The ‘Hellier’ Stradivarius violin, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1679, is an extremely rare and important example of Stradivari’s work. This magnificent fully-inlaid example is one of the finest Stradivarius instruments in existence.
Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) is the most famous and revered Italian luthier, whose approximately 500 surviving violins are widely regarded as the finest and most valuable ever made, with previous sales fetching in excess of US$15 million. Stradivari’s supreme level of craftsmanship coupled with his inexhaustible artistic creativity resulted in instruments to which all subsequent luthiers have aspired, and which have been sought after by the leading musicians of each generation.
Due to being unable to locate Stradivari’s birth certificate, there remains a legendary mystery surrounding Stradivari’s precise birth date. It is generally accepted that he was born about 1644 in or near Cremona, and we have census records pertaining to him and his family living in Cremona at the Casa del Francesco Pescaroli, a carpenter, from 1671.1 By this year, Stradivari had been making violins for around seven years, suggesting that he had previously trained and worked with Pescaroli as a woodcarver and inlayer. Here exists another enigma surrounding Antonio: whether the great Cremonese luthier Nicolò Amati housed Stradivari as his apprentice. We know from parish records of the time, as well as from the practice of pupils to mention Amati on their labels,2 that other famed luthiers including G. B. Rogeri, Francesco Ruggeri, and Andrea Guarneri lived and worked with Amati. Unfortunately the proof that Stradivari did not live or learn with Amati obtained via the painstaking research carried out by Carlo Bonetti, Agostino Cavalcabò, and Ugo Gualazzini’s into Stradivari’s records in the 1930s is now lost,3 along with contrary documents of labels seen by both Cremonese biographer Lancetti of a 1666 Stradivari label stating ‘Alumnus Nicolai Amati’4 and M. Chanot-Chardon, as well as the well-known Parisian luthier recalling seeing an autograph Stradivari label stating ‘Made at the age of thirteen, in the workshop of Nicolo Amati’.5
Whether Stradivari lived with Amati, worked under his guidance, helped him finish his latest instruments (1665-70), or was simply influenced by coming into regular contact with his instruments in Cremona, Amati’s style is of clear influence to Antonio in his Amatisé phase in particular. This was the first of the four stages into which Stradivari’s oeuvres are often divided, and given that documentary evidence concerning Stradivari is rather patchy and unclear, looking at his instruments perhaps gives us a better idea of his place in Cremonese violin-making.
The periods are laid out below, along with details concerning how Stradivari’s work and style evolved over time as he continually experimented and strived for his artistic ideal.
1660-1690: Amatisé period
Sadly only a few instruments made between 1665 and 1670 have survived. They are experimental, showing Stradivari’s quest for perfection in exploring different making styles which alternate between showing Amati’s influence and something of Francesco Ruggeri. His making in this period had a particular delicacy to its design, and the quality suggests that Stradivari must have also been making instruments prior to this time, which are unfortunately not known to us.
From 1670 forward, Stradivari worked to develop his purfling, corners, and arching, becoming generally more consistent in his methods. The many similarities to Amati’s output include his particularly controlled and fine workmanship, very black purfling, and similarities in outline and arching. In fact, the purfling was a perfect match in terms of proportion and composition to that used in Amati’s workshop at the same time, and the ground and varnish of the highest quality.
Distinguishing features from Amati include the outline, f holes, scroll and its chamfers, which are bolder, stronger and generally more masculine in stance. Stradivari began to make a feature of the bee-stings from the 1670s on by extending them and taking the black material of the purfling further into the corners deviating them from their centre, which is something Niccolò Amati did not feature as a developed characteristic in his work. One of his pupils, Andrea Guarneri, though, did it to some extent.
The late 1680s saw Stradivari’s work grow bolder and more robust in appearance and construction, and it increasingly departed from the curved outline of the earlier rounded model. Compared with a typical grand pattern Amati, the outline of Stradivari’s instrument is already much squarer in the bouts, his corners are more turned in and slightly bolder, and the breast is a touch wider, which can be seen in the Aranyi Stradivari of 1667. However, the 1669 ‘Tullaye’ Stradivari seems to be much closer to Amati’s work in terms of outline and f-holes. The f-wings are more parallel on the ‘Aranyi’, whereas the ‘Tullaye’s wings are more pointed, and the c-bouts more rounded. It is clear from Stradivari’s early work that he was aiming to capture the beauty and perfection that is to be observed in Nicolò Amati’s handiwork. It is also interesting to note that the wood used for the ‘Tullaye’ would, at that time, have been regarded as low-grade wood, which implies that the young Stradivari did not have a lot of money at his disposal, or that he was not yet paid handsomely yet for his work. This Amatisé period can thus be summed up as one of much experimentation, as Stradivari was clearly keen to develop his individual voice and pursue his own artistic truth.
