The Messiah - The story of the world’s most famous violin
Antonio Stradivari, alongside Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù, is the most important violin maker of all time. He was born in Cremona, Italy in 1644, and lived to the age of 93. About 650 of the 1,200 violins made by him are still preserved today. They have been tirelessly copied, and many contemporary violin makers have been inspired by his work. Most Stradivarius violins have a distinctive appearance, and a pliable, bright and even-tempered sound with an impressive projection. These qualities are worth their weight in gold for a soloist who has to reach the very back row of the audience in a concert hall. I have often been asked, as a violinist, what is the secret of the Stradivarius sound. There are several theories: a special blend of varnish, the choice of wood, the oils and resins, or the use of special pigments, and many others. My personal answer, though, is simple: if we knew the details, it wouldn’t be a secret anymore – just as no-one has ever yet been able to unravel the mystery of music or its effect.
Stradivari’s most famous violin has the wonderful name “the Messiah”. Its beauty is captivating, and one testament to its sound was “it is like hearing the angels sing.” The violin was made in 1716, but it looks as though it has only just left Stradivari’s workshop. There are no defects or fractures; the varnish is completely intact. The instrument has almost never been played – only a few violinists have ever been allowed to give it a try – and today it is still deemed pristine. For unknown reasons, Antonio Stradivari decided that this violin was the only one of his instruments that was not for sale. His sons, Francesco and Omobono, also kept the violin for as long as they lived. It was not until 1775 that Stradivari’s youngest son, Paolo, sold it to the art collector Count Cozio di Salabue. When the violin ended up with the Italian instrument dealer Luigi Tarisio in 1827, he travelled all over Europe boasting about the “fantastic, incomparable” Stradivarius violin he had in his possession. Although many people would loved to have seen the violin, he showed it to nobody for twenty years. So it was that, one day, the French violin virtuoso Delphin Alard remarked to Tarisio: “Your violin is like the Messiah; one always expects him, but he never appears.” And the name was born.
After Tarisio’s death in 1885, the French violin maker Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume hurried to Milan to search for the Messiah and bring it back to Paris. He ended up finding the violin stashed in an attic. A brilliant copyist and admirer of Stradavari, Vuillaume made about 25 copies of the violin. Vuilluame, too, was unable to part from the Messiah for the rest of his lifetime, and called the violin “the wonder of wonders”.
In 1939, two brothers from the Hill family in London inherited the Messiah, and bequeathed it to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford on indefinite loan – on the strict condition that it still may not be played.
The myth of the ‘Messiah’ was shaken in 1998, when an American expert tested the instrument’s origin, provenance, handcraft and documentation. The unexpected occured: carbon testing showed, for example, that the wood had only been felled after Stradivari’s death and that the violin could therefore not have been a work of the master craftsman. This, along with other discoveries, was an international sensation that sparked a scandal. As a result, the museum authorities forced the expert to retract his verdict on the violin. Further experiments on the instrument were forbidden.
Since then, the Messiah remains in Oxford and is no longer accessible to anyone. Although a later test confirmed the violin’s authenticity, it is difficult to brush doubts completely aside. There is just so much at stake: if it is a Stradivarius, then the violin is a priceless treasure. If it’s a fake, everything looks rather different. And – if the violin in the Ashmolean actually is a forgery – there is one more question to be answered: where is the real “Messiah”?