Deceptive Cadence

A Sale Is Booming: Rare Stradivarius Drums Up For Auction


Timpani are also called kettledrums. These instruments crafted by Antonio Stradivari were, for a time, more kettles than drums.
DEA Picture Library, De Agostini/Getty Images
Timpani are also called kettledrums. These instruments crafted by Antonio Stradivari were, for a time, more kettles than drums.

Museum curators, instrument dealers and some of the world's most esteemed musicians will be clutching paddles today at Cloiduff's auction house in New York. They're gathering for what is expected to be an eight-figure sale of perhaps the rarest instruments ever to appear at auction: a pair of lovingly restored Stradivarius timpani.

The instruments — also known as kettledrums — were lost roughly a century after they were built by Cremonese master luthier Antonio Stradivari, whose violins, cellos and especially violas now sell for millions or even tens of millions of dollars. The drums were rediscovered late last year at the Vatican by Cardinal Johannes Feddersen during a routine inventory of kitchen equipment.

The two copper bowls, 26 inches and 29 inches in diameter, were secreted for decades behind a vast array of pasta-making and cannoli-filling machines. Apparently the vessels had been used to make not music but soups favored by early 19th-century Pope Honorius V, a native of Tuscany affectionately known to the masses as Il Papa Zuppa, The Soup Pope, due to his love of tortellini in broth and pesce d'aprile, a cold dessert soup containing Swedish Fish.

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"It's an astonishing discovery," said Metropolitan Philharmonic Principal Timpanist David Sheppard, who supervised the cleaning and restoration of the instruments. "Once we were able to remove the remaining traces of pasta and parmesan, all we needed to do was stretch calfskin for the heads. We actually found cattle grazing in the same forest where Stradivari sourced the wood for his violins."

The Fiemme Valley in the Italian Alps is known to historians as Il Bosco Che Suona, or The Musical Woods.

The mysteries that have perplexed musicologists since the unlikely emergence of these drums include: Why did Stradivarius make timpani? Did he make any more? And why did they fall out of use? Some answers appear to have been hidden in plain sight — in a piece that has intrigued scholars since the beginning of the Baroque revival nearly a century ago.

For decades, musicologists had assumed that one of the most unusual of the more than 500 concertos by Vivaldi, "Il Cammelo" (The Camel) in G major, was for double bass. Its most curious feature is a solo part that consists of only two notes, G and D, played over and over and over. Vivaldi's biographers have long assumed he composed the piece for a Venetian nobleman and amateur bassist of modest gifts named Gianluca Wimpani. It now appears the W on the title page was erroneously substituted for the correct T by a copyist long ago.

"This shows the piece in a whole new light," Sheppard said. He will play the work on the Stradivarius timpani with the Metropolitan Philharmonic during the Governors Island Beach Bach Brunch in June. "And it explains the subtitle. Back in the 1400s, Mongols and Turks had armies with timpanists riding on camels. Those were the days."

The piece also contains the key to its composition and first performance. Thanks to markings etched on the drums, scholars now believe Stradivarius crafted them especially for Giorgio Della Giungla, an adventurer, strongman and musician whom Stradivarius referred to in his diary as "amico per te e me" (friend to you and me).

"Della Giungla played a number of instruments, and quite well, but he was best known for riding elephants," said Yale University symbologist B. Reid Morris. "There is no record of him on camelback." The Stradivarius timpani appear to have fallen into disuse when, after repeated collisions while swinging from tree to tree on vines in the instrument maker's beloved Musical Woods, Della Giungla had a fatal encounter with an heirloom spruce. "People tried to warn him," Morris said, "but as usual it was too late."

How the Vatican came to acquire the Stradivarius drums is unknown. What is certain is that they were put away after the death of Honorius V and the election of Pope Honorius VI, who preferred the more substantial cuisine of his native Milan.

The key questions that remain are: Do the Stradivarius timpani sound as beautiful as the Stradivarius violins? And are they worth the $10 million or $20 million or even $30 million or more that they could fetch at auction?

"You just have to hear them," Sheppard said. "When I play Also sprach Zarathustra with the Philharmonic, I swear I feel like I'm Itzhak Perlman. Only louder. And in the back of the orchestra."

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