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ARTICLE Plain text for smartphones & printers

Guarneri del Gesu – In Stradivari’s Shadow
A short story by Otto Fischer

“... he doth bestride the narrow world/ Like a Colossus ...” Julius Caesar Act I sc ii

The name Stradivarius has always been well-known, unlike that of his Cremonese contemporaries, the Guarneri. It was not until the 19th century that Paganini revived interest in that greatest Guarneri, “del Gesu”, for he chose to play exclusively on one of his instruments in preference to a violin by Stradivari. Today a “del Gesu” instrument is worth as much as a “Strad” and there is much debate about which have the superior sound. Not much is known about “del Gesu”, as he came to be known well after his death by reason of the cross on his labels and the letters IHS. Most of the facts in this story are fairly true. Some of it is conjecture and invention. The relationship between the brothers Pietro and Giuseppe is pure artistic license.

Cremona, 1744
I can hear the priest, although I cannot see him. Father Francesco – is it you?

“Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnum misercordiam ...”

I know Caterina is nearby. Has she not held my hand and moistened my lips? Ah, Caterina ...

“Gloria Patri, et Filii, et Spiritu Sancti...”

Et Caterina!

It is said a dying man sees his life playing before his eyes, and I know I am dying!

My eyes are closed, but I can see her now as on the day I first saw her. That golden hair and that fair skin! It was market day and I played one of my father’s violins. It was in the old square and my cap lay on the rough cobbles before me. She passed by bearing a basket with bread and fruits and she caught my eye and smiled. My heart skipped a beat and I almost lost the rhythm. Next, I found myself playing as if transported, better almost than my brother Pietro. Our eyes locked, then she blushed, looked down demurely and with a smile turned and was gone. And so was my heart! Ah, how that fair northern skin can blush!
It must have been some ten years after the Austrians came to Cremona. I was in my nineteenth year then and she was but sixteen. She had started serving at the osteria when I first knew her and her parents were dead. Her late father had been a wheelwright with the Austrian forces. She spoke Italian with the loveliest of accents, and her voice was the voice of an angel. How I frequented that osteria, though I could scarce afford it! I would play for her and God saw to it that we became friends. How I had wished that we were lovers, but she made me wait for more than a long, long year!
In those that followed I was industrious at my father’s craft, as was Pietro. I loved my father, but that love was tested at times, for he was often moody and sometimes drunk. He could be harsh when he was troubled. Things were not easy at our humble Casa Guarneri on the Piazza S. Domenico, for our relatively meagre efforts were eclipsed by those of old Stradivari. Alas, the irony of Fate! It was both a curse and an inspiration to live so close to the great Master : not only in the same city, but in the same street! The output of his famed workshop was both magnificent and prodigious. At times he had ten craftsmen working with him, but always he kept the sharpest oversight! Princes both of State and Church clamoured for his wares, for they were indeed beautiful!
Had he not long and justly established his name as a luthier of great worth, while we Guarneri laboured in his shadow? Monteverdi, Cavalli, Corelli – all the composers and players of note – never had they sounded better than on an instrument by Stradivari, better even than the great Amatis and the Brescians could make them sing.

We humble others in Cremona could not command the prices of the Master, often not even half! Fame was not ours. Our wares sold to players of lesser note and of shallower pocket, and orders were relatively few. We repaired instruments to put bread on the table, played at weddings and feasts, fairs and funerals, and took whatever work that offered. Father alas was prone to gamble and money never stuck to his fingers. Later in life I confess I took on loans to pay his debts, even to pay for his funeral, God rest his soul, for his estate was fully mortgaged.

Mother was not a happy woman, and their marriage was strained. Losing a child can turn a woman inwards, and she had lost several: I was the fourth son to bear my father’s name. Her coldness and bitterness may perhaps have driven him to drink in his later years and to darken his moods. Which of us truly understands the torments of others?

“Domine sancte, Pater omnipotens ..”

