Stradivarius Exhibition

 Stradivarius poster

Stradivari at the Ashmolean Museum: 13 June-11 August 2012

Dr Jon Whiteley, the Stradivarius Exhibition Curator at the Ashmolean Museum, provides an introduction to this landmark exhibition which runs until 11th August 2013.

Oxford’s wealth of music is well known. It is a wonderful city for audiences and players. It is less well known that Oxford also has the largest collection of musical instruments in the country divided between the Bate Collection, the Pitt-Rivers and the Ashmolean. However surprising it may be that the exhibition, opening at the Ashmolean on 13 June, is the first exhibition of the instruments of Stradivari ever held in Britain, it is not surprising that it is being held in Oxford.

The idea for this exhibition was inspired by the collection of stringed instruments given to the Ashmolean by Alfred and Arthur Hill in 1939. The Hills who dominated the violin world in the decades before and after the First World War could have given the museum any number of instruments by Stradivari but it was typical of their inspired generosity that they selected three of the very rarest: an exquisitely inlaid violin of 1683, a guitar of 1688 and the celebrated Messie of 1716. Round Le Messie, the Ashmolean has brought together a number of violins from the Golden Period of equal rarity and splendour: the Viotti (1709), La Pucelle (1709), the Parke (1711), the Alard (1715), the Tyrrell (1717), the Lady Blunt (1721) and others. The exhibition begins with a violin of 1666, the earliest known dated instrument by Stradivari and ends with the Kreisler of 1733 and the Habeneck of 1734, made by Stradivari in extreme old age.

The instruments themselves are the stars of the show but hardly less fascinating is a group of tools, drawings and two moulds from Stradivari’s workshop that have been lent by the city of Cremona. These include paper patterns and wooden templates used by Stradivari to make several of the instruments in the exhibition. Alongside these patterns and tools, is a display of materials supplied by the Newark School explaining the progress of a violin from a spruce log to the finished instrument and a workshop area in which there will be periodic demonstrations in the art of making a violin generously contributed by Oxford Violins.

Part of the lasting value of a catalogue of an exhibition of stringed instruments lies in the quality of the illustrations. The Ashmolean has been fortunate in securing the services of Tucker Densley who has travelled across Europe and America to take photographs for the catalogue. His photographs in the recent catalogue of the instruments in the Ashmolean contributed a great deal to the success of this much admired publication. Text, of course, matters equally. The Ashmolean is very grateful to Charles Beare for writing the lively entries and to Peter Beare, Carlo Chiesa and James Ehnes for contributing essays. Short of asking the ghost of Stradivari to write the text, one could not do better. The catalogue takes up where the famous catalogue of the 1987 exhibition in Cremona ends, adding new information that has come to light in the past twenty-six years, including the discovery of Stradivari’s will and the results of dendrochronology which has transformed the study of ancient stringed instruments.

The instruments themselves will be silent for the duration of the exhibition but while it is running, the museum is organising a series of lectures and musical events, including regular recitals on a Stradivari violin. A Stradivari violin is a beautiful work of art but it was designed to be heard. This exhibition is not just a celebration of Oxford’s museums but also celebrates the city’s rich and ancient tradition of making music.

The Stradivarius exhibition runs at the Ashmolean from 13th June to 11th August 2013. Tickets are £6, concessions £4. (Under 18s and Members FREE) Please visit for further details.

On Tuesday 23rd July, Dr Jon Whiteley will participate in an event at Blackwell’s Bookshop entitled “Stardivari: the Pursuit of Perfection’. The talk will follow the stages in Antonio Stardivari’s long working life as he evolved towards the perfection of his “Golden Period” and beyond. The evening includes two performances from a string quartet and the ticket price includes a glass of wine. Tickets are £5. To book, please telephone or visit Blackwell’s Customer Service Department in the Norrington Room, Blackwell’s Bookshop. 01865 333623.

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