Rethinking Stradivari Violins in the Aesthetics of European Neoclassicism (c. 1760-1814)
About the project
The “Beautiful past” project focuses on the canonization of Stradivari violins. The research traces the “old” and “Italian” aesthetic paradigms during the eighteenth century, focusing on violinmaking in France and England. The project demonstrates how cultural and historical factors, which substantiated neoclassical style outside of Italy, including the preference for old objects, affected violinmaking. Examining source documents and objects, the research interprets practices and their reception, with the aim to reform violin historiography. The study provides an understanding of what makes what makes “classical” musical instruments “classic”; what is the “secret of Stradivarius”; and how material-culture studies creates value for the benefit of the researchers, musicians than the general public. In reconsidering the history of the violin, the study also challenges innovation theory, and establishes a broader understanding of the classical era’s defining features and aesthetics.
The research project
Background: The case of the ‘Lady Blunt’
In June 2011, the “Lady Blunt” Stradivari violin sold at online-auction for £9.8 million, a notable increase compared to the record it set in 1971, selling at Sotheby’s for a mere £84,000. Regarding musical instruments, only old violins, particularly “Strads”, sell for that kind of money and few investments, of any kind, have that increase in return. There are a handful of celebrity guitars and pianos that are valued at about $1 million USD, but even the average Stradivarius violin fetches that multifold.
Classical Italian violins, particularly Cremonese, are status symbols that drive consumer demand and therefore new making aesthetics; in violin making, commercial success has become the authority. Makers imitate old violin models because that is what sells, and in many cases, violin-making practice is reduced to a quest for the “secret of Strad”. Since the early nineteenth century when the violin-making discipline established its “classic” canon from an idealized past, “Stradivari” has become a household name. After two centuries of branding, Antonio Stradivari (d. 1737) and his instruments have become fetishized, effectively and problematically removing them from their historical context.
The violinmaking literature abounds with references and discussions of the “classical tradition”, however, only a few sources attempt to combat the myth-mania; instead, most continue the nineteenth-century historiographical tradition of the Great Man–Great Work grand narrative, promoting the “secret of Strad” and the idea of a “lost art”.
The Lady Blunt example leads us to wonder why the violin is valued so much compared to other instruments; why it has become an art-object in itself; why is it the only old musical instrument to to be recycled in standard-classical-music practice; and why has its design persisted almost unchanged, that is, what we see is basically a baroque design.
Substantiating the violin-making canon in nineteenth-century Paris
The project leader’s previous research has looked at nineteenth-century violin historiography and the reception of Cremonese violins, including those of Antonio Stradivari. It focused on the nineteenth-century centre of the violin world at that time – Paris – where Cremonese violins were canonised. It has considered how the French championed Italian style towards ideals of “good taste” and how this was a result of a historicist aesthetic (that is, one that prioritizes things from the past). This previous research concluded that the historicist aesthetic was driven by post-Revolutionary socio-political factors and international economic competition.
Johann Joachim Wincklemann, neoclassical aesthetics and Cremonese violins
In relation to arts aesthetics, we can understand the flowering of historicism as an eighteenth-century phenomenon, with Wincklemann’s theories about ancient Classical art as a key theoretical source. About mid-century, Winckelmann constructed the superiority of Greek culture, mainly – that ideals of beauty are to be found in ancient art. Arguably, his theories created an environment for neoclassicism to thrive.
‘The Beautiful Past’ focuses on the period prior to the canonization of Stradivarius violins. The project aims to show that Winckelmann’s theories reflected not only architecture and the visual arts, but also violin-making design and reception. This project is related to studies regarding: the cultural value of violins; Stradivari; the dissemination of Italian style; and eighteenth-century historicism and neoclassicism.
The ‘Beautiful Past’: Rationale and objectives
The project embraces the idea that neoclassical eighteenth-century aesthetics, which looked to the past for ideals of beauty, is crucial for understanding how we came to fetishize Stradivarius violins. It uses cultural-historical research methods to examine violin-making practices and reception. In doing so, it recognizes that the cultural meaning of ‘the violin’ is not inherent in the object itself, but a historical construction founded in aesthetics bound to particular times and places.
The research holds three hypotheses:
- that the nineteenth-century historicist view that places old Italian violins at the top of a canonical hierarchy has its roots in eighteenth-century neoclassical preferences and imitative practices;
- that Winckelmann’s theories reflected not only architecture and the visual arts, but also violinmaking practice and design; and
- that the neoclassical, enlightenment sensibility that embraced the past as a basis for forward-looking ideas of progress is essential for understanding how we came to value old Italian violins with such esteem and ultimately fetishization.
