The Betwixt Instrument

In the 450 years since the violin emerged in Italy it hasn’t changed much: improvements haven’t improved things. Thus the market for Stradivari grows with the bust-proof economic resilience of a north London house.

As with many of the best ideas, the violin is essentially rather simple. Made of pine, a wood with a velocity of “conducting sound” around 15 to 16 times greater than through the air lengthwise, and across only two to four times. It is, I learn, the “most musical of woods” according to the author, Paul Stoeving in his “The Violin”.

The first known violin maker lived and worked in Brescia, which comes on Tom’s route after Venice (the home leg, as it were). Gesparo da Salò’s pupil, Paulo Maggini took this skill on. He died in Brescia in 1632.

But that is Brescia; what about Cremona, where for 100 years the fame of the Amati family’s violins spread far and wide? I suspect the inter-city rivalries of two towns separated by a few hundred kilometres will never be reconciled over the violin. What is clear is that Cremona’s PR has always been better. And in Stradivari it has a Renaissance Brand-Leader whose “equity” has never fallen.

Antonio Stradivari was an apprentice to Nicolo Amati from the 1660s. But it is not until old age, 56 years old, that the violins we think of began to emerge. Why I like the violin within Tom’s World is that ownership of the instrument – not a Stradi, nor an Amati or a Maggini, or a Guarneri – but a “fiddle” was one key to becoming betwixt: the predecessors of the violin virtuosi where what in Germany were called “Spielmänner” and we might call wandering minstrels and strolling players. These were the men and women who wandered from the ninth century onwards; whose lives improved a little with the Crusades, the times of “Troubadours”. And it is worth noting that just as Tom fails to mention violins in Cremona, so too the “Syntagma” a supposedly definitive work on musical instruments published in 1619, and written by Michael Praetorius, a German, does not mention the violin.

Paul Stoeving tells the early story of fiddlers and fiddling (the pre-violin, and pre-orchestral instrumentation) well:

“…a poor despised lot, the company of acrobats, punch and judy men and trainers of performing dogs, monkeys, etc. a kind of free community which had grown out of the barbarous conditions prevailing in Europe for several centuries after the great migration of people. They enjoyed neither the rights of citizenship nor the privilege…of religious sacraments. Their children were considered illegitimate, were not allowed to learn a trade, and what they left by means of property was confiscated by the state…[their hair] the men were compelled at one time to wear short to distinguish them from free born men and women – a cruel, barbarous restriction for which later violin and piano virtuosi seem to have taken their justifiable revenge by allowing their locks to grow, as a distinguishing feature, to about double the conventional length.”

Stoeving paints a picture of the musicians at court, wrestling with “music” and “politics” and laying the foundations for, say, Bach, while, excluded and outside – the fun in Shakespeare – “the poor fiddling, blowing drumming knight errants eked out a precarious living on the high roads.” I like the resonances: to buskers, rock and roll, rebellion; and to the stories that the betwixtness of popular music generates.

Tomorrow night the concert season begins in Cremona.

About robhunt510

Writer, artist
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