I hear you Father!

My brother Pietro took things harder. He was some years older than I and closer to Mother. He and Father often clashed. However, he showed much talent at my father’s craft and we were both much help to him as our skills matured. Pietro did not have much humour in him, but he could play like an angel and had taken upon himself to be taught music by the Fathers. He was ambitious from the start!

We had never been close. When he was perhaps 23 and I was around 19 we had a fight. Father was out, sourcing wood. It was over Caterina. I can see it now as when it happened. It started when I praised his skills, for he exceeded mine with gauge and eye, and far outstripped me as a player.

“I take pride in my work Giuseppe. If you spent more time at your craft and less with your Austrian whore, you too could excel!”

I hit him then, full in the mouth. He went down, skidding into the leg of a bench, and his blood splattered over the dust and shavings. An upset jar of varnish marred the table-top and stained a form and ribs. He made no attempt to fight back.

May God forgive me, but at that moment I could have shared the curse of Cain, so violent was my temper. Anger is an affliction I sometimes struggle to control. When it overcomes me it blinds me to all else and noises clamour in my brain. God forgive me! I was big of build and he was much more delicate, though older. I could well have killed him.

It was Bergonzi who saved us both. Carlo was still with us then, broadening his experience. He fell upon me and tore us apart.

“Shame upon you Giuseppe! Is this the way a son behaves in his father’s house? An apprentice in the Master’s workshop? Look how you have frightened your mother, who stands trembling and white-faced on the stair! She who has lost so many sons!”

The mist slowly cleared from my eyes and the rushing of blood in my ears gradually stilled. Shaking, I stumbled to the door. Pietro by now was being cradled and comforted in Mother’s arms while she tended to his bruised and bleeding face.

At the taverna I drank into the night. Caterina had found me but I could not speak to her. She put me to bed and cleaned up where I had fouled, and in the morning she fed me broth.

“...Kyrie eleison
Christe eleison
Kyrie eleison...”

Father Francesco, are you with me? Ah, Father Francesco, what would I have done without your balm in those ensuing months?

I had known Father Francesco since childhood. He exuded goodness and compassion and as I grew I came to value his wise counsel. At times he was like a second father, one I could speak to with far greater ease than my own.

When I slunk back home that day my father hit me as I crossed the threshold. Mother would not speak to me. Pietro was gone and with him one of Father’s forms and a good many of his tools. It was years before I saw him again and we exchanged few words. Father never forgave him.

And it was some time before he would speak to me in a calmer manner! It was an unhappy house that I returned to, and I promised myself not to bring it more shame and grief in future. I hope God agrees that in large measure I kept that vow! Only once, a decade later, did I break my word, and that was in defence of my father’s honour.

In the four years or so that followed I was the best student of my father’s that I knew how to be. More and more he trusted me with the important details of his work, and truly he came to respect my abilities. I mastered the elegance of the scroll, the subtleties of the arch, the delicacy of the “f” holes, the placement of the sound post, the shaping of the bar, the inlay of the purfling, and the secrets of the varnish.

Increasingly I sensed that my skills equalled and even excelled those of my father, and I suspected that he sensed this too. I found myself chafing at the confines of the Guarneri methods and standards, which he sternly bade me follow, and I itched to try my own ideas and to strive for that elusive perfection of sound that I thirsted to aspire to.

Yes, my body may have lacked delicacy and grace, but my ear could hear the slightest degree of pitch in the strings and tone in the wood. That was my greatest gift! When I tapped the wood it spoke to me. Its vibrations sang. I fancied it was God speaking through the wood and I saw it as my task to give utterance to His voice.

Why then did I in turn, like Pietro, depart my father’s house, although on better terms? The break came when I was 24 and at last married to my Caterina. I had no wish to bring her to a house – too small at any rate – where the tensions of an unhappy marriage suffused the air. We had been frugal and industrious and had accumulated enough credit to buy a small house not far distant to my parents’ : she through her work and embroidering, I through the sale of unlabelled instruments and from performing.