The research examines source documents and objects in order to interpret practices and their reception, with the aim to reform violin historiography. In order to contextualize musical instruments, including violins, it considers eighteenth-century historicist preferences towards Antique objects, as well as classical-revival practices of artistic-imitation. To this end, it surveys five core aesthetic areas relevant to eighteenth-century neoclassicism:
- representative arts (painting and sculpture);
- decorative arts and interior design;
- music, including composition and performance; and
- musical-instrument making, including violin making.
‘The Beautiful Past’ reconsiders violin historiography, deconstructing canonical formations and ideal forms for design. Further, the study explains how the history of the violin does not follow generally accepted, forward-looking theories of innovation, but challenges them, and reconsiders the coexistence of old and new during the transition between the Baroque and early Romantic eras.
As far as outcomes for neoclassical studies: The Beautiful Past surveys neoclassical collections towards creating a new paradigm for understanding neoclassicism, particularly contributing to the diffused term “classical”. For historiography: it constructs a “new history” of the violin. In relation to innovation theory (musical-instrument design): it challenges forward-looking theories of innovation that overlook the ‘role of the past’ in ideas of progress. Regarding societal impact: it contributes to the understanding of a familiar idea in popular culture that remains unexplained. And finally, for artistic impact: in addition to examining imitative-artistic practices, the project will hopefully offer results to enable musicians and violinmakers to make more-empowering aesthetic judgments and choices.
- Linsenmeyer, C. ‘Music museums and action: the international scene’. In: MUMU Suomen Musiikkimuseo - Yhdistyksen Vuosikirja (Finnish Music Museum Association Yearbook) 1 (2015): 42–56.
- Linsenmeyer, Christina. ‘Competing with Cremona: Violin Making Innovation and Tradition in Paris (1802-1851)’. PhD Dissertation, Washington University in St. Louis (ProQuest LLC, 2011).
- Linsenmeyer, C. ‘Contextualizing Current Practice: Violin Making Innovation and Tradition in 19th-Century Paris’, Claire Curtis, ed. Journal of the Violin Society of America. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting and Competition, November 2010 (Violin Society of America, In press).
- Invited speaker: ‘Stradivari in Finland’. Benefit-concert lecture for The Dandelion School, China with the Borea Quartet (G18, Helsinki, 25 April 2016).
- Invited speaker: ‘Principles of bowed and plucked instrument making’, FPS COST Action FP1302: Wood MusICK Training School – ‘An Introduction to the History and Technology of Wooden Musical Instruments’ – Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (12–15 April 2016).
- ‘The Beautiful Past’ Project: An overview. ‘Looking at the Arts’, Joint Seminar by the Doctoral Program for Philosophy, Arts and Society and the University of the Arts. (University of Helsinki, 11 September 2015).
- ‘Through the Eyes and Ears of Musical Instrument Collectors (1860–1940)’. International Council of Museums – International Committee of Museums and Collections of Instruments and Music (ICOM–CIMCIM) Meeting (St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russia, 27 June – 3 July 2015).
- ‘The ‘Boom’ Era and Private Musical Instrument Collectors, about 1860–1940’. AMIS International Meeting, Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, USA, 3–7 June 2015).
- “Music Museums and Action”. Finnish Music Researcher’s 19th National Symposium: Music and action (15–17 April 2015, University of Tampere, Finland)
- Invited speaker: “Musical Instrument Collectors 1850–1950” and postdoctoral-life panel. MuTri Days Tohtorikoulu/Doctoral School 2015 (19–20 March 2015, University of the Arts Helsinki, Sibelius Academy)
- “Themes and Trends of the Musical Instrument Collecting Boom (1860–1940)” ICOM–CIMCIM Meeting (Stockholm-Turku-Copenhagen-Trondheim, 2014)
- “French Nationalism, Nineteenth-Century Historicism, and the Cult of Stradivari”, Confronting the National in the Musical Past, Third Sibelius Academy Symposium on Music History. (Helsinki, 2014).
- “Lutherie Artistique and Inventing the Tradition of Stradivari”, The ‘Franco-Belgian Violin School’ from G.B. Viotti to E. Ysaÿe, Festival Paganiniano di Carro (La Spezia, Italy, 2012).
Dr Christina Linsenmeyer
+358 050 911 2150
The research project is funded by the Academy of Finland