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 TEN MUSEUMS FOR VIOLIN LOVERS

Benjamin Hebbert on the top ten…, eleven, or maybe more museums for violin lovers in the UK and further In progress…

Britain is an extraordinariliy privileged country in terms of national collections of important violins. The Ashmolean has the Messiah of course, but if you are serious about learning about great instruments of the past, look a little bit further.


For my money, The Royal Academy of Music Museum should be the first port of call if you want to begin to understand Stradivari and the Cremonese school. The display changes year to year, but on a good day the 1709 Viotti and the 1696 Archinto viola are on display, numbering amongst the very best preserved of all of Stradivari’s violins, so it is effortlessly possible to see Stradivari’s work at it’s best. If the c.1734 Habeneck is on display, it’s an ideal opportunity to see the transition in the workshop from his famed Golden period into the aged work of the late period. The violin is a monumental tour de force of Stradivari’s underlying concepts, but the hand of Francesco his son is redolent within it. If you want to start learning about expertise, it’s good to build a comparison in your head to learn why the son’s hand is so easily seen by experts. As a maker without much interest in the fine-faluting claims of the connoisseur, its still an important learning curve, showing how much a concept can deviate within the same workshop. When you think about copying and what’s important to the essence of the violin you are inspired by, it serves to inform about the tolerances that are possible, and what happens when they get stretched. Personally, I am a great fan of the 1718 Maurin. It’s reputation is a little bruised because it became the standard instrument to copy in your first year at college for many years, and the deficiencies of the copies tend to get blamed on the original. The only caution is that the very low arching is conceptually challenging because of it’s flatness, so it is easy for an inexperienced maker to fail to understand it properly. I’ve always felt that upcoming makers should go for something curvier first, and come to it when they have more experience and confidence. If you are lucky, there are excellent displays across the Amati and Guarneri family. My secret pleasure for violins is the 1719 Hieronymus (II) Amati, for cellos the 1695 King George IV of Francesco Rugeri, both of which were on display when I visited last in 2019. Things change owing to the nature of the collection.

The Royal College of Music Museum takes a different tack entirely. They never had the treasure trove of Cremonese instruments that the Academy enjoyed, and what they had was sold after World War 2, in a tragic but astute move to pay for rebuilding works required due to heavy bomb damage. Amongst it’s treasures is one of two immaculate Venetian lira da braccio made by Giovanni Maria da Brescia from the 1580s or so, that is in such good condition that it was overlooked for more than a century as a 19th century fake. A fabulous mid-17th century viola by Enrico Catenar in Turin is one of the truly amazing survivals of a seventeenth-century Northern Italian instrument in completely original condition. Both Vuillaume and the Hills talked about the great early varnishes that appeared across Europe long before Stradivari, that have the same extraordinary qualities. A small festooned pochette was long attributed to Stradivari largely on the grounds of the quality of varnish, and the 1619 bass viol by Henry Jaye has violin makers salivating because of it’s truly outstanding qualities. The Donaldson Collection, which forms the core of the museum was one of the great collections of the nineteenth-century, including such wonders as the earliest guitar in existence, by Belchior Diaz, and by a long straw the oldest harpsichord in the world, a German clavycytherium of practically late-medieval aesthetic made in Ulm somewhere around 1480. The Dietrich Kessler collection of viols, includes a Henry Smith c.1635, an outstandingly perfectly preserved Richard Meares c.1675 and one of two Barak Norman viols in the collection in addition to the wondrful 1619 Jaye. Unquestionably the finest representation of 17th century English viols in existence, and maintaind in playing condition.

Drop into the Victoria and Albert Museum, and take a look at the 1699 Mulgan Stradivari in the Baroque gallery. When it was presented to the museum in 1937 it was the first Stradivari to be presented in a public museum, and intended so that visitors could hear as well as play so famous an instrument. Things changed, not least because it was damned at the time for being a less than prime example of the maker’s work, but it has resultingly ended up untouched for most of a century, and becomes an increasingly valuable reference point for good varnish and texture. The long corners and overall form have an added interest now that the Libary of Congress’s 1704 Betts Stradivari has come to greater prominence, as it’s very easy to see a direct influence running from one to another. If you want to copy the Betts there is quite a bit you can learn from this one. The V&A once had a gallery comprising one of the most important collections of historic instruments in the world. Nobody ever went to it, and slowly instruments of all sorts are being filtered into the Renaissance, Baroque, and British galleries and elsewhere. The glorious assembly of Joachim Tielke’s viols, barytons and varied decorated instruments is well worth the look, as is the ivory pochette with a matching archet du danse in the baroque gallery. Look out for the carcass of a Laux Maler lute from Bologna about 1540 in the Renaissance galleries, particularly if you have an eye for great varnish - not that there is any left on it. In the 17th century it was one of the greatest musical treasurers in the world.

If you want to complete the rounds of London, don’t miss The Horniman Museum and Gardens, which is home to the famed Dolmetsch Collection. For violin enthusiasts go hunting for the fabulous Rugeri violin hidden amongst the kinds of instrumets, whilst more viols by Barak Norman and George Miller are amongst the significant instrument. A violone purported to be by Giovanni Paolo Maggini is in storage, and is a much copied ideal for early musicians. Little treasures in small museums aren’t complete without a trip to Carlisle to the Tullie House Museum to see one of the Andrea Amati violins made for King Charles IX of France.

There is a philosophical reason to leave the Ashmolean Museum as the last in the list of great museums, because it takes some training of the eye to appreciate exactly what it has to offer, For a violin making student or beginner to the field, it can be quite misleading to launch here first. Much better to acquaint the eyes with the worn and used appearance of many of the violins in the Royal Academy before moving forward. Much of the controversy surrounding Stradivari’s 1716 Messiah comes from people who just haven’t been around Stradivari’s work enough to be able to fully appreciate it for the inherently Stradivarian characteristics it holds: Far better to spend the morning eyeing the Viotti in London before taking the train to the Ashmolean. Any cynic would equally do well to pop over to the Royal College of Music to dwell on the Richard Meares viol, an instrument with far less incentive to arouse suspicion, yet showing the purity and freshness that is possible of an instrument from the 1670s quite apart from a Stradivari violin from the height of his Golden Period. Flanked by the 1684 Cipriani Potter and the 1722 Rode, two of the few decorated Stradivari violins, it is perhaps easier for an educated eye to take a balanced view of it. Look too at the 1649 Alard by Nicolo Amati, arguably a yet better preserved example of Cremonese work, just not quite as brash in it’s colouring. Of the small violin and tenor viola of Andrea Amati’s set for the French court of Charles IX, the violin has an original date of 1564, the earliest dated violin in the world, and there is more or less a comprehensive walk through the main lineage of the Cremonese school through the major members of the Amati family. The Brescian collection is the most comprehensive assembly of Gaspar da Salo’s work, whilst the lira da braccio of Giovanni Maria is simply the most stunning of it’s sort in existence. It is gratifying to see the two Rose bass viols in the middle of the gallery (despite how the catalogue treats them), both of astonishing decorative significance, and representing the finest sixteenth-century work of British makers. Rose was ‘famed as moche in Italy as in his native contery’ and it is rewarding to see how well his work stands shoulder to shoulder with the Cremonese.