A few months ago a remarkable man named Herbert Axelrod donated two Stradivari violins, a Stradivari viola and a Stradivari cello to the Smithsonian, creating what is now known as the Axelrod Quartet.
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The gift was accompanied by a $1 million endowment to support performances by the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society. The instruments have been appraised at $50 million, though Axelrod has turned down offers as high as $55 million.
A self-taught ichthyologist, Axelrod made a fortune publishing handbooks on pets, especially tropical fish. Recently he sold the business for a reported nine figures. Since then he has given money away to various music institutions and museums, including a $1.5 million endowment to the National Museum of Natural History's Division of Fishes.
The Strads came to him in the 1980s, and he promptly loaned them to the National Museum of American History. Late last year he turned the loan into a gift, one of the largest ever for the Smithsonian.
All right. These fiddles are around 300 years old. If you are serious about violin playing, you can pay from $20,000 to $250,000 for an instrument. It probably will be old, and likely will be Italian, but chances are it won't be anywhere near a Stradivarius for glamour, not to mention tone.
So what is it that makes a Strad so valuable, exactly?
I talked to Gary Sturm, who more than anybody else is the person who made the gift happen. It was Sturm who drove up to New Jersey any number of times just to talk about violins with Axelrod. "I spent a lot of time deciding where to put them," Axelrod told one reporter, "and decided on the Smithsonian. Gary impressed me with his knowledge and his caring."
Sturm almost didn't make it to the Institution. A graduate of Beloit College with a degree in mathematics, he had been bitten by the violin bug — "I got onto this thing about violins, I can't explain why, maybe because I wanted a craft" — and worked for two years as an apprentice to Washington, D.C. violin maker Willis Gault.
"I didn't get paid anything, but it was a side-by-side working experience," he told me. "Finally, I knew I needed to move on, and I came to the Museum of American History."
After a spell of volunteer work in the conservation lab, he was offered a paying job at last — a typing job. It took him 12 tries to pass the test, but he was where he wanted to be, the Division of Musical Instruments. That was 20 years ago. He's now assistant chairman for special projects at the Division of Cultural History, where those instruments reside.
But back to the Strad. I had heard all the stories: how the master used to roam the forests of northern Italy and tap on certain trees and mark them for his future use, how he invented a magical varnish that no one can duplicate — the secret of his greatness.
Sturm laughed. "Well, I'm not sure he actually went around tapping trees, but a violin maker does examine the straightness of a tree and the soil around it: a slower-growing tree is better because it makes for a tighter grain. Now all you do is go to the lumberyard. But the wood needs to be aged, and it must be quartersawn."
That is, the log is sawed lengthwise in quarters, and the top, or belly, of the violin is fashioned by joining two of these wedge-shaped pieces. When a piece is looked at edge-on, the growth rings appear as straight parallel lines. This grain gives the wood maximum strength. Otherwise, under the 70 or 80 pounds of pressure from the stretched strings and the narrow bridge, it would buckle.
The violin's sound is made by drawing the bow across the taut strings. The sound travels down to the foot of the bridge, where it is transmitted to the entire top surface of the instrument, which vibrates.
There is another element here, the sound post. This is a pencil-thick stub of wood that stands between the top and back. "The sound post transmits the vibration to the back piece, amplifying the sound still further," said Sturm. "Without the sound post you'd lose a lot of power."
About varnish: put it on too thickly, make it too brittle, and it can kill the sound of a violin.
"You can take a badly made violin," Sturm contended, "and no varnish in the world will make it sound good. The varnish protects the instrument and helps retain its flexibility. Because we don't understand how Stradivari made his varnish or put it on, we like to think this is some magic that explains the great tone. But there's the selection of the woods, the volume of air inside the violin, the flexibility of the wood itself," Sturm maintained.
One reason why a good old violin is generally preferred to a good new violin is that the wood changes over the years. The resins in wood gradually dry out, leaving the pores, the cellular structure of the wood, open. This makes the wood more flexible, so that it vibrates more easily.
"A friend showed me some wood from the German forest, a small strip of it planed in 1970, and another one from the same forest that was 200 years old. The new one was stiff as a two-by-four; the old one could bend like a playing card. That's the difference: the old instruments respond more quickly, it's easier to make the sounds," Sturm explained.
In his 93 years, Stradivari produced 1,100 instruments, of which 600 survive. "Stradivari's violins changed around 1700, when his golden period began," Sturm said. "They got much more powerful — here's why." He showed me how the belly of the older instrument arched more in the middle; the newer one was visibly flatter by maybe as much as a half-inch. This flatter shape generally creates a louder tone that can hold its own in modern concert halls. In Stradivari's time, music was played in small chambers, and it was not until the 19th century that music was written for larger orchestras in public theaters. By the 1890s, his violins were in great demand.
Before then, violins made by Austrian Jakob Stainer were more sought after than Stradivari's. The Smithsonian also has an entire string quartet - two violins, a viola and a cello — made by Stainer in the 1600s. They, too, were donated by Herbert Axelrod.
All the instruments get played. Sturm referred me to Kenneth Slowik, professional cellist and artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society. Slowik oversees the use of these instruments in the master classes and the chamber concerts on the Mall. Last season Smithsonian groups held 17 concerts, featuring works from Rameau to Bartok.
"But we're careful," Sturm said. "Even if the instruments travel, we use them under controlled circumstances. We have security guards, and humidity and temperature controls."
Sturm has never had any disasters with the Strads in his years at the Smithsonian. "These are in amazingly fine condition. Mostly we just keep 'em clean and change the strings."
Appropriately, the Chamber Music Society's quartet, known first as the Smithson, then as the Party of Four, now is officially named the Axelrod Quartet — the same name given to those glorious Strads they get to play.
"I can't tell you," Sturm marveled, "how it feels to play them, the smoothness, the ease with which you can draw out a rich sound. You just don't have to work so hard."
Well now, maybe that was my problem. I played the violin from the age of 4 until I discovered girls, and I practiced for an hour every day, struggled with the high school orchestra, sweated over the annual solo performance, and it was hard work, all right. It was agony every minute, trying to keep it from squeaking, the way a violin will.
Maybe if I'd had a Strad . . .