Reflections on Cremona

Snapshots from the Italian city where Monteverdi was born and Stradivari created his legendary violins

Reflections on Cremona

A couple of weekends ago I went to Cremona, the small Italian city that’s the world’s historic heart of violin-making. I’ll be writing a feature on the city and its blossoming Stradivari Festival in an upcoming issue of BBC Music Magazine, but in the meantime here are a few assorted thoughts and impressions…


There’s a scene in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when the young wizard goes to Mr Ollivander’s shop to buy his first magic wand. Harry tries several, but none of them feels quite right. Until he finds one, made of just the right wood and with just the right phoenix tail feather core. It’s meant to be. Wandering around Cremona this weekend, this image came back to me. Here, in the city where back in the 18th century Antonio Stradivari made the legendary instruments that still sell for millions today, there’s an aura of musical magic. Around every corner, or so it seems, is a luthier's shop – a specialist violin maker's shop. Music sings out of open doors as prospective buyers try out instruments – I hear Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and Bach’s D minor Partita. I wonder if there’s that same moment of alchemy when there’s a perfect match between performer and instrument. It’s a small detail, but I liked the way the Stradivari Festival’s concert programmes listed the instrument being played alongside the performer’s name.


Another small but interesting detail that caught my eye at Cremona’s new Museo del Violino was that the word ‘viola’ may well come from the Latin ‘vidua’ meaning ‘widow’. It seems apt. The viola has a yearning, melancholic quality to its tone, not as bright as a violin nor quite as resonant or open as a cello. Britten chose this instrument for his Lachrymae, Hindemith for his Trauermusik. But it’s not an etymological derivation I’ve seen anywhere else. Dictionaries suggest that ‘viola’ comes from the same place as ‘violin’ or ‘viol’ – that is the Latin ‘vitulor’ meaning ‘to be joyful’. But I rather like this alternative history. Can anyone shed any light on it?


It isn’t all violins in Cremona. I popped into Mondomusica, which bills itself as the ‘No. 1 exhibition in the world for handcrafted musical instruments’. Held in a large exhibition hall on the edges of Cremona, the fair presents an overwhelming array of violins old and new, everything you need to make a violin from the finest wood to the all-important varnish, and that’s not to mention all the other bits and pieces like cases, shoulder rests and sheet music. But before reaching this string player’s treasure trove visitors went through what I can only describe as both a pianist’s heaven and a pianist’s hell – Cremona Pianoforte. The hall was filled with pianos of all shapes and sizes, and the brilliant thing was you could just wander up and have a play on a Bechstein or a Fazioli or a Steinway or a Steinbach or a Kawai or a Yamaha… I could go on. But stop to think what that might sound like: the sound of, I’d guess, at least 50 pianos being played at once. A cacophonous Chopin-Liszt-Beethoven-Bach mash-up echoing in a large concrete hall. It had to be heard to be believed.


Photo: Rebecca Franks




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  • Article Type: | Blog |
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