In truth, however, I could no longer stay. Father had no more to teach me, and I needed the freedom to practice my art on my own terms. And, sad to say, Pater was in decline. My artistic pride balked at affixing the “Joseph Guarnerius filius Andreae” labels to my work and to have my luthier’s reputation associated with my father’s. Youth drives ambition! My first labels read “Joseph Guarnerius Andreae Nepos” – so the son denies the father!

“Qui cum Patre et Spiritu Sancto vivit et regus Deus..”

Whose is that voice? I think I know it...

I did not, like Pietro, turn my back upon our father. Many was the time in that next decade that I neglected my own labours to help complete his instruments. In the end he gave up altogether and rented out his workshop. The wheel of life turns and no man can halt it, yet how melancholy it is to witness its sure progress!

Yet those early years with Caterina passed happily – and so quickly! The only thing missing was a child! We had not been forced into marriage by a child, nor was one forthcoming now. Young and energetic, Caterina was not used to idleness. We enjoyed being together and, more and more, she neglected her embroidering and began to take an interest in my craft. Her uncle had been a woodcarver and her father a carpenter, so she had grown up with men and tools. I enjoyed teaching her and, as the years progressed, she became quite proficient at the work. She had a delicate hand and a good eye, and I was glad of her help when I was pursuing other sources of income.

There had been those who had whispered about my father. They mocked his shaking hand, his drinking and his gambling. When at last he rented his workshop to a shoemaker the uncharitable tongues became more strident. This almost led to my undoing. God bless old Father Francesco!

Like so many brawls, it started with but a few words and escalated. Before you knew it, your life could be at stake! I was enjoying some grappa at a nearby bettola after a hot day in the sun playing at a wedding. The room was pleasantly dark and cool and you could smell the oak of the barrels. I was minding my own business and idly wondering what Caterina would be serving that night. Some men were playing cards at a table nearby. I felt some of them casting glances in my direction. There were a few whispers and giggles. I knew most of them by sight and there was one ugly fellow, thick-set and swarthy, whom I had had dealings with before. I’d had occasion to throw him out of a taverna where I’d been serving. Now he stared at me with malice in his eye and a taunting smile on his lips.

“Hey, Giuseppe!” he called, with a curl to his lip and a wink to his unsavoury companions. “I hear that your Papa’s found work again, polishing boots for a cobbler! Does he polish them by licking?”

His motley companions haw-hawed and nudged each other and slapped their knees. I could hear that rushing in my ears again and my hands clenched and trembled around my glass. I got to my feet and the laughter stilled. I walked up to him and put my face very close to his. I smelled his stench of sweat and garlick.

“Would you fine gentleman please do me the honour of stepping outside?” I smiled that smile I have been told by friends is evil and walked out.

For a while no one followed. Then his companions stalked out scowling and surrounded me at a distance. A few others followed to watch the fun. Then he emerged. As he grinned I saw the gap in his crooked teeth. And the knife in his hand.

I had intended to knock his teeth out, but this was a different game altogether!

My heart was pounding but the fury that had first propelled me had given way to a clear understanding that I was in trouble and that this was a matter not of vengeance but of survival.

We circled one another warily, alert to every attempted movement. His advantage had emboldened him and he feinted aggressively. I took off my wide leather belt and swung it with the heavy buckle outwards. My best chance was to knock the knife out of his hand. I attempted this several times, but he was alert to my intentions and too quick and leered at me mockingly. His hangers-on cheered at every thrust and slash of the knife, and every failed whirl of the belt. Sweat trickled into my eyes. This was not going well!

Then someone stuck their foot out and I went sprawling. My head struck the rough cobbles and lights flashed across my eyes. Dazed, I found myself pinned to the ground and my assailant grinning at me malevolently. His knife was pointed at my throat.

