Wednesday, December 17, 2014


2014 TBR Reading Challenge: Stradivari's Genius by Toby Faber


As part of Wendy Crutcher's 2014 TBR Challenge, here are my comments on Stradivari's Genius: Five Violins, One Cello, and Three Centuries of Enduring Perfection by Toby Faber.

When the Faber of publishing company Faber & Faber writes a book, people sit up and take notice. It is reviewed everywhere, which means my expectations going into it were riding high. Luckily, it was not a case of "much ballyhooed, soon deflated" variety. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

What brought me to this book?

I played the violin from when I was eight to twenty one. I took lessons, I practised (reluctantly most of the times), and I performed. I have played the violin at events, at competitions, at school assemblies, and even at a state fair with the cows lowing in the barn next door. I loved the sound of the violin even as I deplored how difficult it was to learn and to play. After I became a paying guest with a professor's family in graduate school, I had to stop practicing and thus performing, and the violin fell into disuse. I briefly resurrected the playing at jamming sessions with a colleague at my first job. Since then though, the violin's bridge has fallen, the bow hair are matted, and the strings are hopelessly frayed. It will need a lot of TLC from a luthier to restore it to its former prime.

In 2005, I read a newspaper article, about a $6 million Guarnerius being on loan to the San Francisco Symphony concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. It used to belong to Jascha Heifetz, widely considered one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century. The article traced the ancient history of the violin and how it came to be on loan to Barantschik. Coincidentally, a few days after I came across this book about Stradivari, and I was primed to buy it.

However, you know what happens when you're an eager book buyer. The book languished on my TBR bookshelf for nearly ten years. The TBR Challenge was the perfect tool to rescue it out of obscurity.

Well, on to the book...

"I have a violin that was born in 1713. It was alive long before me, and I hope it lives long after me. I don't consider it my violin. Rather, I am perhaps its violinist; I am passing through its life."

In a poignant statement in 2000, violinist and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Ivry Gitlis highlights what is at the heart of this book: Violins (and cellos) of ancient pedigree that flit through the lives of humans, illuminating everything and everybody in their paths.

Yehudi Menuhin expresses the same sentiment beautifully here:

"A great violin is alive; its very shape embodies its maker's intentions, and its wood stores the history, or the soul, of its successive owners."

The book Stradivari's Genius traces the origins of the violin in the court of Catherine de Medici in the mid-sixteenth century. Violinmaking in Cremona, Italy began around the same time with the Amatis making the first memorable one in 1564. Everything of today's violins' form and function can be seen in that 1564 violin. A brief history of the Amatis, the Stradivaris, the Guarneris (beginning with del Gesù), the Rogeris, the Rugeris, and the Guadagninis follows.

In talking about the violinmakers of Cremona, Faber does an excellent job of explaining how the various parts of the violin were constructed and how the shape, size, thickness, type, etc. of the woods chiseled by the Cremonese artists affected the acoustics of the instruments they constructed.

The book follows the stories of five violins and one cello, from their origin in Stradivari's workshop to their ownership by various players and dealers. The Strads, as they're affectionately known, each have names, which they gained from their famous owners. Four of the violins are called: the Viotti, the Khevenhüller, the Paganini, and the Lipiński. The cello is called the Davidov. The fifth violin is called The Messiah from a joke by one of the dealers about its reputation.

The majority of the book is delightfully gossipy about the passionate violinists, their glories and their peccadillos, the men and women they consorted with, the dealing shenanigans of the collectors and luthiers, the benevolence of the patrons, and the daredevil schemes hatched by violin lovers to safeguard or steal the instruments. Have you seen the movie The Red Violin? That is the style of the book.

The book is characterized by occasional spurts of humor: "Complaints about the 'rubbish put out by the BBC' started almost as soon as it began broadcasting." Well, nothing has changed about that to this day.

One negative aspect of the book was the occasional sexism in Faber's writing. Here's how he describes virtuosa Marie Hall: "A slight eighteen-year-old, dark and beautiful, with lips that might nowadays be called sensuous." None of the men were described thusly. They were called handsome of charming but with no specific commentary. Another example: "It [the player and the instrument] is a marriage. The violin is such a feminine instrument that the metaphor seems almost inescapable at least for men. Women are more likely to regard their violins as an extension of themselves."

Pity about him descending to such lows in an otherwise well-paced and engrossing narrative.


2 comments:

Lynn Spencer said...

That sounds like a very interesting read. I played piano for years growing up and got sucked into The Piano Shop on the Left Bank for much the same reason you selected this book. I've never played the violin, but I love its music and music history fascinates me.

Hope you're doing well!

Keira Soleore said...

Lynn, so great to see you here. I now have The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by T.E. Carhart on my list to read. Sounds totally up my alley.

The movie The Red Violin really set the stage for this book for me. So much intrigue, so much drama behind the instruments.