On a normal day at the Ashmolean the Messiah — a violin considered to be Stradivari's greatest work — sits in a glass case in pride of place. When placed against other instruments, the Messiah provides a shocking experience of colour and purity: to the uninitiated eye and the expert alike, it is at first glance a new violin. Almost devoid of wear, it’s incomprehensible to think that it will celebrate its tercentenary in three years time.
By the beginning of the nineteenth-century the violin was admired as one of the most outstanding examples of Stradivari's work, both for having survived for so long in peerless condition, and also as representative of the zenith of Stradivari's powers as the greatest violin maker that ever lived. For half its life, since it was taken from Italy to Paris in 1854, its astonishing freshness has made it the target of suspicion and scandal. So many of the indicators used to tell copy from fake derive from the way an instrument has aged or been antiqued — but as an almost perfectly pure specimen, the Messiah is deceptive.
The familiarity of its form, as both the world's most famous violin and an instrument that’s been copied time and time over, adds to the difficulty of reading it when studied in isolation. It was first copied by Giuseppe Rocca in 1840s Turin; several hundred copies were made by its first French owner, Jean Baptiste Vuillaume. Later, thousands of copies of copies were produced by virtually every great French maker from the late nineteenth-century onwards.
For the developing expert eye, this over-familiarity with the basic style points of this particular violin can be completely confounding. Ignominiously, the widespread availability of technical drawings of this most famous of all Stradivari violins has led to some of the cheapest mass-produced violins, made in their hundreds of thousands. If you ever took lessons on the violin as a child, the likelihood is that you made your worst noises on something that derived directly from this instrument.
For visitors to the Ashmolean from now until the middle of August, the Messiah is displayed amongst twenty or so of the finest surviving examples of Antonio Stradivari's work. Eleven of these instruments are taken from the years 1709 (La Pucelle and the Viotti) to 1721 (The Lady Blunt) — Stradivari's golden period — and, for the first time since the Messiah came to the museum in 1939, it has become possible to view the violin amongst its peers. Like a painter, Stradivari always began with a fresh canvas, and his genius sits in his need to constantly innovate and improve.
When the exhibition comes to an end, the Messiah will return to it's normal place in the museum. While most of the other Stradivari violins are played, either routinely or from time to time at special moments, the Messiah will remain behind glass according to the moratorium on playing that has existed since it was rushed to Oxford on the eve of World War Two in 1939. Even access for violin makers and experts is severely limited.
Every time an instrument is played it risks damage, routine maintenance by the wrong restorer also comes with its perils, and just the act of handling a violin of this quality involves the possibility it could be put down on a hard surface, knocked or dropped. But then, other instruments have been swept out to sea and have been recovered and rebuilt without losing their magic. Napoleon's spur marks famously disfigure the 'Duport' cello, whilst one foolhardy British officer brought his Stradivari to the battle of Waterloo. It survived; he didn't. Closer to home, the 18th century artist, John Malchair ceased playing in the Oxford orchestras after unruly undergraduates in the Holywell Music Room threw an orange that smashed his Cremona violin.
The Messiah has always aroused a public response from the contradiction of not being played. It is, after all, an object made to create music, and heralded as the very finest that survives. To a point, displaying it without any hope of experiencing what it sounds like is tantamount to putting the Mona Lisa in a box.
Endless arguments can be made in support of keeping it in the way that the bequest dictates. The damage and wear caused by playing during its small period in private ownership; that Stradivari himself preserved it, and it remained in his family for generations after his death; that we know precisely how it sounds because of the numbers of similar violins by Stradivari that are played regularly by soloists around the world; or finally that it has provided the benchmark for violin making and provides the purest and most direct insights into Stradivari's intellectual processes, proven by the very successful copies that have been made, and allowing future generations a unique opportunity to understand his work in the best possible light.
All these arguments have merits. Having examined something like two-hundred Strads, roughly a third of all that exist, my own opinion firmly favours preservation — but not without considerable sympathy to those who would like to hear it played. I have seen Strads in other museums around the globe that would make phenomenal soloist violins, but as museum objects are just another violin without any overwhelming merits to favour being taken out of musical circulation. I have visited Strads, unplayed in bank vaults, used as financial rather than musical instruments and others that have been played privately by rich amateurs, loaned to a musician who is persuasive on paper but might not be amongst the appropriate rank of performers, making a nonsense of their coveted soloistic properties. I lose count of the number of phenomenal violinists who are deprived of access to the best tool of their trade because of the numbers that are out of circulation for the wrong reasons.
The Messiah is the very best of the best, but it is also the most public and therefore the most vulnerable to the idea that it should be played. Those who feel frustration towards its predicament are likely to be unaware of the dozens of instruments for which a more urgent debate is required. When — but only when — those debates have finally all been satisfied, I for one will have open ears on the future of the Messiah.
Benjamin Hebbert (St Cross College, 2002) is a violin consultant and expert based in London. He will be lecturing on Stradivari at the Ashmolean Museum on 11 September.
The Stradivarius exhibition is open at the Ashmolean Museum until 11 August. Entrance costs £6, or £4 for concessions.