By the 1680s, Antonio’s reputation was gaining momentum locally and worldwide, to include a commission of a set of instruments from King James II of England. Presumably aided by the death of Amati two years previously, his production noticeably increases from 1684 onwards, inheriting from Amati the position of the new Cremonese violin master. He began to favour violins with increased dimensions rather than alternating between Amati’s smaller form models and the ‘grand’ Amati pattern.
1690-1700: Long Pattern period
The Long Pattern period of Stradivarius continued in an experimental vein. The bodies of the violins were up to 12 mm longer than other Cremonese violins up to that time, an indication that Stradivari had been inspired by the Brescian makers Giovanni Paolo Maggini and Gasparo ‘da Salò’. The widths of the instruments however, were more consistent with that of the shorter Amatisé form. Until now Stradivari’s violins had proved to be more powerful than the average Amati instrument, which may explain why he adopted a model clearly inspired by the Brescian makers, in order to try to mimic their darker and more powerful sound.
This period is marked by a heightened level of workmanship and choice of material, along with a most admirable drive for beauty. Stradivari introduced his intense varnish at this time, and the purfling’s lines are incredibly beautiful, with the corner mitre on some violins much extended, petering out al niente. A more substantial volute and wider chamfer from that of the Amati models, it seems that Stradivari was aiming toward more of an ammonite volute rather than the prevalent oval type. Antonio chose extremely fine-grained spruce for the tables of his Long Pattern Period instruments—a decision he consciously dismissed later on, preferring instead to use slightly wider grained wood for the soft depth of sound it allowed.
Stradivari’s experiments with the long pattern model, which he eventually dismissed, helped to illustrate how a different kind of arching—one that was generally fuller with a narrower channel—might work. This elegant arrival to considerably shorter channels moved the deepest point of the channel from well inside the purfling almost to the purfling’s inner edge. The arching’s shape rendered the plate less flexible, which enhanced the plate’s strength, giving it more resistance and thereby allowing a musician to play more deeply into the string to create a sound with a stronger core.
Interestingly Stradivari dismissed the Long Pattern for about one year between 1698 and 1699, when he decided to experiment with the Amatisé model. He changed the varnish to a more red-orange colour and improved the archings slightly from previous years, before using the Long Pattern again for the last year of the century. This demonstrates his industriousness and his indefatigable search for perfection. By the turn of the century, Stradivari must have realised that the extra length was not necessary, and that simply widening the outline by a few millimetres would increase the instrument’s volume and lend it the sonorous soprano voice. Having discovered this, he could now revert to the more established Cremonese standard violin length.
1700-1722: Golden period
By 1700 it is generally considered that Stradivari had reached the peak of his career, where many of his instruments display the finest balance of materials, proportions and varnish. This standard can be found in examples from the 1690s also, and any stylistic changes which are categorised into these four stages are of course truly gradual. It is perhaps most accurate to say that 1699 marks the last of the Long Pattern instruments.
The early Golden Period instruments have extremely fine, long, elegant corners that are slightly rounder and more curved than those made according to the Long Pattern. They have a beautiful warm golden ground and richly coloured varnish which is often difficult to see today as it has been worn away by use and time. Despite this Golden Period beginning with more experimentation, 1710 marks the most prolific phase of Stradivari’s career, where we find him very confident in his style, settling into a more relaxed and mature idiom.
From 1704 onwards, the proportions of the purfling change, with the white segment gaining in width in relation to the black. In 1706, the arching is still less full than it would become a few years later, and the corners still bear the elongated elegance of earlier times. By 1708, one can see a fuller arching which over the next ten years would continue to be less scooped out at the channel.
By 1710, Stradivari had reached a point where he was happy with his arching developments, and from that point forward he remained consistent in the way he arched his violins. Full and strong arching defines this period. At the same time, the corners gradually become shorter, as do the mitres of the purfling. From 1711 on, the wood chosen for the tables generally displays a slightly wider grain. The f-holes flow beautifully throughout this period, while in the early 1720s, the wing area of the f-holes becomes slightly more angular, which can either be read as a sign of Stradivari’s advancing age, or of increasing collaboration with his sons.
