Between 1560 and 1574, Catherine de Medici placed a very special order. It was about forty string instruments intended for the orchestra of his young son, Charles IX of France. Many of them are lost today, victims of the French Revolution, but those who survive are of historical importance, testifying to the immense know-how of their creator, Andrea Amati. One particularly prized item is a cello known as “The King”, painted in black and gold and bearing the coat of arms of Charles IX, now in the collection of the National Music Museum of South Dakota.
Working in Cremona, northern Italy, from the 1530s, Amati was the father of the violin, maker of the first instruments of its kind still in use today. Amati’s legacy has been continued by generations of his family and their apprentices, including Giuseppe Guarneri and the most famous luthier of all, Antonio Stradivari. Together they made Cremona famous as the “city of violins”.
Unlike many traditional crafts, this one survives. Nestled under the red terracotta roofs of the medieval center of Cremona, there are, according to a recent count, 169 active workshops, “luthiers”, making violins, violas and cellos. Craftsmen still use age-old tools and materials to craft each instrument individually by hand. A single violin can take months to finish, so some manufacturers will only produce half a dozen per year and the prices are proportionately high – $ 20,000 to $ 30,000 for a top quality instrument.
Lately, competition from China and Eastern Europe has put pressure on these workshops, which is hardly surprising when a Chinese violin, with bow and case, can sell for as little as â¬ 250. Even so, the tradition retains its value, especially after nearly five centuries of making the best instruments in the world, and Unesco counts Cremona violin making on its list of intangible cultural heritage.
Now, Cremona is looking to the future with the opening of the Stauffer Center for Strings. Building on the work of the Accademia Stauffer, founded in 1985, it promises a new artistic vision based on the principles of âinnovation, internationalism, sustainability and absolute qualityâ.
The names involved are awesome. The faculty will include more than 40 top-level musicians, including violinists Lisa Batiashvili, Daniel Hope, Viktoria Mullova and Julian Rachlin, cellists Sol Gabetta, Steven Isserlis and Mischa Maisky, and composers Caroline Shaw and Roger Eno (brother of Brian) .
âIt all started thanks to Walter Stauffer, an Italian philanthropist who left a fortune in the city of Cremona in the 1970s,â explains Paolo Petrocelli, general manager of the center. âHe wanted to create a foundation to support the next generation of musicians and from the start the emphasis was on stringed instruments, due to Cremona’s heritage. The foundation is one of the largest private endowments in Italy for the promotion of music and [we can] look to the future even in such difficult times.
A few years ago, the foundation acquired an abandoned historic palace in the center of the city. Now fully restored, it has made it possible to rethink the scope of the academy’s mission.
âWhat we can offer here is unique,â ââsays Petrocelli. “This is not only thanks to the rich cultural heritage of Cremona, but also because students can focus on their education in an environment different from the big cities.”
The scope of the center goes beyond playing an instrument, which young musicians – all studying for free – will already experience at a high level before they arrive. It is about preparing them to become professional musicians in today’s world.
Among the most innovative programs is the Solo Violin Artist Diploma. Leading violinists from 10 of the world’s most prestigious orchestras will come to Cremona to give advice on how to work effectively as a conductor, a skill musicians usually need to learn on the job. At the same time, workshops on management, career development and the best ways for young musicians to promote their careers will be organized. An on-site recording studio emphasizes the importance of technology and live broadcasting.
âWe want to bring here musicians who represent different cultures from all over the world,â says Petrocelli. âIf we do this in Cremona, which is considered a temple of musical tradition, we will send a strong message to the music community. Of course, our mission is to preserve this beautiful tradition, but we must do it through the musicians who are the protagonists of today’s culture. It means being open to the world, embracing innovation and technology, and linking music to important topics like sustainability and active citizenship.
A reference therefore for all those interested in the future of classical music. As Petrocelli says, the dual objective is to preserve the best of higher music education in Italy, while ensuring an environment free from prejudice and barriers – they target an equal number of male and female students, for example, when the first cohort walks through the gates on October 1.
âIssues like sustainability and equal opportunities are equally relevant in the cultural sector. It is important that the next generation of musicians understand that their role in our society goes beyond performance.
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