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The "Fruh" Cello

The 1730 "Fruh" cello. Front, side, and back.
National Music Museum

In the musical instrument world, the name “Stradivari” is akin to  “Picasso” in the art world. If you know no other instrument maker’s name, you know this one. Considered the greatest ‘luthier’ of all, Stradivari is synonymous with unparalleled sound quality. 

The "Lady Blunt" from 1721

  The last Stradivari violin that went to auction—the “Lady Blunt” (all Strads have proper names)—sold for 15.9 million dollars. It was sold by the Nippon Corporation on behalf of the Japanese tsunami relief. That was four years ago. Strads never decrease in value.

  Antonio Stradivari made his instruments from the spruce of one seemingly enchanted “musical forest” in the Italian Alps: the Val di Fiemme. Instruments that aspire to greatness are still being made from it.

For a person of the 18th century (1644-1737), Antonio Stradivari had astounding longevity and productivity. He lived to be 93, married twice, sired 11 children, and turned out in his workshop over 1,200 instruments. The 19th century saying “As rich as Stradivari” tells us that his instruments were already highly valued in his time.

Credit Trentino
The Val di Fiemme

  The National Music Museum’s unique Antonio Stradivari “Fruh” cello was named after the cellist Karl Fruh, its most recent former owner, whose estate donated it to the National Music Museum after his death. The cello will be played publicly for the first time in years at the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra’s “Night at the Museum concert.” On any other day, the cello resides humbly alongside—and in the shadow (literally)—of the Museum’s other rare Stradivaris: the phenomenal Harrison violin of 1693, one of just a handful of Strad violins that survive with their original necks; and, one of only two bows attributed to the Stradivari workshop. A grouping of Stradivari instruments like this cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.

The National Music Museum’s “Fruh” cello was forged in Antonio Stradivari’s workshop around 1727, as a viola da gamba, which translates as something like ‘large bass viol instrument for the gams,’ since it would be propped between the player’s legs. Its label dates it at 1730.

Credit National Music Museum
Lines of its former self as a viola da gamba can be seen on the upper front bouts of the "Fruh" cello.

  Since Antonio Stradivari was seven years away from the end of his life, one of his sons probably helped in making aspects of this instrument. It is a Strad though, through and through: the instrument’s body or ‘soundbox’, its built-in amplifier, the source of its power, is made of spruce. The gradation of the wood’s thickness throughout the instrument speaks Stradivari precision and innate acoustical sensitivity. The flat back and ribs are made of two pieces of curly maple. The varnish is tell-tale Stradivari in its color and composition. The sound is Stradivari.

A hundred years after Antonio Stradivari had died, musical fashions had changed. Look at the NMM’s Strad cello, and you can easily see the lines of the shoulders of the original viola da gamba. The cello’s resizing reflected the fact that music was moving out of the private, aristocratic homes, and into larger, more democratic public spaces, requiring sound to cover more distance, reaching to the back of the largest halls.

The National Music Museum’s Stradivari “Fruh” cello will be played at Sioux City Symphony’s‘Night at the Museum” concert by Kenneth Olsen, principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Olsen is the closest thing to an old hand at playing this Strad, having had the rare privilege of playing it once before, in 2008. 

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