The timbre of a Stradivarius violin is unmatched. Produced by the famed Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, these violins are still reputed today for the brightness and brilliance of the tones they produce, as well as for their musical expressiveness and ability to project sound. They are also among the world’s most valuable instruments, garnering prices upwards of $15 million at auction. Extensive scientific analysis of Stradivarius violins reveals that they are exceptional at creating harmonic tones that correspond to the resonances created by the human voice, especially those in the tenor and contralto vocal ranges. For famed violinist Joshua Bell, his Stradivarius violin almost feels like his voice.
“It’s an amazing chemistry that one has with their instrument,” says Bell, who is perhaps best known for his performances throughout the Oscar-winning soundtrack to the 1998 film The Red Violin. “When you have a violin like this, it’s like you’re given the voice of Pavarotti. You feel the overtones, the ringing, and you can imagine how it must feel to be Pavarotti singing in the shower. That’s how I felt when I first played this violin.”
Stradivari built the violin now owned by Bell in 1713, during what is consider the luthier’s golden period. The instruments he made over this span, from about 1700 to 1725, have a particular shape and arch that provide what Bell says is the best balance of low and high tones. They also have the greatest appeal for soloists like Bell who need a violin able to project to the last row of large concert halls.
To hear Bell play his Stradivarius—he performs a Wieniawski concerto at the end of the above video to showcase the quality of the violin’s sound—is to embark on a musical journey. The depth and richness of the tones and Bell’s effortless expertise in creating them evoke the pure emotions that Wieniawski wrote into the composition. But to hear the story behind Bell’s violin is to embark on a narrative journey more than 300 years in the making. It was stolen from the Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman (who Bell cites as one of his heroes) in 1936 during a concert at Carnegie Hall, disappeared for nearly 50 years, and then resurfaced after the thief’s deathbed confession. Much like the instrument in The Red Violin movie, the story of Bell’s violin makes him feel that much more privileged to create music with this piece of history.
“Every day, I open my case and there it is—this 300-year-old relic,” says Bell. “Thinking of all the people who have played on it, it’s inspiring and makes me want to practice. It’s an amazing thing that a violin used today is still as useful as it was 300 years ago. In fact, there’s nothing better around today.”