The Golden Period instruments manage to combine masculinity with elegance, the overall impression is squarer than the earlier work, but is possessed of remarkable grace in the edges and corners.
1722-1737: Late period
From around 1722, one can see a slow and gentle decline in the consistency of the precision of Stradivari’s workmanship and in the beauty of the wood he used. Although the wood was less pleasing in an aesthetic sense, its acoustic properties were as outstanding as ever. Stradivari was by this time well over 70 years old, and his sons—particularly Francesco, as Omobono was absent for a number of years—had more involvement in the workshop’s output.
Some of the work done during the late period is less precise in detail, and the edgework in particular is visibly bolder. More tool marks can be seen, especially in the channel around the purfling, and the arching widens almost to the point of becoming square, which produces a darker tone in the instrument. As less care was given to the construction, more asymmetrical features appear on the instruments. the purfling also changes, with more variety in the thickness of its components, and it is often set further in from the edge, which lends the edgework a bolder and more robust appearance. There are many examples which show Stradivari’s sons’ handiwork, which naturally implies a greater involvement on their part than in previous years.
It is harder to generalise the quality of this period and it is the case that each example needs observing closely for its merits. One needs to distinguish between the instruments entirely made by Antonio himself and those made with the strong involvement of his sons Francesco and Omobono. While the best examples from this period, particularly those made entirely by Antonio himself, are as attractive as the best Golden Period examples, the output at the hands of his sons typically show choices of lesser flamed wood and other idiosyncratic details. Despite this, however, the acoustic properties remain superb and are more and more the new favourite of today’s soloists.
Summary of Periods
The different periods in both Stradivari’s life and making are influenced both by circumstances and people. Amati stands out as a particularly strong influence, both in his life and death. All the instruments Stradivari made before 1684, were during Amati’s lifetime, and his influence on Stradivari’s making style is plain to see. However, Amati’s death also had a part to place in Stradivari’s role as a maker. After the death of a maker who inspired him so much, Stradivari’s output in fact increased, as he became the leading Cremonese luthier, encouraged by healthy competition by being around other genius Cremonese luthiers all fighting for the title.
As we go through the periods of Stradivari’s life and arrive in his ‘late period’ it is important to remember that Stradivari’s so-called decline is entirely relative, and even his latest works are made to the highest standard and are far superior to any other violins ever made.
As it is important to remember these things are relative, it is also wise to remember that these periods are laterally enforced by those studying Stradivari’s work, rather than something which would have been conscious in his working at the time.'
How does this inform our appreciation of the “Hellier'?
With this in mind, we can look at the 'Hellier' in a particular light – not just as an instrument of the Amatisé period, but also as evidence of a style of an expert craftsman who’s making style was ever evolving.
As the Hill family wisely state in their book,6 ‘We cannot better illustrate Stradivari’s earlier experiments than by discussing the 'Hellier' violin previously mentioned. Made in 1679, it is one of the few inlaid violins. Regarding dimensions, it differs from any other violin seen by us dated before 1684-5; these proportions were, in fact, never at any later period exceeded. Thus, we see that Stradivari was already contemplating that change of proportions to which he was more generally to give effect after 1685. The perfect symmetry of the head, and the position and admirable design and cutting of the f holes, are also in advance of any of his contemporaneous work known to us. On the other hand, the model, heavy edge, and small purfling are thoroughly characteristic of his early work, and the whole presents a heaviness and solidity of construction such as we may venture to say borders on clumsiness. We may here incidentally remark that this violin shows that Stradivari occasionally enjoyed rich patronage previous to 1680, for he received no ordinary remuneration for the making of such an instrument.’
Made toward the beginning of Stradivari’s career, the 1679 ‘Hellier’ Stradivarius was the first of his violins to evolve significantly from the strict Amatisé proportions, scaled up in a fashion that would form the blueprint for future violin models. Proportions that were not subsequently surpassed, it was an evolution that augmented the tone, and would have a profound effect on several centuries of music and future generations of violin makers. From the superior choice of wood, to the exquisite ivory inlays, the ‘Hellier’ is ingenious in conception, and meticulous in execution. Stradivari’s 1679 ‘Hellier’ is an interesting violin for a huge variety of reasons. Aside from the incredible inlay work—which the surviving drawings made in Antonio’s hand suggest he did himself—the varnish technique he employs shows his first real attempt to improve on the method Amati had developed. The incredibly fine work on the scroll, the increased volume of the violin, and the beautiful f-holes all attest to Stradivari advancing existing practices.
