He made more than just great violins. Jacob Stainer innovated on the form and created a new type of violin that fit the Baroque and subsequent eras.
The most famous of the Austrian-German luthiers, Jacob Stainer (1618-1683) – the violin maker who preceded the Stradivari and Guarneri juggernauts – lived and worked in the Baroque era (1600-1750). As such, his violin shop and the instruments he crafted were adapted to accommodate the composers and venues of that era – as well as the Catholic-Protestant split in politics and culture that began a century before his birth with the Reformation of 1517.
Stainer’s violins, cellos, and basses were favored for the compositions of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Corelli, Monteverdi, Purcell, et al. Their music was known for ornamentation (trills and other embellishments, not unlike luxuriant architecture features of the Baroque), emotion, and polyphony (complex harmonies created by the interweaving of multiple melodic lines).
But music then was also a tool, some might say weapon, meant to promote both Lutheranism and the counter-reformation from the church of Rome. In modern terms, one might think of it as a time when music was marketing, like how soaring worship spaces and richly detailed stained-glass windows drew the awe of kings and peasants alike.
Unfortunately, Stainer ultimately was accused by Catholics of courting Lutherans – his crime being the possession of Protestant writings on his person (and nothing more). He was consequently treated as a heretic by the Holy Roman Emperor and is believed to have fallen into a manic-depressive state as a result that led to his death just a few years later.
It’s a sad postscript to his brilliant career as a luthier. His violins were an advancement, using a flatter and wider bridge and longer sound post than the predecessors. His use of maple wood for the back and sides of string instruments and spruce for the top was innovative in its day. Stainer violins also had a broader lower back, elaborate scrolls and carved heads, and varnish in amber and orange-red. The instruments he built – as well as the violas, cellos, and basses, few of which have survived – were influential in the development of the modern violin. Many of those characteristics of the Stainer violins have endured.
Just as important to the performance with Stainer violins is the tonal quality, said to be a warm and resonant sound. As mentioned, the Baroque music being composed in his day required versatility, range, and expressiveness. Not only was church music ascendant in its importance, but an emerging middle class was interested in non-religious music as well. Operas became a popular form of entertainment and required instruments that helped express a wider range of emotions. And it was during the Baroque period that violins emerged as solo instruments, while composers, including Bach and Vivaldi, wrote challenging music (e.g., with rapid arpeggios) that required more of both the violin and the violinist.
The concert venues (including cathedrals) of the Baroque era include St. Peter’s Basilica (Rome), the Palace of Versailles (France), Thomaskirche (Leipzig), and Teatro di San Carlo (Naples). Acoustics to accommodate large-scale choral and instrumental music became an art form unto itself.
Of the approximately 300 instruments Stainer made, it is estimated that 80 to 100 of his instruments survived to the 21st century. But those claiming to be made in the Stainer-style number in the thousands.
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