Friday, December 22, 2006


Tony Faber's book 'Stradivarius: Five Violins, One Cello and a Genius' is not really blessed with the happiest choice of title (like '4 Weddings and a Funeral', or 'The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and Her Lover'). It's Faber's first book. We do not know Faber's relationship to string instruments or violin making - it seems he is an offspring of the Faber and Faber publishing house. This figures. Looking up Faber on the internet, I see that the San Diego Union Tribune describes the book as 'enjoyable but flawed'. That's about right.

Faber begins by sketching out, with a few very rough strokes of the pen, the details of Stradivarius' life, before picking on 6 instruments and tracking them, with varying degrees of success, from their birth to the present day.

The book is very readable indeed, and, blessed with a relatively low word density on its 256 pages, a quick read as well. And perhaps, because it does not claim to be a scientific book or paper, it makes this story more accessible to the average reader. It certainly helped me to time and place some musicians, such as Viotti, Pugnani, or Lipinski - and many other names familiar to upper string players drifted through as well.

However - and this is a big, big however - I was really irritated by the first half of the book by the lack of facts. It seems very little is known about Stradivarius himself, his life, and that of anyone else much before about 1850 or so. Facts are thin on the ground. Often Faber offers a variety of suppositions of what might have been the case, but on the other hand something else might have happened. Even when he makes a direct quote, such as a letter by Lipinski, he discredits it immediately afterwards. The book contains some amazing real facts though - such as an orchestra in Dresden ordering 12 violins from Stradivarius, and the 60th anniversary concert of Joseph Joachim's first public performance, featuring his pupils playing on 44 Strads. Wow! The factuality hit rate improves halfway during the 19th century, and the book improves.

I also wonder how much on-site research Faber did when writing his book, other than book research. At the end he describes a scene where he hears a Strad being played in the Palace of the Community in Cremona and he wonders if this is the first time he has heard a Strad close up. This I find astonishing for someone who writes a book about them. Surely anyone who goes to a concert in a big concert hall can hear a Strad at almost any time - they are still quite common, even if many are in safes. To me it suggests Faber is not a concertgoer. So what will his next book be about - the history of apples and pears?

There are two other minor irritations - he consistently writes the name of the Russian violin pedagogue Leopold Auer with an umlaut 'u'. That cannot be the case. The other grating moment happens on almost every page, since he really focuses on the selling prices of the instruments, painstakingly converting them to modern British pounds. So is money all this book is about?


Peter Chen said...

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Peter aka Enviroman
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