Amati’s influence can be seen in the head’s perfectly symmetrical proportions, the sweeping gracefulness of the pegbox, and the scroll’s small and deeply turned volutions. However, there is an overall bolder momentum to the outline of this violin, and the position and design of the f holes surpass any instrument that came before. The rich, intensely orange-yellow varnish atop a thin almost transparent golden ground layer also demonstrate some deviation from Stradivari’s ‘Amatisé’ style.
Between the two rows of purfling, the ‘Hellier’ features a procession of nearly 500 precious gems. Beginning at the corners, carefully sculpted ivory circles chassé alternately with delicately engraved ivory diamonds, displaying Stradivari’s extraordinary skill in free-hand inlaying. This is complimented by the ornately florid silhouettes of flowers and vines etched into the wood and filled in with an ebony mastic, which creep their way around the ribs of the violin and the pegbox. Carvery of such elegance and expertise are reasons why Arnaldo Baruzzi, believes it possible that Stradivari in fact collaborated with the woodcarver and inlayer Francesco Pescaroli, after whom his residence was named. The art of decorating instruments in such a way may have its roots in plucked string instruments such as lutes. The designs were first drawn on paper before being transposed to the wood, and Stradivari’s original drawings and tools can be seen at the Museo del Violino in Cremona. Of the roughly 1,100 instruments Stradivari made over the course of his career, only around a dozen are embellished with decoration, and this specimen is regarded by the Smithsonian curators as the best-preserved extant example.7
The “Hellier”, as with all of Stradivari’s instruments, sits in the context of all his instruments, and as part of the rich history of Stradivari’s legacy which continues to this day.
So renowned was Stradivari, and so desired are his instruments that his instruments, and particularly the very rare decorated instruments, have been precious family heirlooms to the major courts, Earls, Dukes and Royal households of Europe. Arguably most notable of the Italian families is the Medici family of Florence whose dedication to fine art led them to commission instruments from Stradivari, but in particular a complete quartet, which exist today in an almost untouched state of preservation. Not only noble families, but indeed many royal families of Europe have been in possession of Stradivarius instruments with the 1708 ‘Empress Caterina of Russia’, which was owned by Catherine the Great, Tsarina of Russia during the late 1700s. Other examples of note include the Early of Plymouth, the Duke of Cambridge, the Duke of Marlborough, Royal Palace of Madrid and King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
Most of the great soloists in history favoured Stradivaris, and so many of the great names used Stradivaris. Niccolò Paganini, one of the greatest violinists of all time, owned and played on a selection of the finest violins ever made. Amongst these, Niccolò had a number of Stradivari violins that ranged the whole creative output of Stradivari. These include the Paganini-Desaint 1680, Le Brun 1712, Hubay 1726 and the Paganini, Comte Cozio di Salabue 1727. The Soil 1714 Stradivarius is widely considered one of the finest Golden Period violins and was acquired by Yehudi Menuhin in 1950, which was subsequently sold to Itzhak Perlman in 1986. André Rieu famously purchased his 1667 Stradivarius the ‘Captain Saville’, which he purchased and performs almost exclusively on.
Other famous musicians include those such as Joseph Joachim, Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, Jacqueline du Pré, etc. Of the living soloists that use them are Anne-Sophie Mutter, Leonidas Kavakos, Maxim Vengerov, Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis, Yo Yo Ma.
Stradivarius violins have appeared in many instances of popular culture from video games to movies, for example, the 1720 ‘Red Mendelssohn’, which is thought to have been the inspiration behind the 1998 Academy Award-Winning film ‘The Red Violin’.
Instruments made by Antonio Stradivari have been used in most major performances in history, including the premiers of many of the great, famous, repertoire, which we still hear today. 1919 was the year that saw the premiere of the violin concerto by Sir Edward Elgar, an undisputed masterpiece that was performed by Fritz Kreisler on the 1741 ‘Ex-Kreisler’ Stradivarius. The most important and virtuosic string players in history have often been found playing prized Stradivarius instruments. It is to this end that in more recently history Stradivarius violins have been used by top instrumentalists in popular film scores. Itzhak Perlman famously owned the 1714 ‘Soil’ violin on which one can hear the theme from Schindler’s List – arguably one of the most famous, and beautiful, violin themes in any film score.
