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Celebrating violins and all things violinistic

Category Archives: Articles

Our Patron Saint

The patron saint or patroness of musicians is St. Cecilia, whose feast day is celebrated on the 22nd November each year, but who was she and why did she become the saint for musicians?

Cecilia it is held was a noble lady of Rome whom live in the 2nd or 3rd Century and her feast day has been celebrated since as early as the 4th Century. She was married to Valerian and it is said that she ‘sang in her heart to the Lord’ as musicians played during her wedding ceremony. This seems to be the connection to music that has led to her becoming the patroness of musicians. Further, the story goes that when the time came for her marriage to be consummated she told Valerian that there was a guardian angel watching over her who would care for him if he respected her virginity but if she was violated then he would be punished. When Cecilia was asked to show Valerian this angel watching over her she told her husband that it would appear to him if he were to go and be baptised by Pope Urbanus at the third Milestone on the Appian Way.

The legend of Cecilia’s martyrdom follows that she was made a martyr along with her husband and brother by way of the sword; and that having been struck three times on the neck she lived for a further 3 days and that she requested that the pope turn her home into a church. Thus stands the Church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere on the site of what was reputedly her home. The original church was built in the 4th Century and rebuilt in 1599. Cecilia’s remains had been moved to the church in the 9th Century and when the church was rebuilt over 700 years later it was found that her body was incorrupt. She is the first of the saints to be discovered incorrupt.

St Cecilia’s Day is celebrated worldwide by musicians of all types; with festivals, concerts and poetry recitals taking place on her day each November 22nd. The first known music festival in her honour took place in Normandy, France in 1570. There are many pieces of music written specifically in her memory including Gerald Finzi’s “For St. Cecilia”, Henry Purcell’s “Ode to St. Cecilia”, George Fredric Handel’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day” and Herbert Howell’s “A Hymn to Saint Cecilia” which features words by Ursula Vaughan Williams the poet and wife of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here we have Charles Gounod’s “Hymn to Saint Cecilia” arranged for violin and harp:

She also has one of the oldest music institutions in existence named after her, The National Academy of Santa Cecilia, founded in 1585.

St. Cecilia’s influence follows through into contemporary ‘pop’ music, the best known example being Paul Simons’ song “Cecilia” which appears to refer to her in the context of the difficulties encountered in writing songs…”Cecilia you’re breaking my heart, you’re shaking my confidence daily”…and ends “Jubilation, she loves me again, I fall on the floor and I’m laughing”. The next time you have a block with your music, maybe try calling out to St Cecilia!

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The Greatest Performance of All Time?

It could be argued that if you can establish the finest performance of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor for solo violin then you have found the greatest performance of a violinist, if not the greatest performance in music. There have been many amazing recordings of Bach’s Chaconne by some wonderful violinists. In a preceding article ‘Bach’s Chaconne: His Finest Moment or The Greatest Music Ever Written? on the background to this section of Bach’s Partita No.2, I also approached the question often posited as to which is the greatest performance of this pinnacle piece and outlined some of the candidates that we have from the time when quality recordings were available in the last century onwards. Perhaps you have formed your own opinion and now I will make a suggestion as to the possibility of a defining recording and why.

I will precede that by stating that every single one of the soloists mentioned in that article have achieved staggering heights as artists and some degree of greatness. All are rightly very highly acclaimed and each recording is of outstanding merit. At this level I recognize that there are differences and that preferences between them are valid. Upon that we form opinions, likes, dislikes – “Hahn’s is too slow”, “Ehnes’ doesn’t move me like Vengerov’s”, “Gitlis’ is too harsh” or whatever – and arrive at favourites. I would add to that we should celebrate these differences and encourage creative interpretation. Without these we would only need one recording of each piece of music because all others would sound identical to the first and how boring would that be, we would tire of it much sooner. I am sure that if there were little difference between recordings we would complain far louder that X sounds like Z and that they all sound alike than we ever do about we don’t like the way A plays B. For me they are all great and at this level I would not seek to elevate one above the rest as I could only do so on ‘my preferences’. I will though give you my favourite performance (at this moment, and it may change tomorrow!)

