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Digital Subscriptions > The Strad > July 2019 > Curiouser and curiouser

Curiouser and curiouser

Was the 1672 ‘Mahler’ the irst viola ever made by Antonio Stradivari? As Jonathan Marolle explains, this is just one of the unanswerable questions that arise when studying this fascinating instrument
PHOTOS JAN RÖHRMANN

In many ways, the year 1672 was remarkable: it marked the birth of Peter the Great, future tsar and emperor of all the Russias, and the death oftheinrich Schütz, a major igure in German Baroque music; and the six-year Franco-Dutch War began in earnest, with the forces of Louis XIV occupying the city of Utrecht. Many more seismic events took place within the span of these twelve months, but one in particular – seemingly innocuous to the casual observer – would prove momentous for lovers of stringed musical instruments. For in Casa Pescaroli, in the parish of Sant’Agata, Cremona, a young luthier built what appears to have been his irst viola. Even for the 28-year-old Antonio Stradivari the instrument, now known as the ‘Gustav Mahler’ viola, is extraordinary.

Of all the surviving instruments from Stradivari’s workshop, only ten are violas. Didthe make more? Very probably: in fact, in his letters there are orders for violas that have now sadly disappeared. And didthe ever make a viola prior to the ‘Mahler’ in 1672? It is impossible to give a deinitive answer, but close examination of this instrument provides a number of clues to suggest that it is indeed Stradivari’s ‘op.1’ viola.

At the end of the 17th century, the instrument we call the viola had not been clearly deined – neither had its place in the orchestra. Large tenor violas were common, such as the 1574 Andrea Amati (back length 469mm), the 1592 Brothers Amati (453mm) and the 1664 Andrea Guarneri (482mm), but so were contralto violas with smaller dimensions, such as the ‘Staufer’ Brothers Amati of 1615 (411mm) or the 1676 ‘Conte Vitale’ Andrea Guarneri (419mm). With a back length of 410mm, the ‘Mahler’ belongs to the contralto viola family, which eventually won out in popularity over its tenor counterpart (it is easier to play a 410mm viola than it is to play one of 460mm).

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About The Strad

Antoine Tamestit discusses his new recordings and we examine his viola, the 1672 ‘Gustav Mahler’ Stradivari. There’s a look at string teaching in Uganda and we have interviews with Sol Gabetta, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Gary Hoffman, Natalie Clein – and many more!