The musical history and heritage of Cremona

When we think of Italian cultural centers, cities like Milan, Florence and Naples. But tiny Cremona, in the Lombardy region, can claim one of the most prestigious musical heritages in all of Italy. Since the 12th century, the town has been a musical center, and in the 1600s it achieved heights in the field of instrument-making that have never been equalled as the home of a series of legendary luthiers, or sting instrument makers. It’s a tradition that continues even today: in 2012, UNESCO named “the traditional violin craftsmanship of Cremona” as an intangible cultural heritage.

It’s this incredible history that the Quartetto di Cremona, who will be performing with DACAMERA on Oct. 21 and 22 at the Menil Collection, are honoring in the name of their quartet. The group, hailed as “an ensemble of international excellence,” have made promoting Italian cultural heritage their calling card. This can be seen in their repertoire—their Houston performances will feature lesser-known works by Verdi, Puccini, Boccherini and Respighi—as well as in the intruments on which they perform.

Violinist Cristiano Gualco performs on an instrument by G.B. Guadagnini referred to as “Cremonensis” that was created in Turin in 1767, while his counterpart, Paolo Andreoli, plays a violin by Paolo Antonio Testore made in Milan in 1758. Violist Simone Gramaglia’s instrument dates back to 1680 and was made by Gioachino Torazzi, and Giovanni Scaglione’s cello was crafted by Dom Nicola Amati in Bologna in 1712.

It is perhaps a little surprising that nones of the luthiers represented are part of Cremona’s musical patrimony. The Amati family began a legacy of excellence in violins in Cremona around 1540, passing down and sharpening their skills through four generations working over 200 years. It was Andrea Amati, the first-generation luthier, who introduced the modern violin family by adopting and popularizing the basic form, shape, size, materials and method of construction of the violin, viola and cello. Andrea’s two sons both raised the profile of the family business, but it was Nicolo, the third-generation maker, whose instruments are still coveted today—and valued around $600,000 each.

(The Dom Nicola Amati of Bologna whose cello is listed above, according to scholars, does not represent a branch of the family, but rather the chosen nickname of a priest with no relation.)

The Amati workshop also begat some of Cremona’s other legendary maker families. Both Andrea Guarneri and Francesco Rugeri began as apprentices of the Amatis and eventually struck out on their own, passing down the knowledge through their families. Like the Amati, the Guarneri family found its greatest luthier in its third generation. Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri was known as “El Gesu” and his violins are considered by some to be the best ever made, with many distinguished musicians performing on his instruments into the 20th century.

Giuseppe Guarneri’s supremacy is challenged only by the legendary and world-renowned Antonio Stradivari—who, of course, hailed from Cremona as well. Recent scholarship suggests that Stradivari was not a pupil of Nicolo Amati, as had been long thought, but instead of Rugeri, whose whom his early instruments share more in common. Stradivari’s first labels date to the 1660s, and after a few decades of experimentation and growing reputation, the era between 1700 and 1720 is known as his golden period. In his lifetime, Stradivari is alleged to have produced 1,116 instruments, nearly 1,000 of which were violins. It’s estimated that about 500 of these violins survive today.

The traditional Cremonese violin craftsmanship is unique in the world. According to the UNESCO nomination documents,

“each instrument is handmade and assembled with more than 70 different molded pieces of wood. Every part of a new violin requires a particular technique, continuously adapted according to the different acoustic response of each piece of wood: for this reason, it is impossible to get two violins exactly identical. Every part of the violin should be made with a particular kind of wood, carefully selected and naturally seasoned, so that its preparation can be neither forced or artificial. … It is not possible to use any industrial or semi-industrial part, and spray painting is prohibited. Many of the elements of the musical instrument appear merely ornamental, but in reality they are highly functional in order to get the force and the sound amplification, or to protect the instrument from accidental breaks: this is a double characteristic of the first violin’s creation.”

The 20th century was the so-called rebirth of Cremonese making, when luthiers such as Rocca, Morassi, Beltrami and Antoniazzi emerged. These makers, sometimes basing their early violins on Strads, would go on to make their own models and inspire each other’s work.