Another example is the 1714 ‘da Vinci’ Strad, now known as the ‘Ex-Seidel’, which played the 1939 score for The Wizard of Oz soundtrack.
Sir Samuel Hellier
The 'Hellier' violin is significant in other ways – it is recorded in an manuscript inventory of musical instruments made by the mid 18th century owner Sir Samuel Hellier (1736-1784), after whom the violin is named. It was almost certainly inherited from his uncle John Hellier, a London merchant, who very unusually made a specific bequest in his will of two violins; (PROB 11⁄569/187, folio 1) 'unto my loving nephew Samuel Hellier son of my Brother Samuel Hellier...my two Cremona violins and the case wherein they now are'. It is not insignificant that when Samuel came to describe his violins in his inventory he noted that of the four violins he owned the two foreign examples were also stored together; 'Two Violins in a Mahogony [sic.] Case. Foreign / [one by Nicolas Amatus Cremonem:- 1646. / Antonius Stradiuarius [sic.] 1679.].
Samuel Hellier inherited the family estates at the age of fourteen on being orphaned. One of his three guardians was the Dean of Exeter College, Oxford, Charles Lyttleton, who ensured the young Samuel entered the college in 1753. Samuel had inherited a passion for music from his father, together with his musical instruments and his collection of music. He played the violin and the harpsicord and on returning home to his family estate, having graduated in 1758, Samuel continued to add to the collection of both instruments and music, until he had a complete Handelian orchestra, recruiting his tenants and workers as musicians. The majority of this collection survived into the 20th century, together with an almost unmatched collection of printed music and related archives, now in the Barber Institute, Birmingham. The instruments are on loan to the Edinburgh University Collection of Historical Musical Instruments. Much has been written about Sir Samuel's collections, most notably in Caroline Frew and Arnold Myers's article 'Sir Samuel Hellier's 'Musicall Instruments'', published in the Galpin Society Journal in 2003. There they discuss in great detail the provenance of the instruments, addressing the question of the violin's early history.
The early literature relating to the 'Hellier' violin suggests Sir Samuel bought it in 1734 for £40 from Stradivarius, recorded in a now lost document, however, he was not born until 1736. His father, also Samuel, could have been the purchaser as he died in 1751, although his will makes no reference to musical instruments, which may have just formed part of his chattels which passed to his son with the general contents of his house. The coincidence of Sir Samuel's great uncle's bequest of his 'Cremona violins' to his father Samuel (d.1751) seems too great for one of them not have been the 'Hellier' Stradivarius. The earliest reference to a receipt from Stradvarius for the violin appears to date from the 1870s or 80s after Colonel Shaw-Hellier, a descendant of the Reverend Thomas Shaw-Hellier, Sir Samuel's heir, had sold the violin to the Manchester instrument dealer George Crompton. The instrument was bought by the Brighton based ophthalmic surgeon and violin collector Dr. Charles Oldham. He wrote to Colonel Shaw-Hellier, as recorded in his notebook which survives in the Shaw-Hellier archive, cited by Frew and Myers, op. cit., p. 21., asking to buy the invoice. Colonel wrote that he 'knew nothing of such a receipt'. The legend has persisted perhaps based on the reference to it in A. J. Hipkins and W. Gibb, op. cit. 1888, pp. 59-60.
1. Arnaldo Baruzzi. 1962. La Casa Nuziale: The Home of Antonio Stradivari, 1667-1680. London: W.E. Hill, p. 25
2. Hill, W. H., Hill, A. F., & Hill, A. E. (1963). Chapter 2. In Antonio Stradivari: His life and work, essay, Dover, p. 25.
3. Ro¨hrmann Jan, Jost Tho¨ne, and Florian Leonhard (Preface). 2010. Antonius Stradivarius. 1, Antonius Stradivarius. 1st ed. Ko¨ln: Tho¨ne.
4. Hill, W. H., Hill, A. F., & Hill, A. E. (1963). Chapter 2. In Antonio Stradivari: His life and work, essay, Dover, p. 26.
5. Hill, W. H., Hill, A. F., & Hill, A. E. (1963). Chapter 2. In Antonio Stradivari: His life and work, essay, Dover, p. 26.
6. Hill, W. H., Hill, A. F., & Hill, A. E. (1963). Chapter 2. In Antonio Stradivari: His life and work, essay, Dover, p. 26.