stradivarius cellos
Cello, Makers

The Myth of Stradivarius Cellos – Insights from 3 Notable Instruments

Antonio Stradivarius – Cellos, Violins & Violas

The name Stradivarius is synonymous with the highest quality. The violins, violas and cellos of the Italian maker Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737) and his family have always been revered for their aesthetic, unrivaled tonal properties, performed on by the greatest musicians of their day. 

These instruments were always thought to outclass all the best modern makers. However, in ‘blind’ tests, in which neither musician nor audience know which instrument was played, listeners consistently prefer the new instruments to the old classics. Many scientists and violin makers question whether ‘Strads’ and other old Italian violins really have superior acoustic qualities. For decades, blind comparisons have shown that listeners cannot tell them from other violins, and acoustic analyses have revealed no distinct sonic characteristics.

What lies behind this discrepancy? Is a self-serving myth being perpetuated or might the truth be more elusive?

A brief history of Stradivarius

As a luthier, Stradivari began his career as a common tradesman, following in the footsteps of his teacher, Nicolò Amati, in Cremona. He made his living fashioning instruments for wealthy patrons: aristocrats who provided instruments for their servants, or affluent amateurs looking for the latest and greatest model. In an era of rapidly changing expectations for stringed instruments, Stradivari was an ambitious innovator, a trait most apparent in his approach to cello construction.

Among luthiers, cellos were a speciality for Stradivari. Not all makers wanted to deal with these larger instruments. He built over 70 during his career. His early cellos, those constructed before 1707, were the workhorses of the period, being used to play baroque bass lines, thousands of notes with no melodic line. These were the larger instruments, often called ‘church basses’, known for their deep, rich sonority. There are 24 of these instruments remaining, though only just three in their original dimensions. Although several of these instruments were destined for such distinguished patrons as the Medici Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III and Philip V of Spain, the limited purpose of their use is reflected in the lower-grade woods of willow or poplar used in their construction.

Approximately 650 original Stradivari stringed instruments have survived from the maker’s career.

Cremona became acknowledged as the finest centre for violin making. Stradivari achieved financial success as a respected workman during his very long life, but fame came after his death as instrumental soloists became popular public entertainers in the second half of the eighteenth century.

The development of the public concert was directly tied to the growth of the Enlightenment. The epicentre of both was Paris, where the Concert spirituel promoted virtuosi string players beginning in 1725. The need to amaze an audience with virtuosity and blanket them with sound eventually led to changes in fittings and bow design by the 1780s, events which seemed to suit Stradivari’s instruments better than any others built by his contemporaries.

The association of stardom and Stradivari is usually attributed to G.B. Viotti, whose debut with his Stradivari violin at the Concert spirituel in 1782 ignited the Parisian music scene, but it is likely that the Duport brothers, prominent cellists  in Paris since the 1760s, had already found Stradivari instruments to produce their ideal sound.

Modern Day Notoriety

The legacy of Stradivari was crucially endorsed and perpetuated by the Parisian maker and dealer, Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (1798 – 1875). In addition to working as a renowned and prolific maker of fine violins, Vuillaume was also a highly successful dealer, connoisseur, inventor, not always above some dubious business practises.

His workshop in Paris employed and trained some of the finest 19th-century violin and bow makers, producing over 3,000 instruments. Vuillaume’s historic domination of the world market, finding many sales in emerging USA, saw him promote the mystery and legend of old Italian instruments whilst making his own antiqued copies. So good were these copies that a debate still resonates today as to whether it was Vuillaume or Stradivari who made the 1716 ‘Messiah’ violin, which is considered the only violin by the ‘master’ in perfect condition, now displayed in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

This mint-condition Strad was initially purchased by an eccentric Italian dealer and collector, Luigi Tarisio. After Tarisio’s death, Vuillaume claims to have made the greatest purchase of his life. At a small farm near Fontaneto d’Agogna, where Tarisio’s relatives lived, were the six finest violins of his collection, including the celebrated ‘Messiah’. In a dingy attic in Milan, where Tarisio’s body has been found, were found no fewer than 24 Stradivaris and 120 other Italian masterpieces.

Looking at the “Messiah’, might it be possible that Vuillaume found it hard to resist passing off his own finest work as that of the legend he had helped to perpetuate?

The influence Vuillaume brought to bear on stringed instruments still resonates today. It is important to emphasize that length of domination of the market by both Stradivarius and Vuillaume, both titans in the market, has influenced opinion and taste long beyond their life spans.

