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.
At the end of the 17th century, the instrument we call the viola had not been clearly defined – neither had its place in the orchestra. Large tenor violas were common, such as the 1574 Andrea Amati (back length 469mm), the 1592 Brothers Amati (453mm) and the 1664 Andrea Guarneri (482mm), but so were contralto violas with smaller dimensions, such as the ‘Stauffer’ Brothers Amati of 1615 (411mm) or the 1676 ‘Conte Vitale’ Andrea Guarneri (419mm). With a back length of 410mm, the ‘Mahler’ belongs to the contralto viola family, which eventually won out in popularity over its tenor counterpart (it is easier to play a 410mm viola than it is to play one of 460mm).
So if Stradivari was embarking on a new (for him) type of instrument, why did he opt for a contralto rather than a tenor viola? Could it have been a suspicion that the smaller model would eventually supplant the larger one? Or was it a special order from a musician? (Stradivari did indeed make tenor violas later on, such as the 1690 ‘Medici, Tuscan’.) He clearly was inspired by contralto instruments he saw at the time, in particular those of Andrea Guarneri, which according to Charles Beare were a major source of inspiration, while the Hills also point to the violas of the Amati family.
Without having any factual evidence that this is Stradivari’s very first viola, I suggest that, in the manner of an artist painting a preliminary study before embarking on the final artwork, Stradivari considered the ‘Mahler’ a study for a definitive viola model. At least two factors lead me to this conclusion: the first being the fact that this viola is unique in Stradivari’s oeuvre – it’s certainly the only one that could be built on the mould (MS55 in the Museo del Violino catalogue); and the second being the unusual choice of materials used in its construction.
At the start of his long career, Stradivari did not necessarily use woods of the highest quality, which is understandable. At that time he was facing competition from the Amati, Guarneri and Rugeri workshops, and would not have had the wherewithal for the best materials, so he made do with what he could get. The maple he used was mainly locally sourced, with a fine, tight grain and sometimes marked with broad knots. It is not uncommon to find knots on the backs of his early-period instruments, such as the ‘Jenkins’ and ‘Dubois’ violins, both 1667, and the 1669 ‘Tullaye’. His spruce, of varying quality, usually came from a source that in most cases allows dendrochronological dating.
The ‘Mahler’ is, however, very different. Here the maple used for violins is jettisoned in favour of poplar, which gives the back a rather seductive appearance. The scroll and pegbox are of a more austere kind of poplar. A close examination of the ribs leads to further questions. In the existing literature on this instrument, such as the Hills’ book on Stradivari, the ribs are described as being either of maple or of poplar. These observations were evidently made rather too hastily, for in fact the upper ribs and the one-piece lower rib all have a wood structure more reminiscent of willow (or possibly a species of maple), whereas the C-bout ribs are made from a maple with no flame, with tree
rings that are regular, marked and quite narrow! How should one interpret Stradivari’s decision to use two materials that are so different? Was it practical? Or does it simply show a lack of consideration when he came to the ribs? One thing seems certain: the question of aesthetics does not come into it.
The spruce used for the belly is of very narrow grain in the centre, widening considerably towards the edges; the crookedness of the (twisted) grain leaves something to be desired. Again, the choice of wood does not quite comply with Stradivari’s normal standards during this period. In this case, dendrochronological analysis of the spruce fails to ascertain the date; this is rare enough to be mentioned because such tests are gen
erally successful for Cremonese instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries. If dating proves impossible, the reason is often because of the wood’s provenance: it may have come from an unusual geographical region. All these points support the idea that the young Stradivari, in making his first ever viola, seems to have decided to save his best wood for other instruments further down the line.
Stradivari and Amati corners
Contralto violas were still relatively uncommon at this time, and while drawing out his pattern, the young Stradivari would have had more doubts than certainties. With his technical grounding from the time he supposedly spent in Nicolò Amati’s atelier, plus his familiarity with the violas of his peers, he was inspired to design an instrument of 410mm and generous width. The very long, slightly drooping corners are reminiscent of Amati’s style. The edges are quite thick and very rounded, which gives a feeling of heaviness to the outline. Curiously, Stradivari opted for quite thin purfling, embedded in a rather narrow channel.