Here is why I chose Vengerov’s performance of Bach’s Chaconne (taken from ‘Holocaust: A Musical Memorial Film From Auschwitz’). It is not because his interpretation and rendition is superior to others but because the setting is as much a part of the performance. The piece is perfect for the occasion and Vengerov’s interpretation is as ever as sensitive, contemplative, technically excellent and totally heartfelt, as if he is telling the whole story of the tragedy of humanity that finds its resting place in this monument to the past; as if lives in the present and will inevitably project into the future. Every note reverberates to the suffering of each life lost there, every chord reverberates their pain into our future that it should never be forgotten, its bass melodies and dark plaintive passages sing to the most bass instincts and likely to become depraved in man; whilst its souring hymn like sections sing to the highest possibilities, evoking us to transcend and rise again out of the depths to which we have once fallen. In Bach’s Chaconne played by Vengerov in Auschwitz we have the highest possibility of man brought into the lowest of which we have been possible. Yin and yang are brought together and resolved back into one. There is both a tragedy and a perfection, almost an inevitability that it must be. Listening to this I recall Menhuin’s words “Ever since I could remember I had tried to relate the beauty of great music to the harmony of life. As a small child I even imagined that if I could but play the Chaconne of Bach inspiringly enough in the Sistine Chapel under the eyes of Michelangelo, all that is ignoble and vile would miraculously disappear from the world” and realise that I am witnessing the physical manifestation of “all that is ignoble and vile” in this world finally brought to redemption through its meeting with its polar opposite.

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Great Violinmakers: Carlo Antonio Testore

The End of A Golden Era

When we think of the violin making greats the names that first spring to mind inevitably are those originating from Cremona: Stradivarius, Guanerius, Amati and the likes. After this one of the most important centres, and what subsequently became known as a ‘school’ in its own rights, was Milan. Of the violin makers establishing themselves there the Testore family is one of the outstanding names. In the early 1700’s they competed admirably for quality of workmanship with the violins being made in the Cremonese, Brescian, Neopolitan and Venetian schools. However, like all of these, throughout the next few generations of violin makers there was a remarkable fall in standards. These are clearly evidenced in the successive generations of the Testore family.

Quality old antique 18th century Italian violin Carlo Antonio Testore 1741

The first violin maker in the Testore family was Carlo Giuseppe Testore. He earned himself a very high reputation working in Milan from his ‘Sign of the Eagle’ workshop. Carlo leant his trade from the eminant violin maker Giovanni Grancino, who himself had been taught by his father Paolo Grancini a student of the Cremonese genius violin maker Nicolo Amati. According to Henley’s Universal Dictionary Amati thought extremely highly of Paolo Grancini, stating “…that genius considered him to be one of the most gifted in his workshop”. The instruments of Giovanni closely followed the Amati pattern initially but from 1709 onwards his violins were refined into what became known as the recognisable Milanese style. Giovanni work is even regarded as surpassing that of his father’s, which Amati thought so highly of. Sound holes are well developed and of Stradivarian style.

Excellent antique 18th century Italian violin Carlo Antonio Testore 1741

Carlo Giuseppe Testore strove for this same level of excellence, with some regarding them as barely distinguishable. Both have a strong Amati influence.The arching is less profound and is subtly shaped. They are much sought in today’s market being gracefully elegant and having a great charm to them.

Excellent antique 18th century Italian violin Carlo Antonio Testore 1741

Carlo Giuseppe Testore died in 1716 leaving two sons who had followed him into the trade. The elder was his 23 year old Carlo Antonio who had become a fine craftsman in his father’s mold and inherited the running of ‘The Sign of the Eagle’.

The younger brother, Paolo Antonio Testore, did not distinguish himself as his elder brother did when it came to violin making. Paolo’s violins were much more hurried affairs, cutting corners where he could especially on the refinements of appearance. That is not to say that they were still very soundly constructed. His own son Pietro Testore allowed standards to degrade still further but despite having the somewhat dubious accolade bestowed on him by the authors of the Grove Dictionary of Music as “possibly the clumsiest pair of hands that ever made a violin” his violins are still very much instruments that are gratifying to play upon; with good tonal qualities, resonance and power.

