Stradivari’s 1716 ‘Messiah’ violin has beguiled with its pristine condition for 300 years, despite having remained mute for most of that time. John Dilworth examines the mystique surrounding this enigmatic instrument that still refuses to give up its secrets
This article appeared in our March 2011 issue
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The ‘Messiah’ is perhaps the most important violin in the world. It is the greatest survivor of the classical Cremonese school, the most complete work of the greatest violin maker the world has seen, and as with all such icons, an enigma. Like the Mona Lisa’s smile or Hamlet’s state of mind, the more we discover about it, the more questions it asks us in return.
In the past ten years or so, my colleagues and I have been working on a new catalogue for the Ashmolean Museum’s musical instrument collection, of which the ‘Messiah’ has been a part since 1939. In that time I have studied it more closely than any other instrument, a consummation of more than 40 years of visits to the museum, most of which have been focused entirely on this one violin. More than any other instrument, it carries me back to that workshop in Cremona, and with each encounter my imaginings of that environment, the people involved, and the everyday processes of violin making in that revered time and place become more vivid…
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