ST. PETERSBURG — In 1806, nearly a hundred years after Antonius Stradivari built his Mlynarski violin in the Po River Valley of Italy, a world-renowned composer found himself unable to hear a thing. Though French sign language was in use in Paris, Beethoven still relied on conversation books to communicate with a few friends and family.
His hearing gone by age 45, the master limited his public appearances, causing his public to often wonder over his fate or condition, but he showed up in Vienna in May 1824 to direct the debut of his Symphony No. 9. Unable to hear, Beethoven was several measures off and still giving the conductor cues when the piece ended. He had to be turned around so he could see the standing ovation from the audience.
Beethoven, who lived from 1770 to 1827, was robbed of hearing the beauty and magnificence of his music — which I and a full house had the privilege to experience on a recent Sunday afternoon in St. Pete. The Florida Orchestra’s treatment of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, op. 61, filled the Mahaffey Theater more than 214 years after the determined musician wrote it.
Don’t turn from this article yet — the best is yet to come.
Before the orchestra struck its first note, a tall and lithe woman of straight posture in a flowered, floor-length dress emerged from the wings with a violin hanging from two fingers. The striking figure: Simone Lamsma, 35, a Dutch musician who has been studying violin since she was 5. What hung from her fingers was the “Mlynarski” Stradivarius, a simple instrument of marvel and beauty consisting of (and this is violin talk) “one-piece cut on the slab” construction.
According to Stradivarius company historians, the famous violins, built with wood from the forests of Europe, included spruce for the top, willow for the internal blocks and linings, and maple for the back, ribs, and neck. The violin’s polished, orange-red stain — which matched the builder’s original finish — gleamed under the spot lights.
What was special about those trees is what makes a Stradivarius unique and impossible to reproduce — according to scientists who have X-rayed the wood. The pinnacle of Stradivari's career is known as the Golden Period and lasted roughly from 1700 to 1720. Stradivari and his sons hand-built and finished the violin in Ms. Lamsma’s miraculous hands in 1718. Europe in that time, scientists have come to understand, was in the middle of what one could call a little ice age.
According to Discover Magazine: “Researchers who have studied the activity of the sun have pointed to a mini-Ice Age that occurred in the early 1700s. Experts say that this reduced solar activity, called the Maunder Minimum, could have slowed the regular growth of trees.”
Dr. Berend Stoel, a violinist with a keen interest in the secrets of the Stradivarius and a researcher at the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands (Ms. Lamsma’s native country), compared five Stradivarius and seven modern violins under a CT scan. The wood in the 300-year-old violins showed little difference in growth; the cooler temperatures had led to dense and uniform rings in Europe’s trees during the violin maker’s Golden Period.
“Tree rings are comprised of a lighter, spongier portion that is produced during rapid spring growth and a darker, denser portion produced later in the year,” Discovery writes. “In the Stradivarius wood these differences are less pronounced.”
Now, back to Beethoven’s deafness, which had led him to consider suicide. “By 1802 he could no longer be in doubt that his malady was both permanent and progressive,” Encyclopedia Britannica recounts. He spent that summer in a small village where he wrote of his plans to kill himself in a letter to his two brothers.
The evil irony of composing symphonies with unimaginable beauty and power — without ever hearing the result — urged him toward death at his own hands, he wrote. However, the 32-year-old wrote his brothers, “But only art held (me) back; for, ah, it seemed unthinkable for me to leave the world forever before I had produced all that I felt called upon to produce …”
Stand back, death! Not today!
Four years later, in 1806, here is Beethoven, writing his violin concerto, defining a new form for the usually predictable shape of music.
“At about 45 minutes, the violin concerto is a jigsaw puzzle that has to be assembled in performance,” says Kurt Loft, who skillfully writes the program notes for The Florida Orchestra. “It requires stamina, and while the writing for the violin is, in essence, a series of fragmented themes, it’s remarkably cohesive.”
I close the program, ready to hear not one great artist, but many.
Out walks Ms. Lamsma, long, blonde hair curled over her bare shoulders, swaying side to side and nodding with eyes closed, then peering up at the lights, then over at conductor Christoph Konig; now she’s swaying lightly again, keeping time to the sweet strings of the orchestra and up comes her orange-red violin, its finish reflecting the light as she tucks it under her chin and brings up the bow with her right hand ….
More than 214 years later, it all comes together, the wood pulled from Europe’s cold wilderness, the instrument from a master violin maker, music from a giant who would not provide death its answer and the violinist as she hits the first sweet notes of history.
The Tampa Bay area has plenty of things for families to do on an afternoon, such as going to the beach, the zoo, the Dali museum, and attending Rays games where other virtuosos play wooden instruments made of maple and ash — Louisville Sluggers.
The Florida Orchestra, however, is tough to beat for beautiful accuracy, live excitement, and life-long training on full display. If you haven’t been, attend a matinee and other public performances, including their visiting play at Ruth Eckerd Hall and other locations.