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5 Historic Violins with Stories To Tell

By Anya Wassenberg on August 29, 2022

Bronislaw Huberman

Violinist Bronislaw Huberman, aged 18.

Historically, the violin has emerged as an instrument with a legendary mystique. There are supernatural stories about ghostly violins and deals made with Beelzebub to play like a virtuoso.

But, when it comes to the violin, there’s no need to add the otherworldly dimension to the mix. From the storied ateliers of Antonio Stradivarius and others in the 18th century, venerable violins have endured wars, revolutions, and much more to continue to bring joy to audiences to the present day.

Here are five violins who’ve seen their share of ups and downs over the centuries.

The Red Violin

The Red Violin, an instrument whose story is fictionalized in the movie of the same name, is also known as the 1720 Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius. It was crafted by Antonio in Italy in 1720, and its colour, a burgundy red, is simply due to the varnish Stradivarius used on it. From that point, nothing is known about its history for about two centuries. It turns up mysteriously in Germany in a photograph dated 1928, where it is in the possession of Lilli von Mendelssohn, the great-granddaughter of the composer Felix Mendelssohn. It was later sold in 1945 to an American business tycoon, and was put up for sale at an auction in 1990. There, it was purchased for violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn, who has been playing violin since age 3, by her grandfather when she turned 16 for $1.7 million. Pitcairn is one of the soloists who performed in the movie’s soundtrack.

The Titanic Violin

When the RMS Titanic sank into the North Atlantic during its maiden voyage in April 1912, it created a legend as the tragedy unfolded. Part of that legend is that the band played on to keep people’s spirits up as the giant liner sank after its collision with an iceberg, and according to many accounts, that’s true. Maria Robinson gave the instrument to her fiancé Wallace Hartley as an engagement present, and there’s an inscription on the tailpiece that reads, “For Wallace, on the occasion of our engagement, from Maria”. The instrument was constructed in 1910 in Germany. Hartley was a musician who had played around the city of Leeds, which is likely where he met Maria. He had previously worked as a musician on the RMS Mauretania. He became the bandleader on the Titanic and was set to return to get married in June. Hartley’s was one of only three of the musician’s bodies that were recovered. The violin was discovered in a satchel marked with his initials and returned to Maria. When she died, her sister gave the violin to the Salvation Army, where it was passed on to a violin teacher. After another owner or two, it was rediscovered in an attic in the UK. Today, the violin is on display at the Titanic Museum in Tennessee.

The Lipinski Stradivarius

The Lipinski Stradivarius was crafted by the master builder in 1715 during his so-called golden period. Its first owner was virtuoso Giuseppe Tartini, who is said to have written his “Devil’s Trill” sonata for it. The violin was next owned by Karol Lipinski, who played it during a successful career from 1818 until 1861. From that point, it disappeared from record for about a century until it was sold to Richard Anschuetz, a pianist who bought it as a gift for his wife, Evi Liivak. The two performed together extensively, with Evi at the Strad, until the late 1980s. After disappearing from view until 2008, the violin was loaned to Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, by an anonymous donor. After a concert in Wisconsin in 2014, Almond was attacked in the parking lot by an armed robber who had clearly studied his movements and routine for some time. Police found the case several hours later, and a $100,000 reward was offered for information. Within a week, three people are arrested in Milwaukee. The violin was recovered a few days later, and returned to Almond’s care.

1734 Hercules Stradivarius

Antonio Stradivarius crafted the Hercules violin in 1734 in Cremona. Its first recorded owner is listed as Josef Séméladis, and then it later passed through a series of collectors until 1895, when it found its way to virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe. Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, (born 1858) also owned a Guarneri. He’d often leave the Stradivarius in its case while he played the Guarneri on stage. It was stolen from the green room at the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg in 1908 during a performance. Mysteriously, it turned up in Paris years later in 1925. It was bought for Alsatian violinist (and later conductor) Carl Münch, who was then concertmaster at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, by his wife. Polish violinist Henryk Szeryng borrowed the Hercules from Münch, and later bought it in 1962 for $40,000. In 1972, he donated it to the City of Jerusalem. It is now played by the concertmaster of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

1713 Gibson ex-Huberman Stradivarius

Crafted in 1713, its first recorded owner was Hippolyte C. Silvestre — a fellow instrument maker, in the 19th century. A series of collectors subsequently owned it until Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman acquired it in 1911. The instrument was stolen not once but twice from Huberman. First, it vanished from his hotel room in Vienna in 1919 and anonymously returned a few days later. In 1936, it went missing a second time from his dressing room while he was performing on another violin. This second time, it was lost for nearly 50 years. On his deathbed, a musician named Julian Altman confessed to buying the stolen violin for a mere $100. His widow turned it in to Lloyd’s auction house, where she collected a $263,000 finder’s fee. It was sold to English violinist Norbert Brainin. Today, it’s used by US violinist Joshua Bell, who first saw it on a chance visit to a violin store just before a performance. A cool $3.5 million later, and the instrument was in his hands. “It usually takes at least a month to get used to a violin. But I was so enamoured I just said, ‘I’m playing it tonight!’” he said in a 2018 interview. “And I’ve had it ever since.”

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