I sit in an austere salon in the thirteenth-century Palazzo Comunale (city hall) of Cremona, Italy, waiting for a most unusual classical music performance to commence. A solemn, white-haired maestro, carrying a Stradivari (Stradivarius) violin as if it were a newborn baby, makes his appearance. A reverent hush descends upon the audience filling the sizable hall. As the maestro moves his bow, delicate notes emanate in stints and waves. Seconds later, the music penetrates the skin, begins caressing the pleasure centers. Faces assume beatific expressions. At the end of the twelve-minute concerto, the public erupts into an applause that seems to go on as long as the performance itself.
The recital is followed by a guided tour of the Palazzo Comunale. As we enter the Saletta dei Violini (violin chamber), exclamations of surprise and wonder fill the room. Five violins and a viola each proudly stand erect in a glass case. Light from the chandeliers bounces off the glass and marble floor to create a glittery ensemble. A closer inspection reveals that these instruments were made by Andrea Amati (1566), his sons Gerolamo and Antonio (viola, 1615), grandson Niccol (1658), Giuseppe Guarneri (1689), his son Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu (1734), and Antonio Stradivari (1715). These three families of violin makers not only invented the modern violin but took this noble art to such a height that experts are still laboring to discover the secrets behind the masterfully crafted instruments no one seems able to re- create today.
It is not by coincidence that these violins of inestimable value are kept in Cremona, a provincial city of some eighty thousand situated fifty-three miles southeast of Milan. Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari families were born and worked in Cremona and brought much fame and pride to their native city. Their disciples eventually moved to other parts of Italy and Europe, taking with them the art of violin making. The recital I heard is a ritual carried out daily, both to maintain the instruments' acoustic qualities and to delight the crowds that flock to Cremona, drawn by its musical heritage. The violins on exhibit were made by different masters over a period spanning nearly two centuries. Bearing this in mind, I ask Andrea Mosconi, the solemn maestro whose job it is to dispense this ritual, about the differences between them. His response is as crisp as his performance was fluid. "More than differences, I'd point out what unites them. They all have a Cremonese sound."
The revival of violin making in Cremona
Determined to maintain its rich musical heritage and perpetuate that sound, Cremona set up an international school of violin making in the Palazzo Raimondi, a sixteenth-century building in the city's historic core. Having previously arranged an appointment, I head for the school to see budding violin makers taught by the descendants of the old masters. As I enter a workshop, several young people are bent over violins, carefully crafting their instruments. Giorgio Scolari, a supervising teacher/violin maker of twenty-five years and the school's vice principal, greets me. "We currently have some 140 students," he says. "Eighty percent are from overseas. They learn the Cremonese art of violin making over three years. It takes a whole academic year to complete one instrument." How closely do they follow the methods of the old masters? "As you can see, there are no machines. Every stage is carried out as close to the traditional procedures of the masters as possible," he responds.
The revival of violin making is a relatively recent phenomenon. With the demise of Stradivari in 1737 and del Gesu eight years later, violin making in Cremona was eclipsed until 1937, when commemoration celebrations marking the bicentenary of Stradivari's death were planned. From such faraway places as London, Paris, and New York, 136 instruments arrived. Of those showcased, 41 were made by …