Antonio Stradivari set up his workshop in the small Italian town of Cremona in the 1600s. During this time the best violins int he world were being made by the Amati family. But the Amati violins were made for the drawing room or the court, and music-making was changing. It was moving from the drawing room to the concert hall, where it would have to be heard clearly in the back reaches of the room. Stradivari both reflected and reinforced this metamorphosis. He chose bigger and better pieces of maple, experimented with stronger varnishes, and arched the belly of the violin differently. These changes gave Stradivari’s violins distinct sound, unlike any before their time.
When Stradivari died in 1737, a particular violin was found in his studio. It had never been played. This violin, called “the Messiah,” had an incredible tiger striped pattern on its back. It was said to be the “perfect violin.” Today the Messiah is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and it is the only known instrument to have its own showcase.
But wait a minute. The “perfect violin” is one that has never been played? Not according to Ivry Gitlis, a violinist who plays his Stradivari every day. He says of his perfect violin, “I have a violin that was born in 1713. I don’t consider it my violin. Rather, I am its violinist; I am passing through its life.”
Indeed, life is like the gift of a Messiah violin. We don’t own the instrument. For a time, we get to play on it our original song and sounds, and in our own way. But our lives are not our own. We are in the Messiah’s symphony, where each instrument, no matter how different, brings itself into accords with the Composer and the Conductor.
– Leonard Sweet