Mr. Dye’s Stradivarius

It would be hard to imagine a stranger fate for a Stradivarius violin than for it to end up in the hands of a country fiddler who scratched out tunes on it at rural north Georgia hoedowns. But there is a very good chance that in years past exactly that occurred in Elbert County.

This is one of those unusual stories that sometimes glitter like gold flecks in the sands of a mountain stream when you take a ramble through old newspaper files. They might have attracted some notice when the ink was still damp, but since then they’ve just lain around waiting to be found again.

That was the case when research on a project led me to take a tour through 1944 by way of back issues of the Elberton Star. Antonio Stradivari and his instruments were the furthest thing from my thoughts − and then, suddenly, there they were.

According to an unsigned piece in the September 15, 1944 edition of the Star, the violin belonging to C.C. Dye of the Middleton community and bearing the inscription “Stadivarius” inside it had been in the Dye family for years. It had come to Georgia from Virginia in the late 1700s with Dye’s great-great grandfather, who had received the violin a bequest from an elderly mentor on the man’s death.

Mr. Dye himself did not play the violin, but it had been played by several in his family down through the years. By his recollection in 1944, though, it hadn’t been played in over fifty years. In those days, a sharecropper on his grandfather J.J. Dye’s place, J.D. Dubose, had regularly borrowed it to play at the sharecroppers’ barn dances. Scratched on the back of the violin, in fact, was “J.D. Dubose 1890.”

Antonio Stradivari is believed to have made just over 1,100 instruments at his shop in Cremona, Italy, over the course of his fairly long life (1644-1737). About 950 were violins, of which from 450 to 500 are believed to have survived.

Two things lend the ring of credibility to C.C. Dye’s violin being a genuine Stradivarius, three things really if we accept Mr. Dye’s story of the violin’s provenance and apparent age at face value (and there is no reason not to). One thing is the inscription described inside: “Stradivarius.” It’s the Latinized version of Stradivari’s name and it is indeed the inscription he used for all his instruments. The second clue that supports the notion of a genuine Stradivarius is that the “Stradivarius” inscription is all that was noted inside the violin.

By the early 1800s, copies of Stradivari’s instruments, bearing the name “Stradivarius,” were common. But European countries enacted laws that any such copies also be inscribed with the country of origin. And in 1890, the United States enacted a law that no such violins could be imported into the country if they didn’t bear such a label.

The Dye family story of how the violin came into their possession − and as I already noted, there seems no reason not to accept it − places it in their possession before the issue of unlabeled copies of Stradivari instruments became an issue anyone felt compelled to address by laws. So we’re left with there being a better than even chance, I think, that Mr. Dye’s “Stradivarius” was authentic.

(Was? Maybe is, if it still exists in some long forgotten box in a basement or attic. It would be worth the finding. In 2011, a Stradivarius violin in near pristine condition fetched $15.9 million at auction. Even in less than pristine condition, restored, you wouldn’t want to throw it away.)

If the violin is or was an authentic Stradivarius, then, no, I don’t think there could be an odder fate for one of the genius of Cremona’s instruments to have entertained at a rural Georgia sharecroppers’ hoedown.

One sketch I read years ago, but whose truthfulness I couldn’t attest to one way or the other, told of the youthful Stradivari being a frustrated violinist. He wanted very much to make a violin sing as the masters of the instrument could. He simply didn’t have the touch. He would at best never be more than a talented but ordinary player. The youngster had another talent, though; he could find in wood what the wood could become the way that Michelangelo is said to have seen his sculptures in a naked block of marble. A master instrument maker, Nicola Amati, recognized the boy’s talent and made him his apprentice. Today, few but music historians remember the teacher Amati but nearly everyone has heard of the student Stradivari. He couldn’t be the best at making a violin sing, but he could make violins that sang sweeter than any other in the right hands. Stradivari loved music both for the sake of the music and for the pleasure it gave those who heard it. Somehow I don’t think he would have minded if the music his violin made was for a Georgia sharecroppers’ hoedown.