Curiouser and curiouser

1672-1713

Was the 1672 ‘Mahler’ the first viola ever made by Antonio Stradivari? As Jonathan Marolle explains, this is just one of the unanswerable questions that arise when studying this fascinating instrument

In many ways, the year 1672 was remarkable: it marked the birth of Peter the Great, future tsar and emperor of all the Russias, and the death of Heinrich Schütz, a major figure in German Baroque music; and the six-year Franco-Dutch War began in earnest, with the forces of Louis XIV occupying the city of Utrecht. Many more seismic events took place within the span of these twelve months, but one in particular – seemingly innocuous to the casual observer – would prove momentous for lovers of stringed musical instruments. For in Casa Pescaroli, in the parish of Sant’Agata, Cremona, a young luthier built what appears to have been his first viola. Even for the 28-year-old Antonio Stradivari the instrument, now known as the ‘Gustav Mahler’ viola, is extraordinary.

Of all the surviving instruments from Stradivari’s workshop, only ten are violas. Did he make more? Very probably: in fact, in his letters there are orders for violas that have now sadly disappeared. And did he ever make a viola prior to the ‘Mahler’ in 1672? It is impossible to give a definitive answer, but close examination of this instrument provides a number of clues to suggest that it is indeed Stradivari’s ‘op.1’ viola.

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