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Culture

Exhibition delves into Vienna's rich string instrument tradition

Vienna's historic center is full of traces from the music legends that shaped the city, from Beethoven to the city's Philharmonic. A new exhibition focuses on one element of that history: music for strings.

A violin made by Franz Geissenhof

This violin was made by Franz Geissenhof of Vienna in 1820

"Heaven is Full of Violins," an exhibition at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, tells the story of one of Vienna's most famous exports from 1797 to 1910.

After enduring revolutions, wars and social upheaval, the northern Italian city of Cremona began losing its reputation as the center for building excellent violins in the tradition of Stradivari or Guarneri by the end of the 18th century. But Italian instrument design found its way to Vienna in 1828 with Niccolo Paganini, nicknamed the "Devil on the Violin" for his outstanding virtuosity.

"During Paganini's stay in Vienna, he had to have a repair job done on his instrument, and he entrusted his Guarneri del Gesù to Nikolaus von Zawicki, one of the famous Viennese instrument makers of his day," explained Rudolf Hopfner, director of the collection of ancient musical instruments in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

"Zawicki replaced the finger-board of Paganini's violin, and, of course, he also took measurements of the instrument and studied it in detail. Afterwards he made copies of the Guarneris del Gesù and modelled his instruments according to Italian models," Hopfner added.

Manuscript of Schubert's Movement for String Quartet in C minor

Schubert's Movement for String Quartet in C minor is on display

Beethoven's influence

Vienna saw its own share of political change in the 19th century as the power of the nobility declined. The orchestras they supported and financed either decreased in size or disappeared altogether.

Musically talented members of the middle classes took over responsibility for organizing public concerts, including Beethoven's contemporary, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, one of the most influential violinists of his time.

"In the exhibition, we have here a sketch of a string quartet by Beethoven, opus 130," said Ingrid Fuchs, co-curator of the violin exhibition.

"Beethoven wrote it for Ignaz Schuppanzigh and his quartet because he was the only man who was able to play it. The piece is very difficult and the public wasn't able to understand it at first," Fuchs explained.

Schuppanzigh had his own string quartet and organized public musical soirees in which he premiered many of Beethoven's string quartets.

A painting illustrating musical culture in 19th century Vienna

Concerts expanded to new audiences and venues in the 19th century

Original scores

The Society of the Friends of Music, which co-sponsored the exhibition, was another force in shaping Viennese music of the 19th century. For this new exhibition, the society's safe deposits have been opened up for the first time since 1996 to present many autograph scores, letters and portraits.

"Visitors can see the autograph score of Brahms's Concerto for Violin and Cello as well as autograph scores by Schubert for string quartets and by Beethoven, so it's a unique chance to see - in one exhibition - the most famous works for string instruments by these composers," said co-curator Otto Biba, archive director of the Society of the Friends of Music.

Another section of the exhibition highlights the tradition of teaching string instruments. Several of the current players in the Vienna Philharmonic are direct descendants of the original members of the orchestra when it was founded.

Perhaps that's one more key to explaining the special sound of the Viennese strings.

Author: Elizabeth Mortimer / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen

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