The “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” Stradivari Violoncello of 1707

A 200 Year Musical Journey

by Duane Rosengard

In most cases, the provenance of Antonio Stradivari’s violoncellos can only be traced to the mid nineteenth century, by which time they were dispersed amongst artists and amateurs in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. By contrast, the earliest series of notices regarding the Antonio Stradivari violoncello of 1707 known as the “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” come from Milan in the year 1816, at which time the instrument was the focus of attention for numerous leading personalities in the Milanese musical world, including a violin maker, his talented cellist son, and one of the early historians of Italian violin making.

The violin maker Antonio Merighi (1765-1833) moved from his native city, Parma, to Milan in about 1803 at the behest of Alessandro Rolla (1757-1841). At this time, Rolla was near the beginning of his long tenure as concertmaster of the Scala orchestra. A highly sought after teacher, his most famous pupil in Parma had been Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840). Merighi followed Rolla from Parma to Milan, evidently in search of greater patronage and economic stability.

Antonio Merighi’s eldest son, Vincenzo (1795-1849), was in 1816 a serious cello student whose teacher in Milan, by a singular coincidence, was Giuseppe Storioni (1774-1823), the son of the Cremonese violin maker Lorenzo Storioni (1744-1816). The younger Storioni was the principal cellist of the Scala and a close collaborator of Rolla, with whom he was a faculty member of the Conservatory of Music that was founded in Milan in 1809.

Beginning in 1804, if not slightly earlier, Antonio Merighi was patronized by the most celebrated connoisseur, collector and historian of that time: Ignazio Alessandro Cozio, Count of Salabue (1755-1840). Merighi performed a variety of chores, repairs and experiments for the Count between 1804 and 1810. Cozio’s curiosity about, and interest in, the craft of violin making extended back to 1773, when he became the exclusive patron of the violin maker Giovanni Battista Guadagnini (1711-1786). One of his more spectacular and farsighted acquisitions was made directly from the Stradivari family; in 1775-76, Cozio purchased a great number of the tools, paper patterns, and wooden forms used by the three Stradivari violin makers from Antonio Stradivari’s youngest son, Paolo. As he matured, Cozio often referred to the Stradivari relics when studying instruments by the famous maker.

Contact between Antonio Merighi and Count Cozio appears to have tapered off after 1810, a circumstance partly attributable to the Count’s less frequent journeys to Milan from his home near Casale Monferrato. However, the Count began a long stay in Milan in the spring of 1816 and learned that Antonio Merighi had purchased a Stradivari cello.[1] Cozio examined the cello and made these notes [2]:

“8 June 1816 Milan
Saw the very good and strong violoncello of medium form B by Antonio Stradivari of 1707 belonging to Vincenzo, the son of Antonio Merighi, a good player pupil of Signor [Giuseppe] Storioni at the Milan Conservatory…

This instrument is equal in all its measurements, red varnish and workmanship to that of Signor Professor Alessandro Delfini called “Brescianino”, except that Merighi’s is larger in the chest between the Cs of the two edges than that of 1709 belonging to Brescianino.

This one of Merighi is of very beautiful wide grain maple back, ribs, and neck [head] and the back joined at the middle with the grain descending from … to …[3] and the back is sound.

In the ribs some cracks. In the table also some well adjusted cracks The soundholes are very beautiful… ”

Cozio’s remark on the head is slightly perplexing. While recognizing it as by the maker, he seems to conjecture that it was made as a viola da gamba with six strings. It would appear that Cozio interpreted the opening of the back of the pegbox as evidence that the instrument was strung as a viola da gamba.

With reference to the Stradivari paper patterns he possessed, Cozio also noted that

“the soundholes of Merighi’s Stradivari are those of the ordinary Forma B.” [4]

Vincenzo Merighi’s distinguished career, which began after his graduation from the Milan Conservatory in 1815, encompassed most of the highlights in the musical life of Milan over the next three decades. He began playing in the Scala orchestra by 1816. Upon Alessandro Rolla’s recommendation, Merighi suceeded his teacher Giuseppe Storioni as principal cellist of the Scala orchestra in 1823.

A number of Merighi’s compositions for solo ‘cello and chamber ensembles were published during his lifetime. He is now probably best remembered as the teacher of Carlo Alfredo Piatti (1822-1901), Alessandro Pezze (1835-1914) and Guglielmo Quarenghi. Piatti and Pezze taught in London for decades and trained dozens of cellists.

