Soundbox 22 4 21

Posted on April 22nd, 2021 by

The Viotti ex-Bruce 1709 Stradivari

The ‘Viotti ex-Bruce Stradivari’, with Luca Alessandrini’s silk violin and a 1770 Tourte Bow

For most of the time, the violin hangs, alone, gently glowing in the corner of the gallery on the Marylebone Road.  The light is set just high enough that the visitor can register its exquisite colouration, low enough that the tramonto that is this instrument’s ‘ground’ is not at risk of fading.  Some visitors are awed by its beauty, whereas others might be struck by the sense of being in the presence of witness to history.  This violin has sung in counterpoint to tumultuous events, lived through ‘interesting times’.  More than a few are saddened by its apparent silence today, whilst a number are astounded that for all its 300 years, its lustre seems not to have dimmed.  But there will be some who consider the changes that it has undergone since it left the bench of Antonio Stradivari, and how these reflect both music’s changes, and ebb and flow of the history which it has, in some small way, ‘accompanied’.  [i]

Some will hear its voice, and a few will have the chance to sing with that voice.  They will find themselves part of a vast colloquy of souls, a web of ideas and influences, distilled, mysteriously into this, the most natural of tones, which is the very portrait of the man who made this instrument his own, and who was at once the ‘bellows and the fan’ of a musical revolution, Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824).[ii] Viotti was a reflective, refracting, focussing force, whose talent was to enhance people’s experience of the world.  Never was a man less suited for incipient Romanticism, never was anyone less attracted to a cult of the personality.

Viotti, playing for dance music. ‘Le Racleur’

Every violinist traces their ancestry, somewhat wistfully, to Giovanni Battista Viotti.  The author of the mammoth 1876 survey,  Les Instruments à Archet, Les Feseurs, Les Joueurs d’Instruments, Leur Histoire sur le Continent Européen, Suivi d’un Catalogue Général de la Musique de Chambre, Antoine Vidal referred to him as Père Créateur.  His dear friend, the composer, Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) described one of his visits to Paris; surrounded by his disciples, he seemed, “like a father among his children.”[iii]


Viotti’s impact on Parisian audiences began with the twelve consecutive concerts following his tremendous début at the Concert Spirituel in 1782. It is however, only during his tenure at the Théatre Monsieur/Feydau, that he can really be said to have guided players. We can only speculate that the reason that his disciples in that orchestra were not inclined to report on this period was lest, post-1791, they reveal that they were themselves tarred with success in the ancien régime.  There is no question that it was with Viotti’s meteoric rise in 1782, that the new ‘French school’ was established, that, “His music and his playing were a revelation; la vieille école va faire place à la nouvelle.”[iv][v]

Nicholas Mori
First professor of violin at RAM and a true viotti pupil

However, very few of Viotti’s followers actually had the opportunity to study with him, owing to his refusal to teach adults. Our pedagogical inheritance is only what Dr Johnson would call ‘real authentick history’, if we can prove a lineage from the children that he taught at various points in his career. Of all Viotti’s pupils, the first violin professor of the Academy, Nicholas Mori (1797-1839), who studied with him extensively during his time in England, might have the greatest claim to be his true student. The Academy’s violinistic tradition is a legacy of Viotti’s work, notwithstanding the fact that the foundation of the institution by Lord Burghersh (1784-1859) effectively hijacked Viotti’s own project.  [vi]

Viotti’s example of the ideal artist blazed a trail for many others to follow.  His principle was simple:

“A man should die at his post; for good sense always taught me that if honest men quit their posts, the wicked gain an immense triumph.” [vii]

Jacques Marquet de Montbreton de Norvins (1769-1867) was later Napoleon’s chief of Police in Rome. He described a soirée in the hôtel of the Mme. de la Briches, on the Rue de la Ville Évéque in November 1790, before the ‘tempest’. Cards were being played, whilst Viotti accompanied the niece of the philosophe, Abbé André Morellet (1727-1819), the harpist, Mlle. Belz. The evening was interrupted by the arrival of the recently married Comte and the ‘delicious’ Comtesse de Noailles, nicknamed ‘Madame Etiquette’ by Marie Antoinette, whom she served as ‘First Lady of Honour’. Two years later, the Comtesse made a very different and rather more dramatic entrance into polite society at Brighton, having “travelled by boat disguised as a man, concealed in a giant coil of cable for fourteen hours.”



In Paris, inspired by  Viotti’s advocacy and then the cellist, Jean-Louis Duport, the craze for of the ‘Cremonese’, and in particular, the ‘Strad sound’ first took off: “…when these violins of the Italian masters were heard ringing under the fingers of Viotti, Rode, Baillot, Spohr, when Duport the younger made audible the wondrous sounds that he drew  from his famous Stradivari, the difference between those and other instruments was so evident, that everyone, artists and amateurs, soon had but one aim, that of possessing an old Italian violin.” [i]

Vidal was writing this half a century after the fact, and noted two essential points. Firstly that the desired instruments were Italian, and secondly, they were old.  Thus, at the very moment, when the technology and understanding of the manufacture of all instruments was beginning to reach new heights, when the new science of acoustics was becoming, for the first time, useful, an entire detachment of musicians, the strings, the ‘phalanx’ of the orchestral mass-marched in the opposite direction, towards the past.[ii]  Luthiers found themselves obliged to hide the advances that they were making, either in ‘antiquing’ new instruments, or in the remaking of the old, grafting in modern advances, whilst retaining as much of the cachet of the past that was and still is essential for the collective vanity of string players.

