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Amico: The Life of Giovanni Battista Viotti.

Amico: The Life of Giovanni Battista Viotti. By Warwick Lister. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. [xvi, 522 p. ISBN 9780195372403. $74.] Music examples, illustrations, appendices, bibliography, index.

Throughout most of the eighteenth century the violins by the makers Nicolo Amati and Jacob Stainer remained the most esteemed among performers and audiences prized for their sweet, rounded tone. However, toward the end of that century the nature of concert life began to change rapidly, resulting in different demands on instruments. Not until late in the century did purely instrumental forms of composition assume a position similar to opera in public concert life. The music of Joseph Haydn offers a particularly clear demonstration of the shift, drifting from the domestic performance setting of the Esterhazy court for the bulk of his compositions to the public concert sphere with his later works, notably the "Paris" and "London" symphonies. No longer publicly consigned to accompaniment functions for opera, violinists in particular came to require a stronger, more easily projected sound from their instruments in order to meet the demands of emerging instrumental forms intended for increasingly large public concert spaces.

A cadre of individuals, collectors, and instrument makers in particular effected several key changes to violin family instruments to meet the new musical demands. Stewart Pollens offers in his new book on Antonio Stradivari details of such changes in his fourth chapter, "Violin Fittings and Set-up." Nearly all older instruments were refitted with necks positioned at an angle from the top of the instrument, higher bridges were installed, and bass bars were increased in size, to name a few examples. More shockingly, the thicknesses of the top and back of most instruments were regraduated to serve newer expectations for sonority. Less invasively, the modern bow began to emerge in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, a development widely attributed to Francois-Xavier Tourte with influence from Giovanni Battista Viotti. The new bow allowed players to draw a stronger, more legato tone from the instrument without sacrificing the agility of earlier bow designs (see Stewart Pollens and Henryk Kaston, Francois-Xavier Tourte: Bow Maker [New York: Machold Rare Violins, 2001]).

In these closing years of the eighteenth century and at the dawn of the nineteenth, the vogue for Stradivari's violins began--and continues today unabated. Again, many have attributed this development to the influence of Viotti, though as Warwick Lister observes in his eighth appendix, "Viotti's Violins," the 1709 Stradivari violin now known as the "Viotti" came into the famed violinist's possession in the year 1810, well after he had retired from performing publicly. More objectively, the tonal characteristics that led to the favoring of Stradivari's instruments over those of Stainer or the Amati family of makers result primarily from the lower arching of the top and back of Stradivari's violins, which yields a more focused and well projected tone.

Serious studies documenting the life and work of both Stradivari and Viotti have remained wanting. The book on Stradivari written by the dealers William Henry Hill, Arthur F. Hill, and Alfred E. Hill published in 1902 has remained the standard work on the maker (Antonio Stradivari: His Life and Work [1644-1737] [London: W. E. Hill and Sons, 1902]). Numerous photographic volumes have also been published and articles and books abound which attempt to account for the beguiling sound of the "Strad." Viotti has recently benefitted from increasing attention, but scholarship in English still remains limited. Besides Lister's biography, the major works in English are a collection of essays edited by Massimilano Sala, Giovanni Battista Viotti: A Composer Between Two Revolutions (Bologna: Ut Orpheus Edizioni, 2006) and Denise Yim's Viotti and the Chinnerys: A Relationship Charted. Through Letters (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2004). Of course, serious scholars studying either Viotti or Stradivari will need command of the sources and literature in numerous languages. The causes for this seeming lark of rigorous scholarship differ in the case of each of these quite significant figures in the history of the violin.

History has not served Viotti well. He was a composer in the age of the composer--a contemporary and associate of Muzio Clementi, Viotti wrote music that has not fared as well and hardly bears comparison to that of Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven. He was a performer before the age of the performer; consider, for instance, the growing scholarly interest in Spohr and Thalberg, to say nothing of Paganini and Liszt. Though he was closely affiliated with opera throughout his career, Viotti never composed an opera. This might have assured him a place in music history along side his close friend Cherubim or even Spontini, though his opera-composing follower Rodolphe Kreutzer is hardly remembered as such. Viotti's posthumous reputation seems to hang somewhat precariously on Brahms's admiration for the Violin Concerto no. 22 in A minor (see Lister, p. 367).