Amongst the many musicians associated with Vincenzo Merighi, particular mention must be made of Nicolò Paganini. They played in string quartets together in Milan and kept in touch while the violin virtuoso crisscrossed Europe on his travels.

After a series of lucrative and very lengthy concert tours at the end of the 1830s, Nicolò Paganini retired to the south of France to rest and recuperate. A number of letters exchanged by Paganini and Vincenzo Merighi reveal that the violin virtuoso was keen to invest large amounts of money in rare stringed instruments, particularly from 1838 onwards. His principal intermediary in these acquisitions was Merighi.

The great deal of confusion surrounding Paganini’s activities as stringed instrument owner and collector stem from two aggravating circumstances. Most would-be “biographers,” or those who wrote about him, were overwhelmed by his “star power” and thus unable or unwilling to accurately narrate events as they occurred in the violinist’s life. Secondly, the vast majority of Paganini’s letters and papers were dispersed on the international antiquarian market in the six or seven decades after his death; autograph and memorabilia collectors have succeeded in saving (and hiding) much material that would allow for a more complete understanding of Paganini’s affairs.

Edward Neill’s Paganini Epistolario (1982) was the first attempt to assemble and publish a faithful transcription of the legendary virtuoso’s letters. Unfortunately, this work was never translated into English and Neill had to publish an appendix almost as soon his main work was printed. Nevertheless, a review of the extant Paganini correspondence reveals that before July of 1838 he owned a cello believed to be by “Stradivari.” [5] This instrument was, however, not the Stradivari cello owned by Merighi.

In fact, Paganini’s earliest known reference to Merighi’s Stradivari cello occurs in a letter dated 12 January 1838. In this letter, Paganini expressed a wish to purchase Merighi’s Stradivarius, both as a souvenir of Merighi and for eventual use by Paganini’s son, Achille. [6] Two months later, Paganini asked Merighi if 200 Louis would be an acceptable price for the Stradivari cello. [7] This potential transaction appears to have been left in abeyance for a time, and only in January 1839 did Paganini ask Merighi to name the “definitive” price of the cello. [8]

In his next letter to Merighi, dated 3 February 1839, Paganini writes

“I hurry to share with you that I am happy to acquire your violoncello for 250 Louis d’or…”

[9] On the very same day, Paganini wrote two more letters: the first to his lawyer and confidant Luigi Germi [10] announcing the purchase of Merighi’s “Stradivario” cello and a second to his banker L. B. Migone ordering that payment be made to Merighi. [11]

Evidently the cellist dispatched his instrument soon, as Paganini informed Merighi on 20 March 1839 that the Stradivari violoncello had arrived safely in Marseilles. [12] Paganini also mentioned that his Stradivari quartet was now “complete.”

Plagued by health problems for much of the 1830s, Nicolò Paganini died in Nice on 27 May 1840. His son and sole heir, Achille, inherited a substantial fortune in real estate, bonds, cash, curiosities, and musical instruments. An inventory of Paganini’s property, including his instrument collection, is said to be in the Mandozzi collection in Locarno, Switzerland in 1994. I have not seen this document, although it apparently lists a Stradivari quartet, six Stradivari violins and one Stradivari violoncello.

A series of letters from the Parisian luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume to Achille Paganini has come to light within recent years. [13] Though by no means complete with respect to the affairs of the violin maker and the younger Paganini, these letters give some insight into Vuillaume’s efforts to prepare the “ex Nicolò Paganini” Stradivari instruments for sale in Paris.

Achille left his Stradivari quartet on sale with Vuillaume prior to November 1846. Apparently, in a letter of 10 November of that year, Achille had authorized Vuillaume to sell the quartet en bloc. On 12 December 1846, Vuillaume replied to Achille, confirming the overall price of 20,000 French francs and outlining the costs of repair to the two violins, viola and cello. However, almost three years later, on 7 October 1849, Vuillaume wrote to Achille:

“I still have your quartet.”

Vuillaume suggests that the price set by Achille was too high.

Vuillaume again wrote to Achille, on 10 December 1850, reiterating that the price set by Achille for the quartet deterred customers, and that only partial offers were forthcoming. Vuillaume subsequently received an offer for the quartet that Achille declined, and so on 3 March 1851 Vuillaume himself offered to purchase the quartet outright for 12,000 French francs. However, Vuillaume withdrew his offer just eighteen days later and instead proposed to continue holding the quartet on consignment.

