Review: Stradivarius by Toby Faber

stradivarius faber Review: Stradivarius by Toby Faber

There is something about the violin that captivates so utterly: its astonishing voice, which can project across the most vast of concert halls; its ability to mimic an almost unfathomable array of sounds; the fact that that the tones that it offers are not discrete like those of a piano, but rather exist on a spectrum, allowing the skilled player to spin together an exquisite, complex texture of sound; the romantic design of the instrument itself, the way it nestles against the shoulder, demanding to be hugged to the body. And perhaps, too, its link with folklore, mythology, and the innumerable tales of devils dances and soul selling. But it is not just the violin itself that has entered the public consciousness in so important a way. Even the most musically ignorant individual has heard of the legendary luthier 'Stradivari and his famed violins, whose brilliance can scarcely be surpassed even today. And its this prodigy, and his lifes work, whom Toby Faber, of Faber and Faber fame, examines in his debut Stradivarius.

My thoughts

Stradivarius is less a biography of the great 17th century Italian luthier than it is an examination of his impact upon the musical world from his own time up until our own. Faber does, however, spend some time on the complex life of Stradivari, piecing together whatever flimsy and circumspect evidence survives to examine the mans slow and then heady rise to prominence as the worlds most notable maker of violence, eclipsing into utter darkness other well-known luthiers such as Amati and Stainer. Time, too, is given to Stradivaris workmanship, with Faber examining in depth the luthiers incessant striving for sonic perfection: we are taken through his many efforts and trial and error, his reworking of the body of the violin to make it thinner, flatter, more resonant, his careful approach to the carving of the F holes, his unique approach to selecting and preparing the wood for each of his violins.

However, these sections of the book teeter between being too brief to be informative, and too complex to be entertaining, and professionals may find themselves underwhelmed by the fairly spare attention given to the complexities of violin-making, while the lay person may find themselves overwhelmed by the attention given to the same. Soon enough, however, Fabers attention shifts away from Stradivari himself and on to a number of his most famed instruments and their seemingly immortal lives. Having survived for many hundreds of years, each of the instruments has been the subject of some astonishingly complex musical hermeneutics, being passed down from player to player over the years, and, if such players are to be believed, bringing with it the sum of its musical memories. Its a sort of Lamarckian musical evolution, with each player being influenced by those who came before, each finding themselves possessed by the thousands of pieces bowed and plucked out by other virtuosos. This, to me, was perhaps the most remarkable element of the book: the emphasis on the fact that, like a fine red, a violin comes into its own 'with age. This notion is made all the more interesting by the fact that the various Stradivari violins that are the focus of this book are passed along so frequently and seemingly without consequence: what is it about the ghostly music that lurks within a Stradivari that necessitates the constant handing over of these instruments? Why do players seem to part with them despite their incomparable workmanship and tone?

Perhaps the most fascinating of the instruments examined is that known as the Messiah, a virginal instrument that has remained behind glass for the majority of its life, and is purportedly unplayed. Given Fabers assertion that for a violin to be imbued with a sense of genius and musicality it must be played, the situation of the Messiah seems so utterly abject and pitiful, as though it is a scarcely conceived vessel waiting for life to be breathed into it. Moreover, as the various Stradivaris age, become damaged through poor storage or demanding shipping, or are repaired using new woods, glues, and finishes, one cant help but wonder how long it is until all the Stradivaris in the world beyond the tiny, soulless Messiah vanish. Indeed, Faber points out that the frequency at which todays instruments are pitched are vastly different (perhaps as much as a tone) from those of Stradivaris time, that bowing techniques and bows themselves has changed dramatically, while the material used for contemporary violin strings would be alien to this ancient violin maker. Has the Stradivari, then, already vanished? Would Beethoven, who famously (if perhaps apocryphally) presided over a Stradivari quartet in the advanced stages of his deafness, recognise in todays performances his intended melodies and tones?

Its these questions that make Stradivarius such a fascinating read, and which lifts the book as a whole. While the book itself is eminently readable for the most part, Id imagine that some readers might find themselves flicking through certain sections in order to find those bits that most interest them: given the patchwork way in which Faber has constructed this book, such piece-meal readings are inevitable. While the various sectionsStradivaris life, the art of violin-making, and the narratives of the different violins examinedare themselves interesting, they dont quite feel together in a coherent way, with the unfocused introductory and closing chapters doing little to stitch the book together structurally or thematically.


As an overview of the work and influence of Stradivari, Stradivarius is a strong read: its written with evident passion and interest, and Fabers depth of research and personal investment in the subject certainly shines through. However, while the book touches on a number of fascinating topics, theyre either covered in too much or too little depth to suit the different readers who might pick up such a work, and the somewhat awkward structuring of the book as a whole will likely have readers skipping through whole swathes of text in search of those elements that most interest them. Still, Stradivari is a fascinating and mysterious figure, and one cant help but be curious about his vast and influential legacy.

Rating: ?????

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