Even by the time of Carlo Giuseppe’s death, and increasingly so in the years that followed, the violin makers of Italy were under increasing pressure from a combination of the economics of the time and in particular an influx of the German violin making factory. Their ability to produce large numbers of much cheaper instruments meant a drop in the price that many Italian makers could demand and hence the need to work faster and using inferior quality materials. While Carlo Antonio was very measured in where he made these economies Paolo and his descendant were markedly more susceptible to succumbing to such pressures in ways that their elders (and the Cremonese master makers) would never have entertained.

Carlo Antonio Testore Violins: The Characteristics

The wide respect and appreciation of the violins that Carlo Antonio produced is as a result of their fine tonal qualities. These are ensured by his conformity to the overall pattern of the violin, with consistency to outline and arching. The soundholes are gracefully carved and open. His trademark touch however are his fine scrolls to which he obviously gave much time and attention. The concentric spirals are those of a master violin maker, with highly distinguishable features being the flaring front view and the corners of the plates slightly pointed.

Excellent antique 18th century Italian violin Carlo Antonio Testore 1741
Excellent antique 18th century Italian violin Carlo Antonio Testore 1741

Carlo Antonio’s younger brother, Paolo Antonio, on the other hand was much less fussy about appearance and would commonly take shortcuts such as not carving the back of the pegbox with the usual fluting those of Carlo Antonio himself were carefully crafted and typically show little evidence of gauging.

The purfling on a violin is dark colour trim around the outside edge of the front and back. Whilst it is a decorative feature, this thin band of wood set inside a channel carved just in from the rim also served the function of preventing any small cracks starting at the edge from spreading to become a major body crack that will affect the sound of the instrument.

Pear wood is the material of choice for the purfling. Its tough, elastic properties produce flowing purfling that evens out any shortcomings in the channel cut for it. In some of his violins Carlo Antonio used poplar wood for the purfling. Not being as soft tends to crack and distort quite readily. This then highlights any imperfections in the channel cut for it to sit in. Also poplar wood must be thoroughly if it to retain its colour and not fade to a pale grey shade. Carlo Antonio may have used such cheaper materials at times but always remained above replacing the purfling with scratched lines; a shortcut that some later generations were seen to resort as a time and cost saving measure.

Excellent antique 18th century Italian violin Carlo Antonio Testore 1741

Carlo Antonio fully displays himself as a true master craftsman in the art of violin making by virtue of the skillful way that he is able to work with inferior quality materials in some of his instruments and make them work in such an incredible way. Although even the top Cremonese makers were at times forced to use lesser material than the preferred clear white maple sourced in the Balkans and to use locally grown “oppio” maple. They would however, always employ specifically nominated tone wood. It is apparent that some of Carlo Antonio’s instruments used locally grown maple and spruce which was intended for other purposes. These woods are closely grained and comparatively hard, some even contain knots, making them difficult to work with. Yet Carlo Antonio still manages to come close to matching the finesse of appearance found in his father’s violins and are far from being inferior in tonal qualities.

Carlo Antonio Testore Violins: A Prized Asset

Carlo Antonio’s violins are undoubtedly extremely fine violins to play and even more wonderful to listen to in the hands of a talented musician. Certainly they may not have the outright power or quite the depth of richness found in a Straivarius violin but they are full, vibrant, colourful and have a remarkable resonance. Consequently they are highly sought after instruments, by not only soloist and orchestral musicians alike, but collectors and investors. They have become a name of considerable repute and today you could expect to pay in the region of $100k to $200k for an instrumen t bearing his name in the dealer shops and auction houses of major cities such as London and New York. To get one for anything less would be a very good investment, not only financially but above all else in terms of the reward its wonderful tonal presence will bring you.

The Fate of Violin Making in Italy

From Carlo Giuseppe through Carlo Antonio to Paolo Antonio and his son Pietro, we see the decline that occurred in the great violin making traditions of Italy that occurred through the 18th Century. Once highly revered as master craftsman with the eye of an artist working to the most stringent standards imaginable and the patience that would grace an angel. By the late 17th Century the productions had declined to a state that led to it being termed ‘a corrupted trade’, which even afflicted that great centre of excellence, Cremona.

