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1672 ‘Gustav Mahler’ Stradivari Viola

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, […]

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

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Interview with Laurie Niles from

Appraising Your Violin, with Luthier Jean-Jacques Rampal January 21, 2019, 12:34 AM · If you wish to sell a fine violin, viola, cello or bass for the high price you bought it for — or for more, then you’d better make sure that fiddle has its papers. In other words: an appraisal. But what is an […]

Appraising Your Violin, with Luthier Jean-Jacques Rampal

January 21, 2019, 12:34 AM · If you wish to sell a fine violin, viola, cello or bass for the high price you bought it for — or for more, then you’d better make sure that fiddle has its papers. In other words: an appraisal.

But what is an appraisal, and when do you really need one?

Certainly there is a difference between the value of an instrument made by the great Italian maker Stradivari some 300 years ago and the old “Stradivarius”-labeled fiddle found in Grandma’s attic — unless Grandma was a world-famous violinist with an extraordinary instrument! The real Stradivari would be worth millions of dollars; the other is likely an old factory violin that maybe could fetch $500.

How does one know the difference, and at what point does one seek out a formal certificate of authenticity, signed by a qualified luthier, which verifies the instrument’s origin, maker and year of creation?

I decided to pose this question and a few more to Jean-Jacques Rampal, a luthier who specializes in these kinds of certificates and who is one of five French luthiers who will be offering appraisals next week (Jan. 24-27) at a special event at the LA Violin Shop. The other luthiers coming from France to Los Angeles for that event include Jean-Francois Raffin, Sylvan Bigot, Yannick Le Canu (for French bows) and Jonathan Marolle. For those who wish to find out the value of their violin, viola or cello, in this case it costs $60 for a verbal appraisal, and more to have a certificate of authenticity made.

Rampal spoke to me about appraisals, why they are important, and what can make an instrument have more or less value. First, does every violin need an appraisal?

Jean-Jacques Rampal
French luthier and violin expert Jean-Jacques Rampal.

“It is tempting to say that each violin deserves a proper appraisal, but it is up to the musician to decide,” Rampal said. “If a musician deeply loves the instrument he plays, whatever the instrument, he should get a valuation of it in order to insure it. Much safer! I see so many musicians with beautiful instruments with no appraisals. They don’t even think about it until a problem arises; for example, the instrument is stolen or destroyed in an accident. By then, it is already too late. And don’t count on insurance companies to show compassion.”

For his part, Rampal specializes in the appraisal of high end instruments. Rampal learned to make violins, violas and cellos as an apprentice with Jean-Jacques Pagès, a violin maker in Mirecourt, France. Rampal then went to Charles Beare’s workshop in London to study high level restoration and expertise of antique instruments. In 1983, he returned to Paris and worked for 15 years under the guidance of Etienne Vatelot, restoring and setting up instruments played by international soloists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Slava Rostropovitch, Boris Belkin, Salvatore Accardo, Isaac Stern, Maxim Vengerov, Patrice Fontanarosa, Olivier Charlier and more. In 1998 he succeeded Vatelot as head of the workshop and is now considered an international expert. He has been doing appraisals for 20 years.

Not every luthier is an expert appraiser; appraising is its own art that requires a particular kind of training and experience, he said.

“Being a violin expert is a real job — not a hobby,” Rampal said. “My associate and I spend our days looking at violins: we see hundreds, thousands a year, taking notes, taking pictures, making comparisons, writing articles, and giving lectures. Over the years, a violin expert is more experienced and has a deeper knowledge of the different schools. It takes time, and you have to see tons of violins, non-stop, good and bad instruments.”

“Our shop (Vatelot-Rampal in Paris) has been doing this since 1909. Over a century, we have collected a massive archive which helps us to do our job as experts,” Rampal said. “Many luthiers believe they can do appraisals because they think they have the knowledge and moreover, what is an appraisal for them? A sheet of paper! But it is much more than a simple piece of paper. Giving an opinion on an instrument is a big responsibility. Musicians should be aware that only few workshops around the world have the real knowledge and experience to deliver solid opinion on instruments.”

What does an appraiser seek to discover about a violin or other stringed instrument?

“First, we have to be sure of the origin of the instrument: the period of time it was made, country, city. Of course, ultimately we want to determine the maker, which is something we cannot determine all of the time,” Rampal said. “Once we know the origin of the violin, its condition will also be an important factor for the appraisal. For instance: take a nice violin by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, all original, good condition. Its value should be around US $250,000. Take the same instrument, with a soundpost crack in the back, and the valuation should be reduced by 40 to 50 percent because of that. So you see the importance of the condition, for appraisals.”

Does an instrument’s value increase, when it has been restored? Usually not, he said, but on rare occasions, yes. “But we’re talking here about massive restorations that take months and sometimes even years,” Rampal said. “And of course, the instrument has to be worth doing that.”

More often, past restorations can be problematic for the value of the instrument.

“Restoration is a complicated work. The motto should be to do what is necessary, but as much as possible, you must also preserve the original wood and original varnish, and you must preserve the ‘integrity’ of the instrument,” Rampal said. “Throughout the long history of string-instrument restoration, there were different schools of thought on this. Not so long ago, it was normal to rework thicknesses, polish the varnish of an instrument to make it look shiny, or simply to double the edges, even though it was not necessary. Terrible harm was done to great instruments because of accumulations of unnecessary restorations. I think that the best way to preserve an instrument is to do only what needs to be done in order to bring it back to life and make it playable and comfortable for the musician. Simplicity! Don’t do million things because you think it will turn an average violin into a Strad! We see that quite often, unfortunately. So yes, restorations can sometimes damage instruments.”

As we know, rare Italian fine instruments are now worth astronomical sums. What is the highest value that Rampal has set on an instrument?

“I won’t mention the exact price here but, we recently appraised a wonderful cello made by Strad,” he said. “We’re talking here of several dozens of millions.”

For more information about the appraisal event at the LA Violin Shop, please click here.

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