Strads Behind Glass

May 27, 2010 at 07:31 PM ·

 Last week I was able to go to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I saw three Stradivarius Violins behind glass.  It got me thinking that these violins should be in use, and not behind glass, for concerts and for the public to enjoy.  

I understand that these violins must be played by a museum curator or something of the sort, but are these violins actually in use?  For rentals for concerts?  Or are these violins meant to be seen and not heard by the general public?  If so, why waste the beautiful instrument which was mean to be enjoyed.  


Replies (28)

May 27, 2010 at 08:52 PM ·

If anyone has a strad - or a del Gesu for that matter - that desperately needs playing please do drop me a line :)

May 27, 2010 at 09:33 PM ·

Meade, do you think we should use up these instruments quickly, or save something for future generations?

Playing takes them downhill much faster than sitting in a museum.

May 27, 2010 at 10:31 PM ·

Isn't the whole point of an instrument to...well, play it? I'm all for educating people and showing them fantastic violins that they'd never get to see otherwise, but an instrument (even a strad) should only live behind glass if it isn't functional.

May 27, 2010 at 11:20 PM ·

Alison, I understand your perspective, but they're collectibles, art objects, and irreplaceable artifacts too, not just music axes.

If the Messiah Strad had been in constant use by performers over the years, we wouldn't have a pristine, mostly original example of Stradivari's work.

May 27, 2010 at 11:42 PM ·

Should we close all museums and set their treasures free while we're at it? After all, they're just sitting there locked up in carefully guarded safety, and thus are otherwise useless and just taking up space; they should be used! Played or not, a museum is where a few examples should stay until the end of time.

May 28, 2010 at 12:12 AM ·

I wonder if the ones in museums aren't likely to be either damaged to the point where repair would not be possible or involve significant rebuilding of the instrument, or else just ... well, his clunkers.  He did make some, but they can still be useful for showing his methods of construction and other details like that.

May 28, 2010 at 12:25 AM ·

David says:  "Playing takes them downhill much faster than sitting in a museum."

But surely not playing the instruments at all is detrimental to them as well?  Of course, one might not want to let these pristine museum pieces out with a travelling top soloist jetting constantly  from one climate and concert hall to another.   However, is it not "good practice" that the instruments are at least regularly played on-site to keep them in good shape?   Such as the guy who plays the Cremona museum fiddles every week or so.  I've heard myself what can happen to a really fine instrument if it is left in an acclimatised bank vault even for just a few months without playing, and it wasn't a pretty sound at all.


May 28, 2010 at 12:30 AM ·

The Henry Ford museum has some nice instruments (Strads and such) and they once asked me whether they should be lent out for performances.

Well, how would I know? LOL  It's a museum policy decision. Should a rare old car be driven around until it won't run any more, and then non-original replacement parts (and maybe repainting) be added to keep it going and looking good? Or is there more value in keeping it as it was, as a study object?

 The jury is out on whether instruments need to be played to maintain their best sound. A lot of people think so, but there are also musicians who think that an instrument can "need a rest" to sound its best. Might depend on the specific instrument. There's also the theory that a player needs to stay familiar with a particular instrument, more than the instrument needs to stay familiar with playing. There are no good studies that I know of.

May 28, 2010 at 01:32 AM ·

Aren't the Smithsonian's matched collection played regularly? 

May 28, 2010 at 01:47 AM ·

 I have long been horrified by the way the Mona Lisa is kept in isolation in a bullet proof case...surely it would be better if this painting could be exhibited in elementary schools and children who loved art were able to touch it with their sticky fingers.....

May 28, 2010 at 02:04 AM ·

I've got my eye on a neolithic "flower pot" in the Ashmolean Museum that would look great fulfilling its destiny on my coffee table.

May 28, 2010 at 06:05 AM ·

Expert players can and do convince audiences that a fine modern violin can sound every bit as good as a "Strad". Even better, sometimes, and this can happen under "controlled" conditions, no "smoke and mirrors" or post-production tweaking by sound boffins.

This wouldn't be possible if there were not the "museum" instruments for makers to study. Unlike most musical instruments, the violin has remained fundamentally unmodified since Stradivari blended influences from earlier violins and created the "modern" violin. Apart from those subsequent alterations to the neck and bass-bar Stradivari and a few contemporaries left us essentially the instrument we play today.

The "authenticity" musicians, the A415 crowd, have to go back to museum examples of oboes, for example, to enable modern and affordable replicas to be created. The enduring interest in "olde" music drives this activity onwards. Early composers had certain sounds "in their heads" that are essential to the music.

Next time you hear a fine rendition of Beethoven's violin concerto, remember that this, too, is a musical museum piece, composed long, long ago, in 1806. Trust me, the conductor at any modern performance will not be thumbing through Beethoven's priceless original manuscript on the podium !!

May 28, 2010 at 02:17 PM ·

David, if a violin that you made ended up in a museum and was stuck in a glass case and never toucned again by a violinist, wouldn't you at least feel a bit upset that it wasn't being played - which is presumably the main reason you are making violins? 

