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Putting a bow on a historical mystery

Violinist and UM grad, Gregory Lewis, takes charge of a rare Gagliano violin with ties to an interesting musical past

March 25, 2024 — 

This past August, the Canada Council for the Arts held their triennial Instrument Bank Competition, inviting some of the best Canadian pre-eminent classical musicians to compete for the chance to borrow one of the Instrument Bank’s world-class instruments for the next three years.

The exceptional instruments on offer, which each possess their own unique history and sound, were crafted by a who’s who of legendary Italian luthiers, including Stradivari, Pressenda and Gagliano, among others.

One of the 2023 competition finalists, UM Desautels Faculty of Music graduate, Gregory Lewis [BMus/17], handpicked a rare 1768 “Miller” Gagliano violin as the instrument he will take charge of for the next three years.

Though many of instruments featured in the Canada Council’s bank come with a long, storied history of past owners, players and historical anecdotes, the 1768 “Miller” Gagliano violin’s is unique in that its history is almost as mysterious as the life of the man who crafted it.

“This specific [violin], the donor has remained more or less anonymous, so that means much of the instrument’s history isn’t public as well,” says Lewis.

“The only thing that’s public is the people who’ve won it since she [“Mrs. Miller”] donated it to the collection. The rest of the history is a bit of a mystery.”

What we do know about this 256-year-old piece of musical history is that it was handcrafted by Januarius Gagliano, the son of fabled family patriarch Alessandro Gagliano, in Naples, Italy.

Credited with establishing the Neapolitan School of Violin Making in 1695, the instruments crafted by Alessandro Gagliano and his sons Januarius and Nicolò are widely considered the pinnacle of Neapolitan violin making and are highly sought after by collectors for their exceptionally sweet, lyrical sound.

Much like the 1768 “Miller” Gagliano violin now in Lewis’ care, the Gagliano family history is also one steeped in mystery and legend. For centuries, historians believed that Alessandro, who was born in Naples, had somehow made his way to Cremona as a youth, and trained as a luthier under Nicolo Amati (the grandson of Andrea Amati, credited with crafting the first four-stringed violin) and the legendary Antonio Stradivari, considered by many to be the greatest luthier in history.

But this tale, convenient as it may be, has since been debunked by historians, and the origins of one of the world’s greatest classical violin crafting dynasties, much like the histories of the instruments they crafted, remains shrouded in mystery.

One thing that isn’t a mystery, though, is the magnificence of the instruments they created, and why a virtuoso violinist like Gregory Lewis would compete to be a part of that continuing legacy.

So, why is this violin so special? In keeping with the legacy of the Gagliano family, that answer also contains a hint of mystery.

“I think craftmanship is a huge part of it, and the other half is just the mystery that we all face,” says Lewis.

“People are still trying to solve that mystery, and they haven’t figured out why. It’s not just age, because instruments from other places at that time just aren’t as good. It’s something about craftmanship, about the wood at that time. It was just something about what was in the air, I don’t know. It’s better than anything we’ve ever figured out since then, and it just makes these instruments incredibly special.”


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