A letter, written in the spring or summer of 1851, shows that Vuillaume had taken the Paganini Stradivari instruments to London for sale during the Great Exhibition then being held at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. Achille eventually journeyed to London, and while there he and Vuillaume concluded a revised consignment contract on 10 September 1851 for the quartet, pricing the cello at 5,000 francs and the two violins and viola at 2,500 francs each.

The published Achille Paganini – Vuillaume correspondence, along with the earlier letters of Nicolò Paganini to Vincenzo Merighi, show that the group of instruments identified as the “Paganini Quartet” in numerous 20th century publications is not correct. The best available sources state that an ex “Paganini” Stradivari cello was sold by Vuillaume to the Count Stainlein in 1854, which would be perfectly consistent with the above cited letters. However, beginning with Emil Herrmann, another Stradivari cello, the “ex Ladenburg” is often cited as “the” cello of the “Paganini” quartet. This example – though it may have belonged to Paganini at one point in time – was already in German ownership during the 1840s, and early 1850s. [14] Therefore the “ex Ladenburg” could not possibly be the same Stradivari cello cited in Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume’s letters to Achille Paganini between 1846 and 1851.

Though associated by name with the Countess Stainlein, it would seem more likely that the cello was in fact acquired from Vuillaume by the Count Louis Charles Georges Corneille de Stainlein – Staalenstein (or Saalenstein) (1819-1867). An amateur cellist of some renown, Stainlein was warmly remembered by the Belgian musicologist Francois-Joseph Fétis as a composer and host of “chamber music soirees” with Camillo Sivori and others in Paris in 1857. [15] Another well known Stradivari cello owner, Adrien Francais Servais, dedicated a “Grand Fantasie” for solo cello to Stainlein. His obituary Le Guide Musical mentions that he was a “violoncelliste distingué.” [16] After his death in Munich, Ludwig Schönchen wrote a lengthly Eulogy and named his “exceptional Stradivari.” [17]

His widow, the Countess Valérie de Stainlein, née Nagelmackers (1826-1908), kept the cello for the remainder of her life, and though she was known as a poet and correspondent of major contemporary musical figures like Franz Liszt, we do not know if she herself played any instrument. In 1872, the “Count Stainlein, Liège” was one of twenty owners of Stradivari cellos listed by the well informed French enthusiast Jules Gallay, who was also a serious amateur player of the cello. [18]

The leading British expert, Alfred Hill, reported to his brother Arthur – who recorded this on February 5, 1894:

“An interesting letter… from Alfred written in Paris yesterday, and among other things he mentions… that the Strad cello belonging to the… Countess at Liège, which he has been so long trying to see is genuine, as he has at last seen it.”

Further remarks on the instrument appear in the famous monograph on Stradivari published by the Hill brothers in 1902. [19]

In the year after the Countess’s death, the cello appeared for sale in Vienna. Arthur Hill noted in his diary that the German cellist Paul Grümmer (1879-1965) saw the “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” Stradivari cello in 1909 in Vienna and consulted with the Hills about the value of the instrument. [20]

In his autobiography, Begegnungen aus dem Leben eines Violoncellisten, [21] Grümmer recounts how he was offered the 1707 Stradivari cello by two Viennese dealers, Rauer and Stubiger, but that the seller, Count Chorinsky, insisted upon a cash only transaction. Grümmer’s father-in-law, Carl Juritsch, provided the money for the purchase. According to Grümmer, Valérie Stainlein gave the Stradivari cello to the Countess Emma Emo-Capodilista Wilczek (1833–1924), the wife of the great Viennese art patron Count Johann Nepomuk Wilczek. The Countess Wilczek’s nephew, Count Chorinsky, sold it to Grümmer and his father-in-law.

A pupil of both Julius Klengel at the Leipzig Conservatory and Hugo Becker in Frankfurt, Paul Grümmer is often remembered as the cellist of the quartet founded by Adolf Busch in about 1920. Amongst other works, he was the dedicatee of Max Reger’s third unaccompanied Suite for ‘cello. Grümmer’s published works include a method for viola da gamba. As professor in Cologne, and at Vienna’s Hochschule, he was the teacher of August Wenzinger and Nicolas Harnoncourt.

Grümmer states that he sold the cello in 1938. The buyer was Dr. George Talbot of Aachen, one of the more discriminating continental collectors of the early 20th century. At different times, Dr. Talbot owned no less than five violins by Antonio Stradivari, each of which was a remarkable specimen, as well as violins by Pietro Guarneri of Venice and Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesù.” Although no thorough study of Dr. Talbot’s collection has been published, it would appear that the “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” was the only cello he ever possessed.