Suddenly there was a commotion and a stick crashed heavily onto my attacker’s back. The voice, fierce and commanding, was Francesco’s! Never had I heard him like this! The years seemed to have fallen from him. It seemed like every syllable was driven home by another blow, while my opponent cringed away. His supporters too made way for the flailing stick and the old man’s blazing fury.

“Guido, you son of a gypsy whore, get you gone, you and your scum, and quickly too! Else I shall speak to my friend the Commandant and you shall find yourselves chained to the end of a Venetian oar! Get you hence you filth, or you shall test your mettle against that of the corsair!”

Such was the power of that old man’s vehemence that indeed they slunk away and we found ourselves alone. Father Francesco frowned down at me and poked me with his stick.

“Pull up your pants young Giuseppe, and dust yourself down. Is this the way a decent son of Cremona disports himself? How came you to this pickle?”

Sheepishly I climbed to my feet. I towered over him and, to my concern, I saw that he was trembling and beginning to sway. I took his arm and felt the thinness of his flesh. Gently I led him to a bench where he sat a while without saying anything. His breath wheezed in his chest.

Finally in his old man’s voice he said, “Giuseppe, God has graced you with great talent. I know this, for I have spoken to Stradivari. Do not spite Him by wasting it! And He has blessed you with a wife whose heart would break if you were taken from her! Why do I find you brawling on your back with a knife at your throat?”

So I told him.

“Hell fires and torments wait for such as them Giuseppe! Your father has not had an easy life and true he has his weaknesses, but by and large he has been an honourable man, and he has loved you. You need not be ashamed of him. God will not forget his virtues – and his achievements. He is proud of you Giuseppe and you have been a comfort to him. Go in peace, and with my blessing!”

God was good to me that day! I owed my life to Him and his servant Francesco. From that day on I acknowledged this in the best way I knew how – in the labels of my creations, my offerings. The cross and the divine letters would bear witness!

Those following years were happy ones, although Stradivari’s workshop on Piazza Roma held an unassailable position, dominating the market for high-priced instruments.

My independence from my father allowed me to experiment and I produced, in my opinion, some of my finest violins. But I was never satisfied, continuously striving for that elusive something which sets a well-sounding piece apart. I was ( justly, I think) proud of my work. Can pride in the work of one’s hands be sin?

Once I took what I considered a particularly fine and well-sounding violin to Stradivari. The Master ceased his labours and wiped his hands on his apron. A shaving was caught in his white stubble. He looked at me keenly over the rim of his dusty glasses. “What have we here, young Giuseppe?”

I held out my shiny new creation and he took it in his hands, sighting along the neck and turning it over slowly and carefully. He examined the varnish and the purfling and the

“f “ holes and lingered over the scroll, frowning a little. He tapped the belly in several places and pursed his lips. Then he took a bow of his making and played some scales and cadenzas. I saw a shadow pass across his face.

“A little unconventional in places, young Master,” he said, handing it back, “but a workmanlike piece nevertheless. The sound is well enough. A little more care in the execution, eh? One must not always be in a hurry. Impatience is a common fault in the young!”

He nodded to me and picked up his scraper again. Then, as an afterthought, he turned back to me and looked at me over his half moon spectacles “Oh, and you might have a word to Old Giuseppe when you next see him. I fear he may have been avoiding me. There’s that little matter of the loan I gave him...”

He spoke not unkindly, and I could not but help liking the man, despite the difficulties he had caused us. I sighed. I knew it would be I who would in the end repay that money.

Stradivari, as with most Masters, was sparing in his praise, so I was not put out. I could not argue with the truth of some of his comments. But that passing cloud across his face...? That interested me. What interested me later too were the reports that I was getting about slight changes in his construction methods. It was said that he was adopting a sturdier make and a thicker back which resulted in a larger tone and more force.

Alas, that remarkable man died in his 94th year. There would hardly be another like him! But, as a maker of violins, how could I be sad? Now, thought I, the name of Guarneri would no longer stand in the wings. It was not to be.