Fortunately for us by the mid-1800’s it had been recognised that the way to compete with the influx of ‘cheap’ German violins was not by a lowering of standards and cutting of costs to try and match them but to return to the ‘old’ high ideals of violin making and the production of the finest violins using the traditional levels of workmanship and artistry present at the beginning of the 18th Century. Some may argue that something of the magic had been irrecoverably lost to antiquity but undoubtedly a few select makers strove to return to the high ideals of their fore bearers and to restore Italian violin making to the once untouchable status it had enjoyed.

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Stefano Scarampella: One of the Great 19th Century Violinmakers

Stefano Scarampella is one of the more modern Italian violin makers whose name has made it into the ranks of the illustrious few for the quality of their work, making them highly prized and much sought after instruments.

Old Italian violin labelled Stafano Scarampella 1909

Stefano was born in Brescia into a family of violin makers in 1843. He had an elder brother Giuseppe who studied under Nicolo Bianchi, a very highly respected maker from Genoa who plied his trade from Paris. It is also said that Giuseppe had associations with great names like Ceruti, Guadagnini and Pressenda. Giuseppe established himself in Florence where he worked for Luigi Castellini. Giuseppe was regarded by Stefano as his teacher and obviously held his teachings in high regard as he always acknowledges him on the labels of his instruments, referring to himself as ‘Stefano Scarampella, fratello ed allievo di Giuseppe’ (‘brother and pupil of Giuseppe’).

Old Italian violin labelled Stafano Scarampella 1909

Stefano took up residence in Mantua in 1886, remaining there until his death in 1924. There had been little violin making in this city since the early 1800’s so Stefano faced no local competition there. The last maker of note in Mantua had been Giuseppe ‘Dall Aglio, who died in 1840. His work seems to have had little influence on Stefano but earlier Mantuan makers such as Camilli and in particular Ballestrieri can be seen reflected in his instruments.

Old Italian violin labelled Stafano Scarampella 1909

Stefano was a prolific instrument maker with an estimated 800 to 900 violins, violas and cellos being produced by his death in 1924. As with many makers of such large numbers of instruments this left little room for grand refinement in finish but that should not detract from the obvious quality of construction and resultant excellent tonal qualities that the violins of this maker consistently have, which will be of much greater importance to the musician looking for an excellent sounding instrument.

Henley’s likens his violins to Stradivarian models but others have referred to him following the measurements of the bold late Guarneri models and in particular the very famous 1743 ‘Cannon’ of Nicolo Paganini. The soundholes are certainly most often found to be of a Guarneri style, and the arching is usually fully developed much like Paganini’s ‘Cannon’.

Old Italian violin labelled Stafano Scarampella 1909

The wood used by Stefano is mostly plain but not unattractive for that, usually locally grown so only of modest quality. For the purfling he used a combination of pearwood and poplar.

The head is one of the most distinctive features of Stefano’s violins and in them the influence of the earlier Mantuan maker Tommaso Ballestrieri is quite clear. He obviously took great pride and care in the production of this facet of his instruments.

The head has both strength and symmetry. The scroll is concentric, round and has a final turn that is slightly truncated, whilst the channelling and undercutting is flat and the chamfer on the broad side. There is fluting towards the front face around the throat, a definite characteristic seen in the scrolls of Ballestieri. The similarities between the violins of the two makers do not end there, with both producing a strong masculine type of violin and some of Scarampella’s violin have been found that have been re-labelled as Tommaso Ballestieri’s work.

Old Italian violin labelled Stafano Scarampella 1909

Scarampella’s violins are generally finished in a varnish that is modest in colour but with a richness that is very pleasing, and of a rust red or brownish tone. Application of the varnish is usual very good and on the slightly thin side rather than overly thick. There are two known students who learnt their trade from Stefano and continued to produce violins very much in his style, with the best known being Gaetano Gadda. His work is particularly like that of his teacher, to the extent that it is not difficult to confuse them. When you hear a Scarampella made violin there is no mistaking their quality, musicality and fine tonal attributes. It is easy to understand why they have become so sought after and attract good prices to match. In the words of John Dilworth “Stefano Scarampella has a fine and enviable reputation for tone. As a craftsman, he was solid, even perhaps a little rustic, but there is no denying that the strength and resilience of his work has matured over time to produce a richness and power in tone quality that has pushed them high into the ranks of desirable and collectible makers.” In the eyes of the purist Stefano’s instruments may not be pieces of fine art but they definitely are for the ears of music lovers and musicians.

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