Comparing it with violins of the same period, it can be said with confidence that the 28-year-old luthier simply used purfling strips made for a violin: the thicknesses and proportions are identical, with the ebony used for the ‘black’ being particularly dark. The bee-stings are orientated towards the centre of the corners, with not much deviation. So considering the thick, generous rounded edges, and fine purfling set in narrow channels, it seems that Stradivari had not yet achieved the stylistic balance we expect in his instruments. The arching also clearly shows the influence of Amati, as well as the general trend of Cremonese instruments at the time: a very slightly pinched central arch from a small recurve, light years away from the archings of Stradivari’s golden period (which are quite full, and somehow fall into the purfling).
Stradivari’s prowess as a sculptor is undeniable in this instrument, and his technical execution is irreproachable. It was not for nothing that he lived in the house of sculptor and architect Francesco Pescaroli until 1680! However, the volute of the ‘Mahler’ gives a curious impression. Taken independently of the rest of the instrument, its two profiles seem well balanced, but in comparison with the soundbox, the 135mm head seems enlarged. By contrast, the head of the 1690 ‘Medici, Tuscan’ contralto is shorter (133.5mm) for a longer body length (414mm). And at 56mm, the maximum width between the eyes of the ‘Mahler’ is surely a record-breaker!
Comparing the ‘Mahler’ pegbox chin (left) with those of the ‘Medici, Baird’ (centre) and ‘Archinto’ violas (right), both from 1696, show how it has merged deeper into the pegbox reducing the length of the head
As can be seen in the photo (above), the widest point of the pegbox chin is slightly lower than the end of the pegbox. This detail is not apparent in Stradivari’s later violas and here it contributes to the feeling of imbalance. These inconsistencies can be attributed to the maker’s lack of experience (for good reason if it was indeed his first viola). It is tempting to conclude that Stradivari was himself perplexed by this viola, given that there are no other instruments that fit the MS55 mould; on the other hand, that mould exhibits a lot of wear, suggesting that more instruments were made on that form.
The varnish of the ‘Mahler’ exhibits characteristics common to the Cremona school of both the 16th and the 17th centuries. There is the golden-yellow hue for which Nicolò Amati’s instruments were famous, resulting not from a pigment but from cooking the resin. It is interesting to note the reflection of the varnish under UV light: it has a very uniform, light yellow- orange colour, often found on Cremonese instruments of that period. Stradivari would subsequently make some modifications to intensify the colour, crushing pigments and incorporating them to expand the palette (from yellow-orange to deep red). However, this also resulted in a less transparent varnish.
Although Stradivari took care over the instrument’s external appearance, the same cannot be said for the interior. As was customary at the time, the internal assembly is efficient and functional, but not painstakingly correct. There are knife-cuts still visible on the linings (Stradivari probably did not consider it useful to get rid of them), and there’s an irregularity in the way the linings have been
inserted into the corner-blocks. All corners, blocks (the top-block is not original) and linings are of willow.
Even the label prompts questions. Why is the maker’s name printed as Antonins, rather than Antonius, Stradiuarius? Maybe because of the printer’s carelessness (the unusual misprint does appear on the labels of other instruments). The final two digits are handwritten and indicate the year 1672.
In summary, the ‘Mahler’ is a fascinating piece of work and I can only imagine the questions arising in readers’ minds right now. As one would expect from a true work of art, the more one looks into it, the more facets and curiosities reveal themselves. Like all great artworks it is a product of its time and circumstances, as well as a result of experiments to bring something totally new and unique into the world. If we consider Stradivari’s career to be a long process of experimentation (the Amatisé period, the long pattern and so forth), then the ‘Mahler’ takes a very special place in that lineage. Thanks to its dual status as both a prototype and a rare contralto viola, it is part of the uncommon breed of instruments that laid the groundwork for the maker’s later masterpieces, which displayed even more in the way of elegance, balance of proportions and especially acoustic efficiency.
Owned by the Swiss-based Habisreutinger Foundation, this viola is named after Rolf Habisreutinger, who acquired it on 7 July 1960, the centenary of Gustav Mahler’s birth.
Translation by Christian Lloyd