I really do thiink the museum directors in Cremona have the right idea about how to curate great string instruments.   Yes, keep them in climate controlled, secure situations, but at the same time by allowing an expert to tune them up and play them every so often, their original purpose of existence is maintained.

Whenever I have been to the Ashmolean museum, I've had a very strong urge to break down the glass cage around "The Messiah" and set the violin free!!  


May 28, 2010 at 03:26 PM ·

Rosalind, as you probably know there are quite few newish violins already in museums - an example being a copy by Sacconi of the "Hellier" inlaid Strad.

Anyone looking through a violin reference book such as William Henley's Universal Dictionary can hardly fail to be amazed by the vast number of violin makers there are and have been. The number of instruments in circulation is enormous - and of these a huge number were made by celebrated masters. The proportion of these that are imprisoned behind glass is tiny, surely. Why begrudge the musical world such a reference tool ??

ps I am not the David who makes violins, alas !

May 28, 2010 at 05:09 PM ·

"David, if a violin that you made ended up in a museum and was stuck in a glass case and never toucned again by a violinist, wouldn't you at least feel a bit upset that it wasn't being played - which is presumably the main reason you are making violins? "

Rosalind, there are a couple owned by museums, and maybe more owned by collectors who have so many  instruments that mine probably rarely get played. It doesn't really bother me. It's a privilege to be a maker, and it's nice to be appreciated.

Look at it this way: You may place the greatest value on qualities you have such as intelligence; compassion; sense of humor; musicianship. But you probably don't mind if someone thinks you're pretty, even if it falls short of acknowledging the total picture of who you are.   :-)

May 28, 2010 at 08:35 PM ·

Folk do like to complain about those museums hoarding silent violins. That's because the instruments are on public view, like sweeties in a shop window. Tantalising.. As David Burgess hints, there are thousands more, worldwide, and of all periods, invisibly languishing in cases and rarely played. Out of sight, out of mind. WHY pick on the museums ?

May 28, 2010 at 10:21 PM ·

I think it is necessary to protect instruments such as La Pucelle, now owed by David Fulton and a marvellous idea to have his collection played and recorded on a DVD by James Ehnes... But sometimes, even such instruments go back to the concert circuit. I am thinking more precisely about the "Haddock" del Gesù which reemerged at the beginning of the 90's ( forgotten for almost a hundred years) and was for a short period of time in the Fulton collection. This is one of the most perfect instrument in the world, like La Pucelle, and is now on loan to be played. There are more Stradivari's than del Gesu's in an almost perfect state of preservation. Sometimes,even musems are careless about great instruments. The Paganini Cannon dried up in a glass and was described to be in poor condition by Eugene Ysaïe circa 1900. The violin collapsed in pieces when during the 30,s Candi made some important restauration on the famous instrument. I do not believe that the Cannon sounds even today as good as it did when Paganini played it...

May 29, 2010 at 06:20 AM ·

Paganini's "Cannon" of 1742 can be heard played by Salvatore Accardo on Dynamic CDS 175, as Marc and others will know. Still OK, even if it's debatable whether it's now quite as Paganini left it. The same player has recorded lots of Kreisler pieces on the violins in the Cremona museum. So these fiddles CAN still be heard, worldwide, albeit in digital sound.

Ealing Strings, of London UK, loaned a del Gesù to the English violinist Andy Long. Later, they lent him a different one. The Manchester, UK, Hallé Orchestra had the use of a"long pattern" Strad used by the Concertmasters. There really isn't some wild conspiracy to silence all these fiddles !

May 29, 2010 at 07:14 AM ·

Rather astonishing (and perhaps equally delightfully) I did not see any reference to money as a factor in this topic - even though its pretty apparent that any instrument has two 'values' - its voice and its cash.  Instruments may be owned privately and be behind glass for isolation and protection - and their primary 'purpose' no longer has anyting to do with music but only investment value. 

This may be abhorent to a musician, since the perspective is that an instrument is made to be played, but its certainly not to an investor for whom an instrument is purley an irreplaceable artifact. 

May 29, 2010 at 12:19 PM ·

Some of these investors lend the instruments to players for long-term use. This may not be entirely altruistic.... pick the right player, and the violin can eventually become the ex-whoever, enhancing its value. In the meantime, someone gets the use of a fiddle which they probably wouldn't have had access to, but for the investor.

Some of the investors are also "fiddle freaks". Maybe they were students or amateurs, always dreamed of owning a Strad, made some money in another business, and fulfilled their dream. These instruments aren't unappreciated by their owners, and some of them are quite generous in making them available for workshops, exhibitions, and occasional use by players.

I know of one who has used his instruments as a ticket into a world he might not have access to otherwise. He has easy access to all the bigwigs in the fiddle business. He can go to the stage door, and ask, "Would Perlman be interested in playing my Strad?" He also has made this offer to non-soloists, students and amateurs. Quite the way to liven up a party!  He loves it, loves instruments, and many times when I see him, he's grinning from ear to ear.  :-)

And don't forget that every performer who owns one is also an investor, whether that is their primary motivation or not. Every time they purchase one of these instruments, they support the high prices, the same prices which make them inaccessible to other players.

