Of Music, Mortals and Metamorphoses

A “new” Stradivarius is purchased and needs a name

Australian investors, it seems, have been slow to embrace the idea of buying rare instruments of the violin family. This is a great pity, since it could be argued the nation has well and truly missed the boat, at least insofar as large returns are concerned. This notwithstanding, it is great to see a fund being established by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, intended to build a bank of fine instruments for the orchestra. This is not the first such fund, the Music Council of Australia having established a National Instrument Bank (NIB) in 2008, with the purpose of lending quality instruments to young professionals. The NIB has managed to gather together some six instruments, including a violin owned by Sir Bernard Heinz and an A E Smith donated in the course of 2010. Their first violin, an Otello Bignanni, is on loan from the Australian Arts Foundation. They own only two of the violins in their own right. Clearly the NIB is focussed on a lower quality level, reflecting less their aspirations than the lack of public support so far.

One of the intriguing ironies is that the Australia Council owned a Guarneri cello, but following a policy change, this has been disposed of. In a wonderful piece of bureaucratic footwork the Council passed the cello to NIB to sell on their behalf. The NIB then passed the instrument on to their broker who took it to London for sale. The cello was valued at some $800,000 dollars in 2009 so it must have been a rather good instrument and certainly a loss to Australia. Thank goodness, then, for Mr Peter Weiss AM who reversed the pattern and purchased a Giuseppe Guarneri cello which he then lent to the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and which is now played by Timo-Veikko Valve. His generosity appears to have been the first major investment in a rare fiddle since the purchase in 1996, by the Commonwealth Bank, of the 1759 Guadagnini instrument, played by ACO Director Richard Tognetti until he received, from an anonymous lender, the 1743 Guarneri del Gesu he now plays. The Commonwealth Bank instrument is now with ACO Principal Second Violin, Helena Rathbone. Musical chairs indeed, but involving smart investment decisions on the part of the buyers. Philanthropy tinged with a little self interest, perhaps, but nonetheless generous. There are instrument collectors out there who buy and hold, without offering their instruments for use by leading musicians.

The “people” of South Australia have also been astute in their investment, purchasing, in 1955, a 1751 Gudagnini violin, similar to that purchased decades later by the Commonwealth Bank. The violin, held by the SA Gudagnini Trust, was on loan to Sophie Rowell, first violinist of the Australian String Quartet. This violin was purchased with monies raised by public subscription to support virtuoso violinist Carmel Hakendorf. She had earlier been picked out, along with her contemporary Beryl Kimber, from amongst her Adelaide Symphony Orchestra colleagues by Sir John Barbirolli. Support in the form of two Guadagnini violins and a Guadagnini viola has now been been provided to the Australian String Quartet by Ms Ulrike Klein, founder of the Jurlique herbal products company, together with an anonymous donor who owns one of the violins. Ms Klein has a grand vision of the ASQ playing on a quartet of Guadagninis. Her Trust is seeking funds for the purchase of the cello.

Dene Olding, violinist of the Goldner String Quartet, the Australia Ensemble and co-concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony is the recipient of support from another anonymous benefactor. The instrument on loan is a 1720 Joseph Guarnerius violin. Olding is also the owner of the A E Smith violin once played by Ernest Llewellyn, sometime concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony and inaugural director of the Canberra School of Music.

The Sydney Symphony also has an instrument fund which apparently has good support from individuals. It was started in 2007 with an anonymous donation of $800,000 . As at 2008 it owned four violins and a viola. The instruments are apparently not of the quality of those in the hands of the ASQ and the ACO.

So there we have it: one bank, two entrepreneurs and four anonymous smart investors, with a little bit of help from a mid 20th century South Australian public. Not much of which to be proud.

This lengthy preamble brings your correspondent to the crux of this blog post: the 1728/1729 Stradivarius, the first instrument purchased by the new ACO Instrument Fund. Apparently a fine instrument by all measures, it is a composite having been rebuilt from two instruments, presumably damaged. We are provided no detail of these two instruments. They, or their composite new self, do not appear to be listed in Cozio.com nor is the dealer J & A Beare’s website any help. Your correspondent may have dreamed it but it is recalled from somewhere a statement that the two halves were cut from the same tree. This would seem unlikely as the back will be Maple and the front most likely Spruce.

Anyway the Strad, lacking a history of its own, now needs a name and the ACO has embarked on a competition to select something appropriate. Appropriate is in the eye of the competitor, of course and the usual odd constructs are beginning to appear. Not to be out done, JohnofOz has come up with the solution, and at the risk of earning the judge’s ire, will now share with you the best answer and the rationale.

The instrument should be known as the Halcyon Stradivarius.

Selection of this name is based on the instrument’s one unique characteristic: it is two become one, a hybrid, the product of metamorphosis. Grasp that metamorphosis idea and let it fly for a moment. Some of the most beautiful things in nature are the result of metamorphosis. The word embraces the natural and the mystical, both of which are embodied in all the violin family, but especially a violin with two pasts, two dreamtimes. The concept of metamorphosis has moved many artists over the centuries. The genesis of this was Ovid’s mighty “Metamorphoses”, a veritable trove of characters who metamorphosed. Some, like Daphne, can be discarded. Hers was no metamorphosis driven by love. More a tragedy driven by Apollo’s lust. More apposite would be Baucis and Philemon, the old couple who took in the disguised Zeus and Hermes to their abode and shared their humble fare. On their death they were changed into intertwining oak and linden trees. The wood analogy with the violin might seem appropriate, but of course the names Baucis and Philemon are not. An allusion recognised by no one except scholars of Greek mythology, Goethe and Gounod will do only as a second suggestion.

The best story is that of Halcyone and Ceyx. A story of true love and devotion on the part of Halcyone: when her husband dies in a shipwreck, she is transformed into a Kingfisher, the Halcyon Bird that calms the sea around the winter solstice. Halcyon, a word that has come to mean calm, happy, tranquil, peaceful, yet references a bird that can soar. The mystical and the power of love. What better name for a Stradivarius?

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About johnofoz

An occasional correspondent, with particular interest in music.
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3 Responses to Of Music, Mortals and Metamorphoses

  1. Yvonne says:

    The Sydney Symphony 2008 annual report (bottom of page 29) has more info about its collection, as this was the year the instrument reserve was launched: http://www.sydneysymphony.com/shared/documents/annual_reports/annual_report_2008/files/364/Sydney_Symphony_Annual_Report_2008.pdf

  2. johnofoz says:

    Thanks to Yvonne for this further information. The Sydney Symphony Instrument Fund was started with a single anonymous donation of $800,000 in 2007, and in 2008 some four violins and one viola were purchased. The oldest instrument was a late 19th century viola which suggests SSO is, sensibly, seeking out quality instruments of lesser age with a view to benefitting a wider group of their players than would be possible with a focus on fine older instruments. There may well be sound investment principles at play also.

  3. I loved this essay about Metamorphoses and the lavish tone taken by J of O in his panorama of the pantheon of characters inhabiting the Greek mythos. I always learn an exquisite snippet of interest from our correspondent, and am even reminded by him of things I once knew and had lost in the mists of time. The lovely story of Philemon and Baucis …

    What an exquisite name for the instrument.I vote in favour of the Halcyon Stradivarius!! Mirandadelleviolette

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