What's so special about a Stradivarius?

Antonio Stradivari's violins are so famous they make the news when they get stolen. But are they really worth the steep price tag? I found out when I took one for a bluegrass test drive ...

It's the joke that no violinist can avoid. You'll be just opening your case as some wag slides past with a grin and the inevitable question: "Is that a Stradivarius?" Disguising your inner groan, the accepted response is to shake your head wistfully, and smile back "I wish!" Well, today, the joke is over. Not because I've stabbed the well-meaning punter in the neck with my bowtip. But because the instrument I am carrying is actually, incredibly, a Strad.

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is currently hosting the first exhibition of Stradivari's instruments to be shown in the UK and one of the master craftsman's exceedingly rare violins is in my extremely nervous hands. The Beechback, as this particular example is known, is the only one of the instruments that is not currently in a climate-controlled Perspex case, and after being vetted by the insurance companies – you have to have a Grade 8 qualification at least to play this violin (and, I presume, no history of pyromania) – I have been invited to give it a go.

Emma John learns to play the stradivarius
Raising the tone … Emma John with the Absentees. Photograph: Justin Doherty Photograph: Justin Doherty

You often hear some scepticism, even among musicians, about whether the violins made by Antonio Stradivari are really worth their price tag. The 17th-century luthier's name has become such shorthand for "expensive violin" that the names of the other great violin makers – Nicolo Amati, Francesco Ruggieri, Giuseppe Guarneri – will be barely recognisable to anyone but aficionados. That's why stolen Strads – such as the one returned to soloist Min-Jin Kym last week – still make the news.

The Beechback isn't particularly showy. Unlike some of the instruments in the exhibition, which are highly decorated, it has a simple, dark exterior. In fact, sitting in its fairly ordinary violin case, you might not take it for one of the rarest musical instruments in the world, were it not for the sharp-eyed security guard following it around. I pick it up to tune the strings and the first sound I make as I drag the bow across the strings is so loud I pull up, shocked and a little rattled. It's the same feeling you'd get if you'd driven a Mazda all your life, then stepped into a Ferrari and accidentally floored it.

A few tentative scales meet with a rich, sweet sound that my own playing surely does not merit. When I was learning classical violin, teachers would harp on about "tone", the elusive quality that required you to spend hours of practice attempting to coax warm sounds from your instrument. The Beechback doesn't seem to need any effort. The noise it creates is infinitely nicer than anything I have produced on my own instrument to date – sharp edges are smoothed, rasps mellowed. I realise there are sounds my own fiddle makes that I've never noticed before – superflous soundwaves, barely audible hisses of interference – that are only noticeable now, in their absence.

For my road test, I've chosen an unaccompanied Bach Partita in D minor – something I haven't played since I was a teenager, when solo recitals were a regular and terrifying part of my life. I've always been a nervous performer; once I was so jumpy that, as I put my violin up to my neck to play, I let go and tossed it over my shoulder. This is not a part of my playing history I have shared with the Ashmolean.

A group of exhibition-goers has seen me handling the violin, and gathered, unprompted, in front of me. Often the adrenalin rush of playing for an audience has been my downfall, but the Beechback's sound has an interesting side-effect – under the fingers of my left hand, the violin feels literally easier to play. There may be some technical considerations here – it could be that the action on the fingerboard is a little lower than the violin I play, or that the strings are made of a superior gut, making them softer to press down on. But mostly, I suspect, this is the mystical effect of transference. The sound I hear is so smooth that I sense it as something tangible in the wood itself.

Still, it's the power that you keep coming back to. I feel like I have an actual concert hall under my chin. And while I don't have an orchestra to accompany me in a grand romantic concerto, I have somehow persuaded the Absentees, one of the UK's finest bluegrass bands, to join me at the museum, and we run through a couple of old American hillbilly tunes. It is surely a first for the Beechback, unless Nigel Kennedy's got in there first, and it rises supreme above even the banjo's noisy jangling. Afterwards, a little old lady asks me very sweetly if I'm a professional musician. Not even close – but for a moment, thanks to the Strad, I felt like one.


Emma John

The GuardianTramp

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