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Is the "Messiah" Too Thin ?


oliverb
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No, this is not a religious question, rather I am referring to the famous 1716 Stradivari violin in the Ashmolean museum at Oxford.

The Hills, in their 1891 monograph on this instrument, say that the thicknesses of its front and back "are of his [Stradivari's] stoutest".

Sacconi, in "The "Secrets" of Stradivari", indicates that the average thickness of Stradivari tables (away from the edges) is about 2.4mm, rising to about 2.7mm at the edges of the f-holes, with a small area about 3.2mm over the soundpost.

There is a Strad magazine poster of the Messiah, issued in March 2011 in conjunction with an article on the violin by John Dilworth, which includes a thickness chart. The thicknesses over much of the table, though varying somewhat, are not inconsistent with Sacconi's average of 2.4mm. However, in the central table area (between the f-holes}, four thicknesses are given which are significantly thinner - 2.0mm centrally just in front of the bridge, and three others a little further back, each at 2.1mm.  If this really is the Messiah's thickness all over the central table area, the violin is probably better off in a museum than having to stand up to the stresses of modern concert performance!

Interestingly, John Dilworth refers in his article to the fact that Count Cozio recorded having a large square patch inserted inside the Messiah (front or back not specified), apparently by Guadagnini, but Dilworth notes that it is no longer there. Here I offer two speculative suggestions: 1) that this patch was inserted to thicken the thin central area of the table but that a later repairer (Vuillaume or Hill?) removed it; 2) that when fitting the patch Guadagnini actually thinned the table slightly himself, so that the later removal of the patch left an an even thinner central table area. However, I emphasise that apparently we do not know where inside the violin the large square patch was fitted.

Do any of our resident experts have further thoughts on all this?

Incidentally, in his article Mr Dilworth seems to raise the possibility that Stradivari's reason for never selling the Messiah was not that it was too perfect to sell, but perhaps that it didn't quite meet Stradivari's own criteria for violins he did wish to sell!

 

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It's hard to imagine a violinmaker (who sells violins for a living) refusing to sell one because it's "too perfect"... when the next one is always more perfect.

It is impossible to say if the graduations are too thin without knowing how it actually performs.  Many Strads are seemingly way too thin (significant areas under 2 mm), but still they perform OK according to many people.

We also don't know what the Messiah wood density is.

Bottom line: we don't know.  Even if we did know the performance and wood density, there's a high likelihood that opinions would vary, and we still wouldn't know.

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I've also noticed a variety of different measurements from a variety of different sources. The technical drawings of the Messiah by John Pringle (1980 I believe) from the Ashmolean museum show the thickness at the bridge and along the centerline in this area to be 2.5mm, increasing to 2.75mm  below the bridge. It seems each source has a completely different set of measurements.

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2 hours ago, Mike Atkins said:

I've also noticed a variety of different measurements from a variety of different sources............It seems each source has a completely different set of measurements.

Wow!  Like what if it's been surreptitiously stolen, and replaced with a plausible copy multiple times over the centuries?  Gee, the original could be changing hands on eBay for a hundred bucks right now........  :huh:  :ph34r:  :lol:  outtahere.gif..gif.8cbd073b687255daa89f45cedeca2555.gif

More seriously, I feel that @Don Noon, as usual, is right.  :)

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7 minutes ago, Violadamore said:

Wow!  Like what if it's been surreptitiously stolen, and replaced with a plausible copy multiple times over the centuries?  Gee, the original could be changing hands on eBay for a hundred bucks right now........  :huh:  :ph34r:  :lol:  outtahere.gif..gif.8cbd073b687255daa89f45cedeca2555.gif

I'd pay a hundred bucks for the original Strad... Headed to eBay now!

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6 minutes ago, Violadamore said:

Look for one with a top too thick to be an "original Strad".  Why do you think Tony never sold it?  ;)

I was unable to find the original Messiah Strad on eBay, there was a violin shaped "Messiah" broach for $29, but I wasn't looking for a broach.

Edit: It may be spelled "brooch", I don't know about these things.

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1 hour ago, Violadamore said:

Look for one with a top too thick to be an "original Strad".  Why do you think Tony never sold it?  ;)

Not "it", "them".  There are millions of them.

But the real Messiah didn't get sold 'cuz it had big pitch pit patches and sounded like crap... one theory.

