Stradivarius by Toby Faber
Macmillan 2004 / Pan 2005
(US title: Stradivari’s genius)
The man we now know as the most famous luthier* of all times, Antonio Stradivari, was born in obscurity, probably in 1644. I find it astounding that the earliest record we have of his existence is a violin he built in 1666. He went on to create around 1200 instruments, roughly half of which are known to be still in existence. Many more trees have died to print theories about what made his instruments so special than for the production of the instruments themselves. So do we need another book about him?
Toby Faber takes the detached view of the amateur enthusiast who gave up on the violin when he left school – he doesn’t have a new theory to propose or a particular axe to grind. He simply follows the “lives” of six of Stradivari’s instruments, the Davidov cello today in the hands of Yo Yo Ma, and five violins, and uses them as a thread for the story of Stradivari’s fairly ordinary (though very long) life and his extraordinary afterlife.
It took his instruments a century of maturation time, as well as innovations in bow building and neck attachment, before they could emerge as the powerful sound machines that came to be considered superior to those of all others. It is a fascinating story, very clearly written and accessible – no previous knowledge of string instruments required.
Faber’s main interest here is the cultural construct of an instrument’s worth and appreciation, so luthiers, musicians, and instrument traders all get equal parts. He doesn’t pay as much attention to another group, the scientists who analysed everything from the acoustics of the wooden construction to the chemistry of the varnish. Maybe there is a popular science book about Stradivari’s instruments still waiting to be written.
* Microsoft Word doesn’t appear to know the word luthier – it’s a maker and repairer of string instruments.