The most renowned of all Stradivari were those  seen in Viotti’s hands. During his lifetime, Viotti owned upwards of ten ‘Strads’, and was in possession of two of them at the time of his death; the 1709 ex-Bruce Viotti now in the Collection of the Royal Academy of Music, and an instrument of 1712, which he bought in 1810.[iii]

Viotti would have encountered the collection of Cremonese instruments owned by the Prince of Wales’ Brother, Adolphus Frederick, Duke of Cambridge, who seems to have bought instruments from him.[iv] The Duke was anxious to reassure Viotti that he could care for his collection as it deserved.

On January 20th 1820, there was a fire at St James’s Palace, the Duke’s residence.  The Duke wrote: “Pray tell amico [The pet name for Viotti used by the Chinnery Cicle] that I… took down my Violins under my arm into my dining room…” [v] In 1821, the Duke wrote Viotti to ask him to send “more bows from Tourte le jeune, saying that the ones V himself used suited him perfectly…”[vi] Like many of his touring colleagues, Viotti was also working as a dealer, not only of instruments, but pictures, particularly of those of Vigée-le Brun.  David Boyden has suggested that Viotti may have played a John Dodd[vii], himself celebrated as the “Tourte of England.”[viii]

Perhaps the real reason for the Duke’s letter to Viotti was the disaster which had overtaken the palace of Andreas Rasoumovsky six years earlier in Vienna.  Following a New Year’s Ball to honour the Tsar, his magnificent palace and instruments burnt to the ground.  Schindler noted that “Nothing could be saved: all the things that had made the Prince’s life pleasant were wiped out at a single stroke, and even his beloved music had no power to soften his grief.”[ix]  The fire had destroyed his magnificent collection of instruments; within a year, the Schuppanzigh Quartet was pensioned off, and an era came to an end.  Duke was keen to report to, that, in addition to saving his instruments himself, the music and the music lists were saved.

The combination of the père créateur  and his instrument was legend, as is clear from Viotti’s performance at the Fête that was hurriedly arranged on the occasion of his return to Paris in 1818. Pierre Baillot wrote,  “We had brought several of our pupils.  One of them, at the first sound of Viotti’s instrument, was so moved that he burst into tears.  Soon, he was sobbing so loudly that we were obliged to place ourselves in front of him to hide him from the view of the Player who held our souls captive, like Poussin’s shepherd that hides the dying Eurydice from the eyes of Orpheus, so as not the miss the sounds of the divine poet.” [x]

Viotti was profoundly sensitive to the effect that his playing, and his violin, could have on sensitive listeners; playing for friends in Ghent in 1793, he reported: “I was barely halfway through the first part, when, whether from the revival of some sad memory, or from being moved by the music, tears began to fall down the cheeks of the married daughter. He did not think it appropriate, or perhaps practical, to go on, under the circumstances. He continued,   “I could not see through my tears, and stopped playing to join in the very moving concerto of tears.” [xi] Viotti was clearly a ‘Man of Feeling.’

Perhaps, the reason that Pierre Baillot had hidden his weeping student from Viotti, was to prevent a similar ‘concerto of tears’ from his master.

Viotti clearly got the greatest pleasure from the instruments that he was able to acquire for himself.   When he purchased  the 1712 ‘Strad’ (in his possession at his death), Margaret Chinnery  wrote, a little piqued, “Amico’s mind is wholly engrossed by the beauties of a new violin he has purchased of Prince Buttera…”[xii] Perhaps this was a new phenomenon, that players started to build a deeper identification, even a relationship, with particular instruments.  This was an inevitable side-effect of the dissolution of the world of indentured patronage.  Now, for the first time, players who were free agents, needed to own their instruments, and to find ways of moving them from place to place, rather than playing instruments from the matched sets of court chapelles.  It was not long before the new concert-going public began to be aware of the depth of these relationships, an awareness which was exploited to the limit by Paganini’s mythmaking around his Del Gesù violin, ‘Il Cannone’.

Converted Cremonas

Once the Cremonese violins had been seen, it seems that they were never forgotten; no instrument could be made that was not a response to this new ideal.  Initially, it was the artistry of the making which impressed; after Viotti offered the chance to hear the ‘cremonas’ with the new bass bar and stringing, they were celebrated for their sound, not their ‘fini precieux’.

The influx of émigré string players bringing the newly converted and powerful Stradivari to England had a disastrous impact on British makers, who noted the impact on their trade even earlier than their fellow luthiers in Paris.  Prices of local-made instruments collapsed. In 1864, William Sandys illustrated this, with regard to the cost of instruments made by Daniel Parker. He wrote,

“About 1793 the violins of this maker were valued at five guineas, and in the beginning of the first half of the present (sic) century they have realised twelve and fifteen guineas, but now are again reduced in amount, from the desire of performers to possess none but the Italian instruments.”[i][ii][iii]

The musical explorer, Charles Burney provided an early British response to Amati violins. During his 1770 ‘musical pilgrimage’ through Italy he was offered an example in Bologna.

“WEDNESDAY morning I staid at home to write letters for England.  In the evening to S.  Francisco again and afterward meet Dr.  Gentili at the coffee house musical people happened to be there and he contrived to make us converse together.  One was a celebrated tenor singer.  I went from thence to try a fine Amati fiddle for which 50 zechins were asked.  If I had been flush I believe I should have offered 30 as it was a very fine instrument.”[iv]

It is not altogether clear how information was shared between luthiers adjusting violins from the end of the 18th century.  Equally little is known ofabout the involvement of virtuosi in this process, though it seems inconceivably that they did not take some advisory role. All that survi ve are tantalising nuggets of information; Viotti referred to the London maker Betts as a ‘Stradivarius Murderer.’[v] Clearly he felt that the work should be of the highest standards, both technically and ethically.