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I was privileged to attend the BVMA conference on this violin in 2017. I am not sure how much of the data has been published but World experts attended and the violin had been subjected to intense industrial quality CT scanning. From historical and evidence analysis talking to experts  my interpretation was that the violin had a sound post crack from new, was therefore not sold and remained in pristine condition because of that. Personally I don't find it a very inspiring example of the Stradivari workshop and there are obviously a lot of young hands at work under the instruction of the maker in it's making. It does exist as an example of what the new violins were aimed to look like and is valuable for that. Personally If I was to copy a Strad  I would aim for a proven working example. The letters attesting to the sound of the Messie are simply polite thank you notes ...Please don't take them too seriously.

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3 hours ago, Melvin Goldsmith said:

I was privileged to attend the BVMA conference on this violin in 2017. I am not sure how much of the data has been published but World experts attended and the violin had been subjected to intense industrial quality CT scanning. From historical and evidence analysis talking to experts  my interpretation was that the violin had a sound post crack from new, was therefore not sold and remained in pristine condition because of that. Personally I don't find it a very inspiring example of the Stradivari workshop and there are obviously a lot of young hands at work under the instruction of the maker in it's making. It does exist as an example of what the new violins were aimed to look like and is valuable for that. Personally If I was to copy a Strad  I would aim for a proven working example. The letters attesting to the sound of the Messie are simply polite thank you notes ...Please don't take them too seriously.

 

What little I was able to rummage up fairly quickly.

The BVMA page on it:

https://www.bvma.org.uk/events-1/2017/9/16/the-oxford-conference-2017-messiah-301

Unfortunately, a detailed publication of the Conference does not seem to be available.

@Ben Hebbert's articles:

https://violinsandviolinists.com/2017/12/22/stradivaris-fabled-messiah-three-centuries-on-the-most-controversial-violin-in-history/

https://violinsandviolinists.com/2017/09/20/stradivaris-messiah-301-bvma-oxford-conference-2017/

Helen Michetschläger's short account of the conference:

https://helenviolinmaker.com/stradivaris-messiah-bvma-conference/

 

 

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I am sure you find other instruments made by Antonio Stradivari as thin as the ‘Messiah’. So I wouldnt take this as a reason that it remained in the shop until his death. 
 

It is a quite unusual violin for his production, mostly for quite different location of the ff holes. Charles Beare was thinking (if I remember correctly) that Stradivaris son (I forgot the name) who died at the young age of 17, might have been the builder and his father kept it for sentimental reasons after his untimely death.

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On 10/21/2021 at 1:17 PM, Don Noon said:

It's hard to imagine a violinmaker (who sells violins for a living) refusing to sell one because it's "too perfect"... when the next one is always more perfect.

It is impossible to say if the graduations are too thin without knowing how it actually performs.  Many Strads are seemingly way too thin (significant areas under 2 mm), but still they perform OK according to many people.

We also don't know what the Messiah wood density is.

Bottom line: we don't know.  Even if we did know the performance and wood density, there's a high likelihood that opinions would vary, and we still wouldn't know.

In 1716 Antonio Stradivari, unlike most of his colleagues, wasn’t craving for cash. His third marriage a few years later testimonies his wealth. He could well have afforded to put a violin aside, for what reason ever. 
 

If I remember correctly, Charles Beare brought up the hypothesis that it might have been made by Stradivaris son (forgot the name) who died at the young age of 17 (?). The old man kept it thereafter for sentimental reasons. 
 

On the other hand, the messiah was not the only violin which stayed in the shop after his death, maybe the only one which was completely varnished. (Who knows?) The number of unfinished violins was big enough that Paolo called Carlo Bergonzi to finish the remaining instruments.  (I think the Hills mention 70(!) unfinished instruments.) Even if this number is not correct it shows a different approach from what most modern makers do by finishing violins one by one. 

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14 hours ago, Melvin Goldsmith said:

...From historical and evidence analysis talking to experts  my interpretation was that the violin had a sound post crack from new, was therefore not sold and remained in pristine condition because of that....

This is the most logical statement I've heard about why the Messiah stayed in the Strad shop.  

Wish there was a like feature in this forum - would save time typing.