Of course, Viotti did not pursue a public career in music with any consistency, as we learn in detail in Lister's biography. He charted a very enigmatic course in life, from protege of the Turinese aristocrat Alfonso, Prince dal Pozzo della Cisterna, to pupil of Gaetano Pugnani, darling of the Parisian public, adjunct to Marie Antoinette's circle, Parisian theatre impresario, refugee in England from the French Revolution, major attraction of Salomon's London concerts, cohabitant of Margaret and William Chinnery, wine merchant, and, finally, director of the Paris Opera. Lister has left out few if any details. Unfortunately, crowded out is interpretation of the voluminous biographical details. After 373 pages, Lister very momentarily acknowledges that "[i]t is very likely that [Margaret Chinnery and Viotti] were lovers." Meanwhile, he spends a lot of time in fanciful reveries, such as in describing Viotti's debut at the Concert Spirituel: "There is an expectant hush. ... His moment has come. [Viotti] strides through the doors into this superb, stately room ... He mounts the steps, he acknowledges the applause of the most elegant audience of Europe. A moment, perhaps, to tune; a nod to the leader of the orchestra ..." (p. 77). Lister does not offer any detailed consideration of Viotti's compositions.

In the case of Stradivari, precious few documents, other than his instruments, survive to illuminate his life and work. Partly as a result of this lack of concrete information and partly due to the enticing character of the instruments that survive, a fantastic image of the instrument maker has emerged over the past two-and-a-half centuries. Pollens's picture of the maker, however, stands on very sure footing. Rather than retracing the chronology of Stradivari's output, as the Hills did, Pollens organizes his eleven chapters around specific topics.

He begins with a "historical background," followed by three chapters focused particularly on the violin family (materials, forms and patterns, fittings and set-up), introduces information in the next five chapters on other instruments that emerged from the hands of the maker (dance master's kit, viola da gamba and viola d'amore, lute, mandola and mandoline, guitar, and harp), and concludes with an examination of practices in the master's workshop. Pollens also includes three appendices, one enumerating the Hills' collection of original or early bass bars, the second presenting Thomas Salmon's 1705 "The Theory of Musick Reduced to Arithmetical and Geometric Proportions," and the third reprinting Pollens' controversial proposition that the famed "Messiah" violin in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is a replica as opposed to an authentic work of Stradivari.

The matter treated in the final appendix has ignited tremendous scrutiny (if not incredulity), but offers a valuable object lesson in matters of the historical record related to Stradivari. Nearly all details of Stradivari's life and work remain obscure--and have often been obscured. Rare is an unaltered, original label in a Stradivari instrument (not to mention most other-seventeenth- and eighteenth-century violins). The positive identification of an instrument as the work or one or another maker relies heavily on fragmentary documentation of prior ownership; the project of conclusively authenticating an instrument based on workmanship is complicated by the fact that often different aspects of an instrument resulted from the work of different individuals in a single workshop. Indeed, even eliciting concrete observations from Stradivari's wooden and paper forms and patterns preserved in the Museo Stradivariano demands a certain degree of confidence in their authenticity. Regardless of whether Pollens is correct in his assertion about the "Messiah" violin, he rightly calls into question strongly held (even closely guarded) beliefs about the maker and his instruments.

Pollens's study should signal a new day in the study of Stradivari's work and in the study of violin makers in general. Unlike the expensive pictorial tomes dedicated to rare and priceless violins, Pollens' book rewards thoughtful engagement and rigorous consideration. One hopes that others continue on this course, as much remains to be researched and documented about Stradivari--more than could possibly fit into a single volume--and about other instrument makers. The inclusion of Pollens's study in Cambridge University Press's Musical Performance and Reception series, which has tended to focus on matters of performance practice, signifies one particularly important aspect of the work. The worth of Stradivari's work reveals itself in musical performance--an act that in itself, because of the altered state of the instruments today, requires ample historical contextualization. Likewise, the study of important violinists, especially of Viotti's time, offers the opportunity to consider the role of performance and instrumental technique in the conception of historical music. These studies by Pollens and Lister will hopefully serve as key tools in opening new paths of inquiry in performance practice and music history in general.


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Author:Boomhower, Daniel F.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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