And the Strads Play On…

Violoncello by Antonio Stradivari, Cremona, 1699, "Castelbarco."

The Strads. They make string players salivate, and everyone knows the name to be synonymous with excellence. But how much do you really know about these pristine creatures of sound? Let’s start with the name – “Stradivarius”. Many are at least familiar with the fact that these string instruments were created by the famous violin maker Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737). But why do some call them “Stradivarius” violins as opposed to “Stradivari” violins? It turns out that it was in fact quite common during this era to Latinize one’s name for formal signatures. So, in examining an authentic violin made by Stradivari, you will find the name “Antonius Stradivarius” on the instrument. Just a little trivia for future small talk…

The Library of Congress proudly holds and cares for six Stradivari instruments: 3 violins, 2 violas, and a cello, all made between 1690 and 1727 (that’s 283-320 years old!!). Five of these instruments were donated by one of the Music Division’s great patronesses, Mrs. Gertrude Clarke Whittall, while one of the Stradivari violas has lived here on loan since 1977 from Mrs. Cameron Baird of New York. Each instrument usually receives a name, often indicative of a performer, owner, collector, or physical feature of the instrument. For example, the “Castelbarco” violin (pictured above) was once a part of the quartet of Stradivaris owned by Count Cesare Castelbarco of Milan. Read more about each of the string instruments in our Stringed Instruments online collection. But the Stradivaris aren’t the only string instruments we have to brag about here at the Library of Congress –in the online collection you’ll also see that we care for historic violins made by other prestigious violin makers, including Amati, Vuillaume, and Guarneri. The Amati “Brookings” violin is our oldest string instrument, dating back to 1654. The two Guarneri violins share an exciting relationship that you can read about on our Guarneri Twin Violins special presentation.

We cherish our beautiful instruments not only for their historic value, but also for the exquisite sound they make. That’s right, the Stradivaris still get played a couple of times every concert season by fortunate and deserving musicians. You can be guaranteed to see some of these treasures come out of their case on December 18th when Sybarite5 performs in our annual Stradivari Anniversary concert, commemorating Stradivari’s death 272 years ago. Keep your eyes peeled and ears open for other upcoming concerts where we bring out the Strads and other fabulous historic instruments!

2 Comments

  1. Sarah
    October 1, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Why is it, do you think, that musical instruments are held by a library, rather than, say, a museum? I know libraries aren’t just books, but they are predominantly collecting forms of media, and I don’t really think of a cello as media. It struck me a few weeks ago when I was going through the Gershwin finding aid: music, correspondence, photographs, …piano?

    At the very least, I would think storage and maintenance would be incredibly complicated.

    • Cait Miller
      October 7, 2010 at 9:38 am

      This is a great question, Sarah, and a frequently asked one at that! While the Music Division will always work toward the goal of acquiring music and music scholarship for the purpose of maintaining a world-class music library, we have also offered a renowned concert series since 1925. Gifts such as the Stradivaris are welcomed with open arms here in the Music Division, as we are able to share these special instruments with the public at these concerts and other selected occasions. In some cases, instruments come to the Library as part of a collection that is primarily research material, such as manuscripts, scores, correspondence and other primary sources. This is the case with the Gershwin, Landowska, and Dayton C. Miller collections. We are fortunate to have a musical instruments curator on staff who can use her extensive knowledge to provide proper care for the instruments, as well as determine the appropriate occasions to use certain instruments in performance each season. In terms of caring for the instruments, it’s really no more complicated than caring for our rare books and documents – all require proper temperature settings, limited exposure to light, special handling techniques, etc.

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