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On 10/21/2021 at 12:03 PM, oliverb said:

Interestingly, John Dilworth refers in his article to the fact that Count Cozio recorded having a large square patch inserted inside the Messiah (front or back not specified), apparently by Guadagnini, but Dilworth notes that it is no longer there. Here I offer two speculative suggestions: 1) that this patch was inserted to thicken the thin central area of the table but that a later repairer (Vuillaume or Hill?) removed it; 2) that when fitting the patch Guadagnini actually thinned the table slightly himself, so that the later removal of the patch left an an even thinner central table area. However, I emphasise that apparently we do not know where inside the violin the large square patch was fitted.

I once had a violin attributed to the Neapolitan school c. 1770 which had a ‘patch’ on the back. Actually there was just a veneer sheet glued in the center of the back. Because of the insufficient fitting it wasn’t too difficult to remove it.

On the other hand, if I try to imagine to fit properly a ‘big square patch ‘ with the clamps available in the 18th century, I’d say this would be a kind of difficult. 
 
Anyway it makes me chuckle to imagine Vuillaume getting hold of the ‘virgin’ condition Stradivari violin and finding out that it has a huge patch inside. (If true or not.)

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On 10/20/2021 at 8:03 PM, oliverb said:

No, this is not a religious question, rather I am referring to the famous 1716 Stradivari violin in the Ashmolean museum at Oxford.

The Hills, in their 1891 monograph on this instrument, say that the thicknesses of its front and back "are of his [Stradivari's] stoutest".

Sacconi, in "The "Secrets" of Stradivari", indicates that the average thickness of Stradivari tables (away from the edges) is about 2.4mm, rising to about 2.7mm at the edges of the f-holes, with a small area about 3.2mm over the soundpost.

There is a Strad magazine poster of the Messiah, issued in March 2011 in conjunction with an article on the violin by John Dilworth, which includes a thickness chart. The thicknesses over much of the table, though varying somewhat, are not inconsistent with Sacconi's average of 2.4mm. However, in the central table area (between the f-holes}, four thicknesses are given which are significantly thinner - 2.0mm centrally just in front of the bridge, and three others a little further back, each at 2.1mm.  If this really is the Messiah's thickness all over the central table area, the violin is probably better off in a museum than having to stand up to the stresses of modern concert performance!

Interestingly, John Dilworth refers in his article to the fact that Count Cozio recorded having a large square patch inserted inside the Messiah (front or back not specified), apparently by Guadagnini, but Dilworth notes that it is no longer there. Here I offer two speculative suggestions: 1) that this patch was inserted to thicken the thin central area of the table but that a later repairer (Vuillaume or Hill?) removed it; 2) that when fitting the patch Guadagnini actually thinned the table slightly himself, so that the later removal of the patch left an an even thinner central table area. However, I emphasise that apparently we do not know where inside the violin the large square patch was fitted.

Do any of our resident experts have further thoughts on all this?

Incidentally, in his article Mr Dilworth seems to raise the possibility that Stradivari's reason for never selling the Messiah was not that it was too perfect to sell, but perhaps that it didn't quite meet Stradivari's own criteria for violins he did wish to sell!

 

If you look at the various thickness maps from the Smithsonian study, Dilworth's numbers are very consistent with other examples.

It's very common with Strad to hhave a bit extra thinness between the upper eys. And, it's very common to have patchy areas of extra thinness in the upper and lower bout areas and flanks.

And, it's not rare for some of the thinnessest spots to dip down to and even below 2.0.

And that is exactly what you described.

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I think this highlights the issue with people wanting to make a violin, but aren't exposed to old instruments. Purely from reading books which contain either generalisations, or are simply wrong, a very skewed view of how a violin should be is reached.
Those chasing thicknesses as the magic factor, obviously have put no thought into anything else, or are yet to understand the importance of the violin as a whole concept.

It should be pointed out that without knowing some factors about the properties of the wood and arching, the thickness measurements are pretty pointless when taken out of context. What is appropriate for a certain density, arching height etc. only applies to that instrument. Even then, the only way to evaluate it is to play it yourself and see how it performs.

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4 hours ago, Wood Butcher said:

It should be pointed out that without knowing some factors about the properties of the wood and arching, the thickness measurements are pretty pointless when taken out of context. What is appropriate for a certain density, arching height etc. only applies to that instrument. Even then, the only way to evaluate it is to play it yourself and see how it performs.

And even then, it depends on who's playing.  Players who prefer high-resistance, stiff instruments might say it's too thin, while those who like compliant instruments migth say it's just right.  You could probably find others who think it's too stiff. 

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