The Soul Of The World's Most Expensive Violin

Mar 27, 2014
Originally published on March 7, 2014 11:39 am

The Vieuxtemps Guarneri is a violin that is older than the United States of America — 273 years old, to be exact. It recently became the most expensive violin in the world, selling for an estimated $16 million. Its new owner anonymously donated the historic instrument to violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, on loan for the rest of her life.

Meyers joined Morning Edition guest host Linda Wertheimer in NPR's studios to demonstrate the historic instrument's unique character and the extraordinary gamut of color it is able to produce.

"I had to try it, and instantly fell in love," Meyers says. "It was an incredible chemistry that occurred."

The violin is named for its most famous owner, the leading 19th-century Belgian virtuoso and composer Henri Vieuxtemps, who loved it so much he wanted to be buried with it. "I think every violin has its own soul, and the soul has been imprinted by a previous performer," Meyers says. "So I definitely feel the soul of Vieuxtemps on this violin."

Luckily, it's still with us. After being played by some of the most pre-eminent violinists — and, for the past five decades, stored under the bed of its previous owner — the violin is making its 21st-century recording debut. Meyers and the violin are part of the new recording The Four Seasons: The Vivaldi Album.

"You know, I'm so honored to be playing this instrument, to hold history in my hands, but also to know how to use it," Meyers says. "You could be given a Lamborghini or a Ferrari and not know how to drive it. But I'm lucky, you know, to have been performing my whole life, and been working with these instruments. So it's just so inspirational to me."

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Anne Akiko Meyers is one of the most accomplished violinists now performing. She's made many recordings, but her newest is special because it's her first recording with a new violin, the Vieuxtemps Guarneri Del Gesu.


WERTHEIMER: Meyers chose the Valdes Four Seasons for the Vieuxtemps debut. The violin has never been recorded before. It's 273 years old, but one of its owners kept it stored away for 50 years, so for most of us, this is our first chance to hear it. The Vieuxtemps set records when it was sold. The price estimated at $16 million. Meyers brought this beautiful instrument to our studio and played it for us, as you'll hear. She said she was not looking for a new violin.

She had two wonderful instruments made by Stradivarius, but then, she was offered a chance to play the Vieuxtemps.

ANNE AKIKO MEYERS: I had to try it, and instantly fell in love. I was really pinching myself because I couldn't believe the whole gamut of colors that this violin has.

WERTHEIMER: Is there a way to show that to us?

MEYERS: Yes. Let me play a little bit of the opening of the "Spring" concerto by Vivaldi.



MEYERS: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Now, it is named for - you pronounce it.

MEYERS: Henri Vieuxtemps, he was the leading Belgian virtuoso, composer and violinist of the 19th century.

WERTHEIMER: And so he played it for many years.

MEYERS: He did play this violin and he was so in love with this violin that he really wanted to be buried with it. And I actually saw a picture of his funeral and he had another incredible violinist by the name of Eugene Ysaye carry this on a pillow behind his hearse. It gave me goose bumps when I saw the picture.

WERTHEIMER: When it came out of hibernation, it was in a bank vault, yes?

MEYERS: No. It belonged to a collector in London for about five decades and he told me that he kept it under his bed.

WERTHEIMER: So when it came out from under the bed to be played again, it sold for millions of dollars.

MEYERS: Yes, it did. It was the highest record for a violin today.

WERTHEIMER: In addition to everything else that it is, it's got more wood in it, right, than most violins of its age.

MEYERS: It's true. It was really in fashion to take the top off of these violins and scrape away the wood. Their thinking was that it would help make the sound bigger in halls, but it did the exact opposite and really would damage the intestines of the violin and luckily, nobody did that with the Vieuxtemps.

WERTHEIMER: I've heard it said about Guarneris that you can hear them in the back row of the hall, that they are just so powerful. Is there something in the Vivaldi that shows us that?

MEYERS: Let me play the storm section of "Summer."


MEYERS: Blast some here or there.

WERTHEIMER: We've seen violins do that, you know, sort of tear off the stings on the bow a bit. Does it affect the way you play, that you're playing this violin and not one of the Stradivarius that you own?

MEYERS: Yes, definitely. I think every violin has its own soul, imprinted by a previous performer. Recently, I played on Fritz Kreisler's Guarneri Del Gesu at the Library of Congress and I really felt his fat, buttery fingers just playing on that violin. So I definitely feel the soul of Vieuxtemps with this violin.

WERTHEIMER: Even though this thing sold for millions of dollars, it was purchased by a sort of a benefactor.

MEYERS: Anonymous.

WERTHEIMER: Who gave you the violin to use for your professional life and one of the reasons he wanted to give it to you was because of the great care that you have taken of the other fine instruments that you own and use. What is involved in being a good mother to a violin?

MEYERS: Well, artists can be kind of messy when you perform. There's some performers that just sweat all over the varnish of the violin and it's like an acid.

WERTHEIMER: So you are very careful not to do anything that would hurt it?

MEYERS: Absolutely. I'm always thinking of its security and have taken a lot of security measures in place.

WERTHEIMER: Are you nervous about it?

MEYERS: You know, I've been playing on these kinds of violins ever since I was 11 years old and one of the conditions with this benefactor was that it's just so heart-ripping when you really invest your heart and soul into an instrument and then it just goes away.

It needs to be given to another violinist or put on the market. And so I really didn't want to have that fear and I said that, you know, it would really greatly help me if I could play on this violin until I am able to pass it to the next generation.

WERTHEIMER: So you get to decide when that happens.

MEYERS: Basically, I get to use this for the rest of my life.


WERTHEIMER: That's Anne Akiko Meyers playing Vivaldi on her violin, the Vieuxtemps Guarneri Del Gesu. And if you're wondering about her other two wonderful violins, Meyers is hoping to find new homes for them because, as she says, they should be played.


WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.