I’m at a bit of a loss for how to start this review except to say that I’m no expert on violins. I just started learning how to play one, so if there are any factual errors in Toby Faber’s Stradavari’s Genius: Five Violins, One Cello, and Three Centuries of Enduring Perfection then they’re completely lost on me. But what I do know is narrative, and with that rubric alone I find myself in awe of this book. It was, in many ways, like reading The Silmarillion except instead of Silmarils they’re violins.
Faber begins his narrative a few decades before Strativari’s birth with the rise of the first famous violin maker of Cremona, Itaily: Amati. Like a Tolkien’s Eru bringing about his Creation, Amati formed the first widely successful violins from the fiddles and viols of Renaissance Europe. A short time later came Strativari, whose rise to prominence never matched that of Amati’s… during his lifetime. Faber recounts Strativari’s life as best as he can: his experiments with the design of his violins, the growth of his family, and the inevitable decline of old age. During his life, Stradivari is thought to have made thousands of instruments and then, with his death, he took with him all his knowledge and skill; it was never passed on to a successor.
From here Faber picks five instruments to follow over the next two and a half centuries. These instruments touch the hands of some of the most important men and women in the history of Western music, survive several wars and genocides, and endure the technological advancements of the 20th century. What astonished me was how Faber built his narrative, watching the people of the world come and go as the instruments went from one owner to the next. It was like watching a time lapse of history from the perspective of these five instruments.
Admittedly the comparison to The Silmarillion is a double edged sword. Like The Silmarillion, Faber’s book has some passages that can be tough to get through. There are a lot of names. Occasionally, actors and players who were involved in one part of the story must be accounted for in order for the narrative to continue, so there are short explanations or footnotes about who this person’s grandfather was or what business they had inherited so the reader can add that piece of string to their cork board. Possibly the most difficult times were re-adjusting my mental picture of the setting. Faber might follow an instrument all the way to the 1890’s only to jump to another instrument and go back to the 1750’s where he plays catch up in order to get all the narrative strings ready for another big jump in unison. These aren’t necessarily negatives, because honestly, Faber does an amazing job of keeping the whole thing together. But it can make the book challenging for somebody who isn’t used to reading this kind of material and isn’t prepared to push on. Overall I wouldn’t say it’s as bad as The Silmarillion in these respects, but I feel it’s an apt comparison.
But if you feel like Stradivari’s Genius needs a saving grace, it would have to be that Faber doesn’t neglect humor or leave out interesting tidbits of information just because it’s not directly related to Stradivarius. The interactions between famous Baroque violinist Joseph Böhm and Beethoven were both hilarious (to me) and interesting even though they had nothing with do with Stradivari directly.
Strativari’s Genius is not a book for everyone. At its core, it’s a history book. But if you like history, and especially if you like different perspectives on history, Toby Faber has written an incredible book that I think you’ll enjoy. When I started his book I was only vaguely aware that violins which cost millions of dollars existed, but now I have the context and history to understand why they exist. Combined with Faber’s talented retelling of these instrument’s stories, I’m convinced: if the Silmarils were real, they’d be Strads.
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