So it's hard to know who the "bad guys" are, if indeed there are any.

May 29, 2010 at 01:03 PM ·

 Most of the great old violins, the Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri for instance are now very worn by centuries of use and are pale heavily restored shadows of what they once were.

It is an inevitable fact that playing slowly erodes violin family instruments, the relatively soft wood and varnish slowly giving way to the contact even of hands that are caring, let alone the occasional accidental impact that always will occur in serious use.

It is very important therefore unless we want to see all these great instruments slowly wear away and be lost for ever over time that some of the best preserved examples are kept in museums and NOT played so they can be kept as near as possible to their original state both as a tribute to the great luthiers that made them and also as an important reference resource for future generations.


May 29, 2010 at 04:15 PM ·

The City of Cremona owns a fantastic collection of violins of the classic Cremona lutherie which includes the 1715 Stradivari ex-Joachim and one of the oldest surviving violins, the 1566 Andrea Amati.

These instruments are kept in glass cases most of the time, but are played daily on rotation by the curator of the museum and his deputy. In their capacity of "ambassadors of Cremona" they are occasionally used to play concerts, even outside of Italy. With this kind of light use and expert maintenance, I would venture to say that they will last many more decades and remain in playable condition at the same time.

Just yesterday, I had the opportunity to closely examine the long-pattern 1694 ex-Halir Stradivari in my home. Despite it still being used professionally and having had a rather intense use over the centuries, this 316-year-old violin still had no visible cracks and sound was ... well... incredible.

Cheers! Dimitri  

May 29, 2010 at 10:05 PM ·

A note on some of these heavily used instruments, just so no one underestimates what the usage will do:

Most of these instruments have been heavily restored a number of times. When cracks are repaired well, they can't be seen. Other common changes are to reshape the arching on the top, which distorts from the string pressure; replacing edges and corners.... sometimes the entire edge outside of the purfling is new, and done in one piece with "doubling" to restore the vertical thickness of the edge, after it has become thinner from the top being removed numerous times. Most of them also have soundpost patches on the top, and bass bars have been replaced several times. I had one Strad apart where a layer of wood had been added to the entire back to make it stronger and cover a lot of repairs, leaving just a veneer of the original wood and varnish on the outside. I could go on, but you can get the picture of the sometimes radical work it takes to keep these instruments on the stage.

Melvin is completely right about many of them being only "shadows" of the maker's original work.

May 30, 2010 at 01:30 AM ·

David, always fascinating to get first-hand insight from someone who has worked on violins by great makers, it must be a humbling feeling to take apart a Strad.  The collector whom you describe sounds an absolutely wonderful man!   I'd love to be able to do that kind of thing!

Following on from this thread.  If you have an important violin in a glass case, presumably climate controlled, would the strings be kept at concert pitch, in which case, one presumably has to regularly take the instrument out and tune it.  Or would the strings be deliberately left below pitch?   Wondering about tension on the instrument.  Also, I'm guessing that one still has to occasionally change strings on museum caged instruments too? 

Additional question, we players only bring our violins out when we play.  But in the museums - they are exposed to light (and in case of the display in Florence, also sunlight - which surprised me a lot) in the long-term, could this have a detrimental effect on varnish?  

Really enjoying reading this thread...

May 30, 2010 at 04:06 AM ·

Rosalind, the better museums will limit light sources, such a those from daylight containing highly reactive ultra-violet radiation. Having said that, I'll backpedal a little bit, because all museums have budget limitations, and need to decide where the money will do the most good. It may not really come down to how good a museum is, but how effectively they can balance goals with their budgets. Many museums have goals, and are just waiting for the money. One famous one I'm familiar with is operating on a shoestring. Maybe only around 5% of what they have in storage will make its way to public exhibit, because they don't have the space, or the number of employees to pull it off.

Budgets versus art..... does it remind you of the music business?

A curious side-note is that some museum inventory is considered obscene, and not appropriate for public display. This can include musical instruments. I won't go into this further, so use your imagination on what graphics could be carved into an instrument,  or how they could be shaped.

On instruments which are to be regularly played, I think it's better to leave them at performance pitch. If I knew that an instrument wouldn't be played for many years, I'd take the string tension off entirely.

May 30, 2010 at 05:03 AM ·

My "pale heavily restored shadow" of a Vuillaume went years ago, to my ex-wife in the divorce. Yet, though I am now retired from professional playing, I retain 4 violins, a viola and a dozen or so fine bows. Because my house is double-glazed, am I doubly guilty of keeping these "behind glass" ? I am so ashamed. Someone out there could be gleefully wrecking all that stuff.

To be serious, many of those wealthy collectors don't limit their activities to the great old names, but are active in commisioning new instruments. They play a huge part in keeping the art of making alive.

May 30, 2010 at 05:07 PM ·

"Bring on the obscene murals, neck ties, stained glass windows, lutes, violins, harpsichords!" (After Tom Lehrer's song Smut)

No I know where they go, thank you, David!

May 31, 2010 at 05:07 AM ·

Instruments displayed in museums ? Virginals only, please.

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