Hidden from small

World Violin Day 2019

December 13, 2019

As many may, or may not, be aware, December 13, 2019, is World Violin Day, making it the perfect time to take a closer look at Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Barbara Govatos’s Brothers Amati violin, which is 400 years old this year. Barbara sheds some light on this Cremonese family of violin makers, and how this particular instrument came to “own” her.

“Andrea Amati founded the family workshop in Cremona around 1538–39. Besides his sons, Antonio and Girolamo (also known as Hieronymus), and Girolamo’s son, Nicolò (who became the most famous maker in the family), many esteemed luthiers were known to work there, including Francesco Rugeri (who made the scroll of my violin), Andrea Guarneri, and possibly Antonio Stradivari. The brothers worked together for a short time before parting ways—family businesses! However, they both continued to make instruments and to use the labels (see photo below) that identified both of them as the creators. It is possible that since Antonio died in 1607, Girolamo was indeed the maker of this violin, dated 1619 on its label.

“I was fortunate to find ‘my voice’ in this violin back in 1996. A dealer I had contacted brought seven violins to Carnegie Hall, where the Orchestra would be performing later that day. I narrowed my choices down to the Brothers Amati, with help from a few astute listeners in the hall. It had a nice quality, so I took it home to see if it would open up with more playing. After a week, the dealer asked me to return it so that he could show it to someone else. Since the other person ‘loved it, but couldn’t afford it,’ I said I would play it in a little more, but asked if he could make an adjustment to the sound post (the wooden dowel inside that connects the top and back of all stringed instruments). Within seconds of moving the post, the violin became a different animal. The depth of tone was revealed and it was resonating like crazy! I played it cool with the dealer for another month, trying, testing, and pushing the violin for as many colors, dynamics, and expressions as possible. I feel lucky to say that the Brothers Amati violin was able to make its new home with me in Philadelphia.

“It struck me while playing the Bach Mass in B minor recently that there is probably not a lot of music this violin hasn’t played, having been made so long ago. For such a delicate instrument to have lasted for 400 years, each ‘temporary’ owner of the violin must have felt the privilege of making music with it, and the responsibility of handing down not just a beautiful instrument, but a witness to history, as well.

“Did I mention how lucky I am?”

Portrait by Jessica Griffin