Experiences from 3 Notable Stradivarius Cellos: Marketivch, Davidoff & Dupport

1709 Markevitch

My first experience of listening to a Stradivarius cello live was when I heard the 1709 ‘Markevitch’. Like most of the instruments of Stradivari, these instruments have been named after their previous distinguished owners, sometimes royalty or nobility, or celebrated musicians. The provenance, the historical line from maker to the present day, is an important part of their value. “I feel the history, the soul of previous performers in my hands,” is a frequent comment made by those who loan these hugely expensive instruments. Very few musicians can afford to own a Strad, they are the commodities of wealthy collectors and museums.

On this occasion the ‘Markevitch’ had a brittle tone, almost sounding like the cello was made of glass rather than wood. This had much to do with the manner in which the instrument was “set up”, meaning a choice of harsh metal strings, the excess pressure and unforgiving position put on the belly by a sound post wedged between front and back of the instrument. Even its illustrious performer felt the same way about that instrument’s set up.

Looking at the ‘Markevitch’, there was no doubting the consummate skill of Stradivarius as a craftsman of the highest, elevated, order. The figuration of the wood, carving of the head, the striking purfling near the edges, cut of the ‘f’ holes on the belly, the exquisite feel for proportion is akin to any of the greatest achievements in Renaissance sculpture or painting. The ‘Markevitch’ possesses all these admirable qualities.

But does the cello work as an instrument? The unspoken truth is that many Strads can be difficult to play, to make them ‘speak’.

Yo-Yo Ma says of the ‘Davidoff’ Strad cello:  ‘You have to coax the instrument. The more you attack it, the less it returns.’ Steven Isserlis concurs, stating that the ‘de Munck’ ‘likes being talked to, sung to, dreamed over.’ Reading between the lines, these cellos can be temperamental.

A frequent challenge happens when a young soloist is lent a Strad for a recording or performance; the legendary instrument must surely endorse their emerging career, but Strads are notoriously tricky. These young musicians have little alternative but to accept a loan, believing that they must sound better on a Strad, but this is not necessarily the case.

Is this surprising? The perception of quality of tone and projection in the 21st century is completely different to that of makers back in the 16th to 18th centuries. Large modern concert halls demand cellists attempt to dominate 70-piece orchestras in romantic concerti.

Fundamentally a ‘baroque’ violin set-up, strung with gut strings in a seventeenth century manner will sound completely different to an identical violin set up to modern standards. So, many of these unfortunate old Italian instruments have been manipulated to produce volume, rather than tone – even to the extent of having French polish painted over their original varnish in an attempt to make the ‘look’ sound as bright as the ‘sound’. Stradivari could not have known, and is unlikely to have been able to predict, what his instruments would sound, or look like hundreds of years after his own death.

The iconic British cellist, Jacqueline du Pré, had a complicated relationship with the two Strad cellos she played.

Her godmother, Isména Holland, who wished the best for this hugely talented musical genius, gifted du Pré her first 1693 Strad.  The young soloist grew disappointed at this instrument’s lack of power and projection, so Holland anonymously donated her a second Strad, the 1712 ‘Davidoff’. A few months later du Pré used it for her classic Elgar Cello Concerto recording of 1965 with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra.

The ‘Davidoff’ accompanied du Pré all over the world as her fame grew, but there were two problems. Charles Beare, who supplied both these instruments, said: ‘Being a Strad, it wouldn’t willingly take the pressure that she instinctively wanted to apply to the instrument. She really could turn it on with her bow, but if you press too hard with an instrument like that you can sometimes come out of the other side of the optimum sound. She was a very strong person and she needed a very strong cello.’

When the Italian maker Sergio Peresson offered to make du Pré a cello in 1970, this cello became her chief concert instrument and was used in the famous recording of the Elgar concerto with husband Barenboim.

The match for the world’s greatest cellist in the public’s imagination is one with a great ancient master luthier, but this was also not the case with Pierre Fournier, the ‘aristocrat of cellists’, who was so named on account of his elegant musicianship and, importantly, his majestic sound.

Fournier played 3 instruments: a Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume 1863, a Matteo Goffriller of 1722 and a Charles Adolphe Maucotel of 1849. With the Maucoutel he played the last 18 years of his career and made all his recordings.

Though Rostropovitch’s collection of fine instruments included the 1711 Duport Stradivarius, he most frequently played a Storioni cello on which he made most of his recordings.

