Posted By on February 8, 2011

I’ve just come back from Budapest. There’s an exhibition called Opera and Nation there at the Museum of Music History, which is part of the Institute for Musicology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. It has lots of stringed instruments in it, and it runs until the end of August 2011. Very often presentations of this type display fake instruments. I suppose the owners who lend violins sincerely believe that they really do have authentic things . . . and normally the curator has no idea otherwise. Also, sometimes, permanent displays have really disgraceful fakes on display. One of England’s regional museums has a violin behind glass which is captioned as the work of Nicolo Amati – and it’s the usual worthless late 19th Century German copy. Oh, and there are collections of fakes in opera houses in South America and in churches in Italy . . . here, one assumes, unscrupulous hands have swapped worthless things for treasures, for very few civic authorities can recognise their own violins. Particularly if they have been taken away for restoration. Such things probably happened a long time ago.

So it was an unexpected pleasure to see exactly what I’d hoped for – excellent examples of local violin-making. The instruments were displayed simply, on their backs, and behind glass, so there was no opportunity to have a good look – and yet one couldn’t question the authenticity of any of them, for they were all old, in wonderful condition and having far more care in their edges and soundholes than factory productions. The Viennese ones were easy to spot, being almost black and seemingly having thin tables; an illusion given by their very undercut soundholes. There were lots of them. Amongst others I saw were violins by Mathias Thir, (two examples, from 1764 and 1782), another by his brother Johann Georg, dated 1754, one by Johann Christoph Leidolff made in 1748, an excellent viola by Johann Joseph Stadlmann, 1761 and another by his son, Michael Ignatius, dated 1774.

Budapest museum violins

Taken with a mobile phone, not a camera, and through glass. You really can’t see anything worthwhile in this picture, but there was plenty to see.

Other places were represented by the first Johann Georg Leeb of Bratislava – two violins, dated 1777 and 1781, and a beautiful violin by somebody called Bernhard Viedenhoffer, made in Pest (that is, I have learnt, the left bank of the Danube at Budapest) in 1799. Oh, and there was a wonderful Italian violin captioned as by Francesco Galtenari, Turin, 1703. Now this is weird. I’ve never heard of this maker, but it was exactly as I’d expect an early Italian violin to be, and it was in the company of lots of other instruments of undoubted authenticity. You learn something every day.

Violas in Budapest museum

Two violas. The dark one is by Michael Ignatius Stadlmann, 1774. The other is just a 19th century Maggini copy – and that’s how it was labelled. There were no silly claims made for it. Whoever curated the exhibition did a good job.


cello scroll



Oh yes! A cello by Aloys Engleder of Budapest of 1868. This last was marvellous. The maker gets a terrible write-up in Henley’s ridiculous dictionary, but this was a work of art. It’s difficult to see the skill of the maker in these images, which were taken with a mobile phone and from behind glass – but look at that exaggerated pegbox, with two distinct pairs of pegs, like a Neapolitan instrument.


baryton table



Budapest has much more to offer. The Hungarian National Museum has the fabulous and famous baryton which was played by Prince Esterhazy. It was also made by Johann Joseph Stadlmann of Vienna, in 1750. It’s a breathtaking instrument of unsurpassed importance. Haydn composed 175 works for it – I don’t mean for any old baryton, I mean for this one. It is made of the choicest materials and pierced by perfect double-flame soundholes and an intricately carved wooden – not parchment – rose. Ivory flames are inset in the heel of the neck. It excels in inlay, having scrolling foliage decoration on the unfretted portion of the neck, line purfling and chevron stringing to the edges of the body, neck and pegbox, and matching marquetry in the back, ribs and behind the pegbox; also carving, a finely made man’s head, complete with a Hungarian shako hat, providing a finial for the extravagent pegbox. The latter has no fewer than seventeen pegs. The plucked strings, for the Prince’s left thumb, terminate in raised blocks set in a diagonal line on the table, running from the base underneath the tailpiece but extending upwards under the widely-splayed feet of the bridge. The Prince took good care of it too, for it is in perfect condition. The survival of the original heavy tailored wooden case, bound in red leather and reinforced with golden studs, can only have helped.

Folk cello
A folk cello



The same museum has another almost forgotten member of the viol family – a viola d’amore – and noteworthy examples of the woodwind, brasswind and keyboard families. And Mozart’s clavichord. Another museum, the Ethnographic, provided an example of the fall from the sublime to the ridiculous with an example of a folk cello, which apparently, is sounded by hitting it with a stick. Elsewhere in the city was . . . the festival of the Mangalica. The mangalica is a wonderful animal. It’s an extremely hairy pig. I was enchanted.

Mangalica pig
A Mangalica pig in Budapest

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