By Cristina Schreil
As if the ornate splendor of Madrid’s Royal Palace wasn’t romantic enough, four instruments—displayed in glass cases like prized artifacts—immediately evoke the tale of Snow White. The two violins, viola, and cello are enchanting, as if pulled from a fairy tale: decorative details include bead-like ivory inlay in the purfling and ornate plant and flower motifs. Forest animals painted on the sides appear to leap out. More ornate vine-like swirls adorn the scrolls. And, like Snow White, they appear fast asleep—treasures frozen in time.
This quartet was made by Antonio Stradivari between 1694 and 1709 for Spanish royalty. While there are 11 decorated Strads in existence, this is the only decorated quartet by the great maker that was wholly conceived as an ensemble. The cello, the first of the quartet to be constructed, is the only cello he decorated. “I’m usually struck with sadness when seeing these instruments caged behind glass, but in this case, they are so beautiful with their inlays and paintwork that I thought of them more like pieces of art than musical instruments,” says Ori Kam, violist of the Jerusalem Quartet. Kam and his fellow quartet members are among those who have played these instruments in recent years.
“The constructive characteristics of this instrumental set are of great artistic and sound appeal. The Stradivari drawings prove that Stradivari was an excellent draftsman,” says Elsa Fonseca Sánchez-Jara, a musicologist at the University of Salamanca who has dedicated her studies to the “Spanish Court” quartet. She muses that Stradivari’s ornate drawings took inspiration from Amati. “The Spanish Quartet has a magnificent work of filleting on the contour of the two covers, with small rhombuses and ivory circles embedded on black material. In the hoops and tuners, the decoration also includes arabesque shapes and figures of fantastic animals. There are rabbits on the violin and the viola, and on the violoncello, a child. In the two violins these decorations are inlaid with black material, while in the viola and the violoncello the figures are drawn with Chinese ink.”
The instruments have hardly left the Royal Palace since arriving in 1772, after being purchased by King Carlos IV—a violinist who played frequently. The ensemble was initially a quintet with two violas—one of which was reportedly larger and deeper. “Over the years, since they arrived they have been under the care of different musicians, luthiers, and curators of the Royal Palace of Madrid,” says Fonseca Sánchez-Jara. “Some have dedicated themselves to repairing them in specific circumstances and others to their daily maintenance. I think we must highlight Arturo Saco del Valle, José García Marcellán, Juan Ruiz Casaux, the house Hill, and Étienne Vatelot, during the 20th century.”
During the Napoleonic wars, both violas were ransacked by French soldiers. “So far only the contralto viola has been recovered, bought through the Hill house in London and brought back to Madrid in 1951 by the interest of King Alfonso XIII,” she says. Since then, the quartet has been performed on mainly for special occasions. She adds that the larger viola is still lost. “Possibly the other viola tenor is saved, although we do not know where.”
Length of back: 35.5 cm
Upper bouts: 16.7 cm
Middle bouts: 11.5 cm
Lower bouts: 20.5 cm
Length of back: 35 cm
Upper bouts: 16 cm
Middle bouts: 11 cm
Lower bouts: 20.2 cm
Length of back: 41.4 cm
Upper bouts: 18.3 cm
Middle bouts: 13 cm
Lower bouts: 24 cm
Length of back: 75.5 cm
Upper bouts: 34 cm
Middle bouts: 23.5 cm
Lower bouts: 44 cm
The sheer cultural gravitas isn’t lost on players. “The feeling of holding a viola, which ‘lived’ through all of these historical events, and was played in such pivotal moments in history, was truly moving,” says Kam. However, the instruments are viewed officially as historical artifacts first and foremost. Players express how the royal palace goes to great lengths to ensure the instruments are handled exceptionally gingerly.
“I think from a player’s perspective the tension between preserving the instruments and using them as instruments to be played is very complicated,” says Jonathan Brown, violist of Cuarteto Casals, another of the ensembles that performs on the quartet. “It’s clear that having the instruments played is not the priority of the royal palace. From a playing perspective, it’s somewhat frustrating in that all musicians that I’ve talked to that have played these instruments agreed they could sound much better . . . . From an antique collector’s standpoint, I understand the logic.”
In 2013, the Royal Palace established a quartet-in-residence program, wherein different ensembles perform six concerts annually on the instruments. Historically, the instruments were reserved for special occasions and invited guests; now, the Spanish people can have greater access. However, this priority on treating the objects as antiques seems to impact every aspect of the concert-preparation process. This interferes with the belief that regular playing leads to improved sound quality. “The more you play the instrument, the better it is,” says Helena Poggio, cellist of Cuarteto Quiroga—the first quartet-in-residence. “All the harmonics come alive. They can be awake again.”
It’s a balmy August morning in Madrid, and Poggio is sitting at an outdoor café in the shadow of the Teatro Español. A Madrid native, she recalls viewing the instruments behind glass at the palace years ago and marveling. She smears crushed tomato on a crunchy piece of toast as she asserts it’s an honor to play them. However, it wasn’t without challenges. As time passed, rehearsals before concerts were cut shorter in an effort to preserve the instruments’ integrity. Palace officials are fastidious about limiting the amount of contact one has alone with the instruments. In the beginning, there sometimes wasn’t enough time to comfortably adjust, much less explore their full range of musical possibilities.
The players were also often flanked by a fleet of security guards. “It was strange because quartet rehearsal is such an intimate thing,” Poggio says. “It’s like we’re in our own kitchen cooking our stuff and then someone comes in to see how you make the recipe.”
“The feeling of holding a viola, which “lived” through all of these historical events, and was played in such pivotal moments in history, was truly moving.”
Other past players are quick to emphasize that the instruments should be heard more often. “It was like drinking from the holy grail,” Cibrán Sierra, a Cuarteto Quiroga violinist, says. One of the violins has a stunningly quick response. “It is a really powerful violin with very rich sound in all registers, a very complex palette, and with a breathtaking ability—almost magical—to project its sound very far away without losing any clarity whatsoever,” Sierra says. “It is like driving a top-class racing car or riding the most incredible horse you can imagine. A tremendous power, which is also wildly difficult to handle responsibly.”
A central aspect of the quartet’s character is its seamless connection. Some swear by the quartet’s almost effortless blend. This facet immediately revealed itself when Cuarteto Quiroga was rehearsing Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7, Op. 59, No. 1, of his three “Razumovsky” quartets. “There are a few unisons where we play all the same notes together, so it sounds like we are one. This is something that, in quartet technique, is not easy to achieve,” Poggio shares. “But with these instruments, we had to do nothing. It was like a magic trick.”
Brown also recalls this uncanny phenomenon. “You immediately hear and feel and see that these four instruments were made together,” he says. “Issues like blend of sound, you basically don’t have to think about it. That work is just done for you by the instruments.”
While most objects exhibited at the Royal Palace of Madrid are portals back in time, players argue the future of the decorated Strad quartet needs to be more forward-thinking. For one, the Cuarteto Quiroga players believe there should be more exposure—via concerts, recordings, and broadcasts—to the greater public. Some don’t believe the Spanish people fully understand the value of what’s technically in their possession.
“Having them lying silent most of the year in their showcases is a true pity, and it prevents the instruments from blooming and flourishing in their incredible full potential as the amazing quartet-music-making tools that they are,” Sierra says. “The world should listen to their sound more often. It is the sound of Madrid.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Strings magazine.