Stradivari had supplied much of the demand for quality pieces for many decades. There were only so many patrons, orchestras, scuola. And Pietro was not the only maker of fine instruments outside of Cremona. Other nations too were now producing modern masters of the craft since Stainer had given impetus to the art.

No, we were doomed to be of modest means, not that I couldn’t purchase good quality timber for my work. However, clouds were gathering.

A year after Stradivari, my mother died, and four years later, in Anno Domini 1740, my father followed. And my hands, these big hard hands of mine developed a tremor. Playing became difficult so this source of income was denied us. Caterina took up embroidery again and I spent more time serving in the taverna.

But I still burned to make that ultimate instrument, one that truly glorified God. I was driven by an urgency I could not explain, and Stradivari would have frowned not only at the variations I produced, the many different scrolls and the large and uneven “f” holes, but also at the sometime roughness of finish he had once hinted at.

But I would like to think that, had he heard them played, that shadow would again have crossed his face!

“...In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, extinguatur in te omnis virtus diaboli...”

My thoughts stray...What was it I was recollecting? Pietro, my brother, would that we had been closer...

Reports I heard from Venice suggested Pietro was doing well. His output wasn’t huge, but the instruments were well regarded. However, he mingled with the better classes and had become a man of some standing. At least that branch of the family was thriving!

Nevertheless, he had not forgiven me for that assault upon his person so many years ago. It was to be my undoing.

We had communicated only when occasion forced us, such as the disposal of our father’s house. In my forties this had increasingly troubled me, and in the end I had attempted to make peace. I sent him a violin I had made. I had chosen the best timbers I had available and had taken particular care. Caterina helped me with cutting the purfling, for my hand was not steady. I let her have her way with the scroll work too, and she set the sound post. But I took great care to achieve the best of tones and was quite lavish with the varnish.

I had hesitated when the moment came to send it. Was it a foolish idea? Wasn’t he a Master of note in his adopted city? But it was the only gift I could think of and when I consulted Father Francesco he said only: “Blessed are the peace-makers!”

Some months went by and I heard nothing. Then, one cool evening in August I was serving in the taverna. (This work had become my life-line.) A stranger strutted in and ordered wine. He was dressed in the Venetian fashion. I didn’t like the look of him. He had a swagger about him. His attire was fine and dark, as was his hat and his beard. His eyes were hard.

“Is there a Giuseppe Guarneri here?” he enquired, a little too boldly for my liking.

“You’re talking to him. Who is it that asks?”

He ignored my question and sized me up. It raised my hackles.

“I have a message from your brother in Venice, he who is a true Master and a man of standing in our great city. He begs to ask whether you were drunk when you made the instrument you sent him.” He turned to go, then stopped and smirked. “Oh, and this: is your Caterina still a-whoring?”

In a second I had him by the lapels of his fine coat and had the satisfaction of hearing the fabric tear. As I drew back my fist I felt a burning pain in my left shoulder. I looked down and saw the blood. The next moment he had torn himself loose and was gone.

The blood was pouring out and I felt faint with shock. I was vaguely aware of someone calling for a surgeon. Someone else helped me to a stool. Then the anger returned, and sadness too!

“I’ve seen worse!” said the surgeon later as he washed his hands. “You’ll live!”

I fear he was wrong. The wound turned septic. Perhaps the blade was poisoned. As August changed to October I grew worse, despite Caterina’s ministrations. The fever burned and my arm throbbed. Father Francesco often sat with me. Sometimes my father came and spoke to me but I could not hear his words. Today he came and I could understand! Before he disappeared he laid his hand on my head, gently, as he had done when I was a child.

I keep my eyes closed. I know Caterina is there beside me. The pain has gone...

“...indulgetiam pleneriam et remissionem omnium pecatorum tibi concedo et benedicto te.

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

© Otto Fischer, 2015



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