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Rare Violins Play Starring Role in Concert

Stradivari honored at Library of Congress

In the 1930s, Gertrude Clarke Whittall donated five stringed instruments, made by famed Cremonese master craftsman Antonio Stradivari, to the Library of Congress.
In the 1930s, Gertrude Clarke Whittall donated five stringed instruments, made by famed Cremonese master craftsman Antonio Stradivari, to the Library of Congress.

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Stradivarius instruments, especially Stradivarius violins, are known the world over for their exquisite beauty, unparalleled craftsmanship and extraordinary sound.

Six of the rare instruments are owned by the Library of Congress. Four of them were the star attractions at a recent concert honoring their creator, Antonio Stradivari.

Every December, the Library of Congress presents a special concert featuring rare stringed instruments from its famed musical collection. The concert marks the anniversary of Stradivari's death.

A print of master violin maker Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) examining an instrument.
A print of master violin maker Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) examining an instrument.

Borromeo String Quartet

This year's concert was performed by the Borromeo String Quartet, which played Franz Schubert’s Quartet no. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden,” with four Stradivarius instruments; two violins, a viola and a cello.

Schubert’s Quartet was one of three compositions played with instruments from the library’s unique music collection, which includes six Stradivarius instruments.

Ann McLean, senior concert producer at the Library of Congress, chose Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" because she wanted "something beautiful to show off the rich, rare sound of the instruments."

“And ‘Death and the Maiden,’" she says, "is just universally beloved.”

This year’s event also included Ludwig van Beethoven's Sonata no. 7 in C minor, which was performed on another precious stringed instrument in the library’s collection, a Giuseppe Guarneri violin. It was played by the Borromeo Quartet’s first violinist Nicholas Kitchen, and pianist Seymour Lipkin.

Instrument collection

The Library of Congress instrument collection began in 1935 when five Stradivarius instruments were donated by Gertrude Clarke Whittall.

Since then, the library's music division has acquired five additional rare stringed instruments, including a sixth Stradivarius, through donations. Those classic instruments are perfectly suited to modern compositions as well.

The Borromeo String Quartet rehearses before performing a Library of Congress concert honoring Antonio Stradivari.
The Borromeo String Quartet rehearses before performing a Library of Congress concert honoring Antonio Stradivari.

The memorial concert also featured Quartet no. 4 by composer, conductor and jazz historian, Gunther Schuller. The renowned composer says he doesn't think about what the Stradivarius instruments do for him or his composition as much as what it means to the performers.

"Not everyone can hear the distinction between a Stradivari and another instrument, maybe a lesser-made violin, because those are very subtle differences. But, of course, the musicians really can feel that instantly.”

Schuller often marvels at the craftsmanship that went into the creation of the iconic instruments.

“There is this mystery that we still don’t quite know how Stradivarius and Guarneri and some of the other great violin makers did that. We’ve been researching that for, well, several hundred years now. And it’s all here in this wonderful Library of Congress.”

The library plans to continue its yearly tradition of honoring both Stradivari and its generous benefactor, Clarke Whittall, with these special, commemorative concerts.

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