A Record-setting Display of Antonio Stradivari Instruments at the Library

The following is a guest post by Anne McLean of the Music Division.

The Quartetto di Cremona with the Library of Congress Stradivari Collection. Photo: Shawn Miller/Library of Congress

Library of Congress photographer Shawn Miller captured this stunning shot of ten Stradivari instruments—and the Quartetto di Cremona— during a special “Strad Shoot” in the glorious Great Hall of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building.

The occasion was an exciting prelude to a May 11 concert by Italy’s esteemed Quartetto di Cremona, co-presented by the Library and the Embassy of Italy and Italian Cultural Institute Washington DC. As the Quartetto performs regularly on four beautiful instruments made by Antonio Stradivari—the “Paganini Quartet”—this concert offered a unique opportunity to bring them together with the Library’s six priceless Strads, for a record-setting display of the great maker’s art.

LC instrument curator Carol Lynn Ward Bamford noted that the afternoon united not only ten of these remarkable instruments under one roof, but also three of his violas, an impressive showing from a slim number of only 12 still in existence.

Arrayed on the table are instruments from the Library’s collection of rare Cremonese bowed string instruments:  in the front row, from left to right: the “Castelbarco” violin (1699); the “Ward” violin (1700); and the “Betts” violin from Antonio Stradivari’s “Golden Period”  (1704). In the second row, the “Tuscan-Medici” viola (1690) on loan to the Library from the Tuscan Corporation and the “Cassavetti” viola (1727). At the back is the  “Castelbarco” cello (1697). These instruments, donated to the Library in 1935 and 1936 by Gertrude Clarke Whittall, are pristine and superbly maintained, in peak playing condition. Each year since 1936, they have been heard in the Library’s Antonio Stradivari Memorial Concert—to our knowledge, the longest-running commemoration by an institution—and visiting musicians often have the enviable pleasure of playing them in performance.

The Quartetto di Cremona members are holding the “Paganini Quartet” instruments once owned by the virtuoso violinist Nicolò (as he spelled it) Paganini, and currently made available to the ensemble by the Nippon Music Foundation.

Simone Gramaglia is at the left front, with the Stradivari  1731 Viola “Paganini,” and Giovanni Scaglione is at the left rear, with the Stradivari 1736 Cello “Paganini.” At the right front, Cristiano Gualco holds the Stradivari 1727 Violin “Paganini,” and Paolo Andreoli, at the right rear, holds the Stradivari 1680 Violin “Paganini”.

The artists were delighted to be able to try out the Library’s instruments briefly before rehearsing for their 8 pm concert. Hearing these magnificent instruments in the equally magnificent environment of the Great Hall was a memorable moment for the small group of Library and Embassy staff taking photographs—and three members of the U.S. Capitol Police providing  discreet security.

To open the concert that evening, Music Division Chief Susan Vita welcomed the audience with the Ambassador of Italy to the U.S., Armando Varricchio. For the Ambassador, the concert and the Library’s special Stradivari photo op were “an amazing tribute to Italian music and creativity and to the strong cultural bond with the U.S.” The Quartetto di Cremona played works by two Italian masters who rarely ventured in the realm of chamber music, Giacomo Puccini’s Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums) and Giuseppe Verdi’s Quartet in E minor, as well as Ludwig van Beethoven’s transcendental String Quartet in A minor, op. 132.

To honor the connection to Nicolò Paganini, a few fascinating items from the Music Division’s huge collection of Paganiniana, also the gift of Gertrude Clarke Whittall, were on display in the Coolidge Auditorium foyer cases. Manuscripts of works by Paganini were on display, as well as iconography—images and playbills—and his “secret red book,” documenting tour expenses, travel notes, and his personal pasta recipe.

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