The Vieuxtemps Guarneri is a 1741 instrument that recently found a new home with premier violinist Anne Akiko Meyers. The new, unnamed owner of the instrument worked out a deal with Meyers whereby it is on loan to her for the rest of the musician’s life – one of the conditions on which she made the arrangement. She did not want to become attached to the instrument then to see it sold or loaned to another player. Meyers is no stranger to instruments of value – she has two Stradivari pieces, and has been playing instruments of the highest caliber since she was 11 years old.
The Vieuxtemps is the most expensive violin in the world; its owner recently paid 16 million dollars for it at auction. It had languished under the bed of its former owner in London for 50 years, so it has not been played or heard in all of that time, since no recordings of it were extant until the one Meyers just released – she chose Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for the Vieuxtemps’ recording debut.
Guarneri was a luthier in the Cremona region of Italy, active during what I’ve come to think of as the golden age of violin making, when the “big three” Italian makers – Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari – were all working. There are a good number of violins from these makers that are over even 300 years old, so the Vieuxtemps’ age is significant, yes, but its extraordinary value is due to other qualities of the instrument. Meyers cited the “color” she is capable of producing on it, and its ability to fill a concert hall with sound is also legendary.
Of course the story of a violin is also where it gets a lot of its value – Vieuxtemps was a 19th century Belgian violinist of great renown – he famously wanted to be buried with the Guarneri. Instead, it was carried by another famous performer at the time on a pillow behind the hearse that carried Vieuxtemps to his final resting place.
Another factor that makes this instrument unusual is its original condition – many instruments from that time were eventually opened up and had some of the wood scraped away from their tops – the idea was that the presence of too much wood in those older instruments, compared with newer fabrication techniques, inhibited tonal production. Meyers says the opposite is actually true, and the Vieuxtemps still has all of its wood.
Meyers says, “Every violin has its own soul imprinted by a previous owner,” and cited feeling Fritz Kreisler’s fat, buttery fingers on an instrument she had the privilege of playing at the Smithsonian one time as an example of what she means. I trust that one day the next steward of the Vieuxtemps will say the same thing about Anne Akiko Meyers, sans fat fingers, of course!
The information in this post came via a friend who knows of my passion for the violin, from an NPR segment that aired March 7.
Thanks for reading.
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