively established—from Count Cozio di Salabue to Tarisio to Vuillaume—major questions remained. Why did Vuillaume keep it a secret for fifty years? And then why did he modify it before he displayed it in 1872? In his book The Violin World, Norman Pickering , electrical engineer, Juilliard-trained musician, acoustics professor, and high-fidelity equipment designer, said of Vuillaume’s actions: “If this was to be preserved as an original Stradivari, that amounts nearly to an act of vandalism.” Vuillaume further complicated matters by making copies of the Messiah—and then was thrilled when no one could tell the difference.
In 1994, while curating The Violin Masterpieces of Guarneri del Gesù exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Stewart Pollens, former museum instrument restoration expert, secured the services of Dr. Peter Klein of the Ordinariat fur Holzbiologie of the University of Hamburg , to date the spruce tops of twenty-five violins assembled for the exhibition. A few years later, Pollens asked Klein to use his skills to date the wood used in the “Messiah.” Pollens recalled: “Though he initially determined that the last datable year-ring of that instrument was 1738 (which postdated Stradivari’s death in 1737), members of the violin trade maneuvered him into temporarily retracting his findings in exchange for an opportunity to remeasure the Messiah’s year-rings at the Ashmolean Museum. However, because of a dispute that developed during that session, he was unable to leave the Ashmolean with his measurements. Klein now declines to date violins. . . .”
Other scholars have noted discrepancies and inconsistencies, most of which have been explained away by those who insist the instrument is authentic. Pickering wrote: “The position of the British expert, Charles Beare, seemed to be that it is a genuine Strad because he says so, with no further explanation. His attitude towards the eminent Pollens was dismissive and insulting.” Pickering zeroed in on the issue at the heart of the matter. “The jury is still out, but there is one powerful force suppressing the likelihood that any serious investigation will be resumed — the power of money. As a Strad, its value is beyond price; as a copy, it would have considerable value to a collector, but even that would be less than a tenth of what it is now as a ‘certified’ original. Nobody gains, either by exposure or positive affirmation, except those who want to know the truth. . . . Furthermore, not all of the several hundred existing Strads are of concert quality, although they all bring very high prices on the market.”
Returning to the fiddle on the table, as I looked at my white gloves, I imagined how thrilled Carleen would have been to be by my side. She would pick it up gingerly, study the thicknesses of the plates, the purfling, the tapering of the sound-holes. She would tap the four-corner “hot-spots” on the top plate, holding her ear to the fiddle, listening , trying to confirm her own suspicions spawned from hundreds of hours of experimentation.
Still, as I placed the fiddle back on the table, I thought about touching the untouchable, about timing , and about the story of a luthier whose legacy, like a starfish with its tentacles pointing in all directions, points in all directions of the violin world — but here, in this moment, to a market built on “old” fiddles and the question of authenticity. I watched Whiteley prepare the “Messiah” to go back on its throne in the glass case where thousands will mill around and study it through a glass, dimly.
“Do you think she is a real Strad? Or a fake?” I ask.
He smiles coyly: “It doesn’t really matter, does it? It is still a beautiful work of art, and the fact that research cannot determine either way beyond a shadow of a doubt makes it all the more intriguing.”
From AMERICAN LUTHIER: Carleen Hutchins—the Art and Science of the Violin. Used with permission of ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England. Copyright © 2016 by Quincy Whitney.