I went to Cremona last winter and two things from that trip I remember clearly: one was how cold it was, so cold that I had to buy a woollen hat from a street trader who charged me an outrageous €20 for a very inferior product: the second, but most important, was my meeting with violin maker, Stefano Conia, a master luthier, an intense young man who makes violins with passion, violins that are bought and played by some of the world’s finest musicians.
Cremona has been important in Italy’s cultural life since Roman times, located as it is on the banks of the Po River, a major junction for trade and commerce. The narrow streets of the city are rich in history, the red brick medieval towers and the Renaissance buildings shading the many statues of its famous sons, Antonio Stradivari and Claudio Monteverdi.
Today the town has 147 luthiers who still make violins using the template of the great masters whose common bond was a tradition of classical techniques handed down from the middle of the 16th century. It is this tradition that is still being practised by Stefano Conia and others like him.
In his workroom/studio, Stefano explained the finer points of violin making to me as I took in all aspects of the space around me, the overpowering aromas of resin, varnish, wax, woods and other smells to which I couldn’t put a name. His studio, evocative with smells from the pots of glue, wax and resin, is hung with violin parts awaiting varnishing or waxing, and the workbench is littered with tools of every description. Juniper Gum tickled the nostrils and had a mind-clearing effect when I inhaled it. Wood shavings littered the floor and had their own peculiar smell, violins hung from the ceilings and part-completed fronts, backs, and frets of as yet uncompleted instruments, sat awaiting his attention.
Earlier I’d had an insight into the history of the violin and its unique acoustic characteristics at the Violin Museum, one dedicated to Cremona’s sovereign musical instrument. In this impressive building, there is a stunning collection of stringed instruments (violins, cellos and a viola) made by the most renowned violin makers. I was also privileged to hear a skilled young musician play Meditation by Massenet and a Paganini violin concerto, on an original Stradivari for a small audience in the auditorium of the museum. I do not exaggerate when I say that the playing brought tears to my eyes and I know, beyond doubt, that my emotion stemmed from the lush, rich sounds that came from the Stradivari violin as the music penetrated the skin and found the pleasure centres of the brain.
The Museum boasts a collection of the most ancient instruments – including one dating back to 1556, made by Andrea Amati for Carlo IX of France, and the original “Cremonese” made by Stradivari in 1715. Museum pieces they may be but they must be played every day to preserve their purity. One elderly musician described a Stradivari to me as being like an old wine that gets better with age.
At his workshop, Stefano told me that creating an instrument with such depth of character relies on centuries of tradition being handed down from father to son. In his own family, his uncle is also a violin maker and he has hopes that at least one of his two sons will follow in his footsteps although they are too young yet to even consider it.
Stefano is obsessed with wood because apart from the craftsmanship, it is the wood from which the instrument is made that gives the violin its unique sound. Over the course of our conversation, I learned that the wood for the front of the violin comes from the spruce trees found in the Dolomites, the Northern Italian Alps. Stefano often goes himself to choose the tree to be cut as sometimes he feels the need to be totally hands-on, but usually, he is happy to leave it to the experts who know exactly what he is looking for. The wood for the back of the violin is Maple and has to be imported from the mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Balkans. The search for the perfect wood is an ongoing pursuit and although he owns valuable stocks of old wood, there will always be a need for more.
A violin will take approximately two months to make from start to finish but with time in between for resting and drying the varnish, he reckons to make possibly 12 violins per year each of which will sell for approximately 12,000 Euros.
Stefano plays the violin himself as do all luthiers. “How do you feel when you part with one of your violins, given that you have devoted so much time to making it the best you can,” I asked. He smiled. “Each violin is like my baby, but I have to let it go.”
There is some concern in the town that the East Asians are now making violins and may make inroads on the trade. In China, violins and cellos are mass-produced for a fraction of the cost of those made in Cremona and nowadays, many of the craftsmen in the town are Asian. In the town’s international Violin Making School, it is estimated that 80% of the students are foreigners, Koreans, Japanese and Taiwanese predominating. Most will return home but some will stay to continue the learning process and to open their own workshops.
The name Cremona is synonymous with the work of the great violin makers and it is said that there are few investments like a Cremonese violin and that a buyer can expect a 20%-30% return on the money invested. That is why the luthiers of Cremona will survive despite the competition from the East. As a Rolls Royce is to a car enthusiast, so a Cremona violin is to an instrumentalist.
Stefano’s sons, it is hoped, will follow him into the workshop in which their grandfather worked, producing exquisite violins for the world’s great musicians, the floor will still be covered in shavings and the ripe smells of gums and resins will still waft out through the doorway of the studio in Corso Garibaldi in Cremona.
Nearly 80 years ago on June 13th, 1937, at the Ponchielli theatre in Cremona, a concert took place which is still spoken of with awe. The music of Corelli, Bach, Vivaldi and Boccherini was played using twenty-four Stradivarius, nine Guarneri and one Amati. I cannot imagine the effect on listeners but musicians to whom I’ve told the story have almost wept that they were not there.
Following that, Cremona launched a violin-making school in September 1938 but with the coming of the Second World War it was closed. Not until the 1950s did it pick up momentum and begin to inspire the passion for making violins in the tradition of the original luthiers. The handful of violin-makers with which they started has grown and now there are some 150 workshops where instruments are made and restored and where students practice their craft. Most work is commissioned and the waiting list can be as long as one year.
Oh, and you want to buy a Stradivari? You’ll have to find something in the region of €200,000, I was told.
To hear a Stradivarius being played, try the Palazzo Comunale at midday, or ask at the Violin Museum.
Information on Cremona and Milan: http://www.turismo.milano.it/wps/portal/tur/en
Information on Cremona: http://www.officeoftourism.org/europe/italy/Lombardy/cremona.asp