Moray Welch remarks, ‘The Storioni was the cello with which he made his name, and the one he loved most. He changed to the ‘Duport’ Stradivari around the time that he left Russia, in 1974, and played it for a while. The first time I heard him playing it, I felt it wasn’t the Rostropovich sound that had become so characteristic. It was slightly anonymous. He was able to sound like himself on the Storioni, but the Strad had its own character. Hee went back to his Storioni and said that this was the cello he loved most.’

In a previous article “How Much Should I Spend on a Violin?”, we have considered three important aspects of purchasing an antique stringed instrument:

  1. Authenticity and provenance
  2. Tonal quality
  3. Condition of preservation

Examining the third of these aspects, condition, it is known that most of Strad’s cellos have gone through dramatic physical changes, with many interventions and repairs. In contrast, all new contemporary instruments are in perfect condition when created. Since good condition is supposed to be a defining element in valuation, why do Strad cellos fetch such eye-watering valuations?

Two notable Strad cellos which have undergone extensive restoration are the “Mara” and the Bernard Greenhouse ‘Countess of Stanlein’.

It is remarkable that the 1711 ‘Mara’ Stradivari cello still exists. This cello was under the possession of Amedeo Baldovino (1916–98) for nine years, during which time a dramatic incident happened. As cellist of the Trio di Trieste on a concert tour of the Americas, Baldovino was stranded in Montevideo as fog grounded the plane bound for Buenos Aires. The group decided to take a different route using a river steamer. That evening, they embarked on the River Plate.

At 4.30 am, a commotion wakened up Baldovino. Someone was shouting for lifebelts. Without thinking about his instrument, Baldovino threw life rafts overboard and jumped into the river. After several hours, a lifeboat rescued him. Baldovino confessed that the thought about “Mara” never came into him. It was not until the next morning that he was struck with the reality that he had lost the cello.

A few days later news spread that the cello had been recovered. The instrument was in its case, but when it was opened, the cello was a total wreck, its appearance unrecognizable.

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In the Hills workshop in London the instrument was painstakingly restored. The legendary instrument was in one piece. The story is alluring but does the present-day valuation reflect its true restored condition?

The Countess of Stanlein, ex-Paganini, Stradivarius violoncello of 1707 is another instrument that has undergone extensive restoration. The cello belonged to the revered cellist Bernard Greenhouse, who had an accident, putting a soundpost crack in the back of the cello. This would normally decrease the value of the cello immediately by 50%. In September 1998 Greenhouse brought it to luthier René Morel, who began a complete restoration of the instrument, a painstaking and meticulous enterprise that took him nearly two years. His book tracks that process, the intricacies, anxieties and pleasures. The cello was subsequently purchased for over $6 million auction by a patroness of the arts from Montreal in Canada. The instrument is now endowed to the talented Canadian cellist Stéphane Tétreault.

As to some other Strad cellos, the ‘Castelbarco’ was marched in street parades, the ‘Duport’ spurred by Napoleon, the poor ‘Prince Gursky’ was completely unglued so it could be smuggled out of Russia in 1922, before being reassembled in Germany. The General Kyd was recently rescued from a Los Angeles dump. Yet legend, continues to supersede practicality. What valuation would be given if these instruments were damaged antique vases, assembled from multiple pieces?

Another factor to consider in assessing the performing capability of Strad cellos is the variety of patterns and sizes he used to make his instruments, some more successful than others.

Following the long-established large-form Amati cellos, the pre-1700 Stradivari cellos were all made on a large pattern, the 1701 ‘Servais’ being the last extant cello of this type.

From 1707–1725 the ‘forma B’ model was the standard. Then after 1725, two additional models of a smaller size were introduced: a narrow model referred to on the paper pattern as the ‘forma B piccola’ and a shorter model for which no known pattern or mould survives. With its narrower widths, the ‘forma B piccola’ model has a slender appearance while the shorter model has been decreased lengthwise, giving the outline a squarer and more box-like look.

So, in conclusion, we know that most of Strad cellos have question marks over their condition, others are too big, some too small. Most are either heavily restored or reduced in size. Some great cellists have rejected them in favour of more modern makers, many great cellists choose to play the broader, deeper-toned Venetian instruments by Montagnana and Groffiller, or the Guarneri family. Only a brave soloist will have sufficient self-confidence to perform on an instrument made by a contemporary cello maker.  

In the end, the truth possibly is that tonally some Strad cellos are really great, others are not.

For many great musicians the match with a Strad still proves irresistible.

For, as one modern luthier says: “If you know it’s a Strad, you will hear it differently and you can’t turn off that effect.”