From the Talbot family the “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” Stradivari passed to Bernard Greenhouse in 1957.

Unfortunately, the remarkably rich history of the “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” Stradivari has been poorly served in violin literature. Otherwise serious authorities such as Alfredo Piatti [22], Ernest Doring [23] and Herbert Goodkind [24] each contributed erroneous information to the background of the cello. This essay is an attempt to rectify misunderstanding and to detail provenance.

Anecdotes aside, the “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” represents a pivotal moment in Antonio Stradivari’s life long research to refine and perfect the violoncello. In addition, its nearly two hundred year presence in the concert halls and salons of the world stands as testament to an instrument of rare adaptability and intrinsic quality.

Endnotes

1. In a note of 30 May 1816 Cozio reminds himself to see Merighi’s Stradivari cello. Cremona, Biblioteca Statale, Cozio MS 77/21

2. Cremona, Biblioteca Statale, Cozio MS 47, pp. 39 recto – verso

3. Cozio left blank spaces where indicated.

4. ibid., p. 32 recto; Cozio would be referring to the soundhole drawing laid out on the ribs structure (Museo Stradivariano, no. 272 recto) and/or the patterns for the soundhole openings (Museo Stradivariano, nos. 273-274).

5. E. Neill, Paganini Epistolario, no. 307, 23 July 1838; In this letter, Paganini instructs his lawyer Germi to have his Stradivari cello sent; it was in Milan with the heirs of late Carlo Carli.

6. E. Neill, Ibid., no. 291
7. E. Neill, Ibid., no. 294, 13 March 1838
8. E. Neill, Ibid., no. 327, 14 January 1839
9. E. Neill, Paganini Epistolario, no. 329
10. E. Neill, Ibid., no. 331
11. E. Neill, Ibid., no. 330
12. E. Neill, Ibid., no. 335

13. Claude Lebet, Le Quatour Stradivarius ‘Nicolò Paganini’, Les Amis de la Musique, Spa, 1994

14. In private notes, Alfred Hill recorded that M. La Mire acquired the “Ladenburg” cello in 1840. This statement is repeated in the Hills,’ Antonio Stradivari, His Life and Work, p.145. Shortly after the cello changed hands in 1874, an account of its recent provenance appeared in a French journal with no mention of Paganini as a former owner: “Le célèbre violoncelle de Stradivarius, ayant appartenu à M. La Mire, puis à M. de Ploos, vient d’etre acheté pour le prix de 9,000 francs, par le violoncelliste Krumholz, de Stuttgart. Cet instrument est avec ceux de Franchomme, de Davidoff et de Servais, le plus beau Stradivarius connu; il date de la meilleure période du maître.” Cfr., “Le Guide musical: revue internationale de la musique et de theâtres lyriques”, Volume 21, 14 Janvier 1875. In addition to some ambiguity about the date of the “ex – Ladenburg,” no mention of Paganini’s alleged prior ownership appears in the notes of C. E. Gand who examined the cello in 1878; Charles-Eugene Gand, Catalogue descriptif des instruments de Stradivarius et Guarnerius del Gesù, ed. Sylvette Milliot, Les Amis de la Musique, Spa, 1994, p. 79. Nor does the “Ladenburg” conform to Cozio’s description of Merighi’s Stradivari cello. The Hills refer to the “Ladenburg” cello, which was owned by Robert von Mendelsohn when their book on Stradivari was published. Mendelsohn and his son, Franz, did however own the “Paganini” Stradivari viola.

15. Francois Fetis – Arthur Pougin, Biographie universelle des musicians, Supplement et Complement, tome II, p. 540

16. Le Guide musical: revue internationale de la musique et de theâtres lyriques, 14 novembre 1867.

17. Ludwig Schönchen, “Ludwig Graf Steinlein von Saalenstein, Ein Blatt der Erinnerung”, Munich, 1868

18. Jules Gallay, “Les instruments des écoles italienne”, Gand & Bernardel Freres, Paris, 1872, p. 30.

19. W. Henry, Arthur F. and Alfred E. Hill, Antonio Stradivari, His Life and Work (1644-1737), p. 129 and, in detail, on p. 132.

20. Grümmer made numerous trips to England and as early as 1906 was urging Edward Elgar to proceed with the composition of a cello concerto. Jerrold Northrop Moore, Edward Elgar:
A Creative Life,
p. 406

21. Encounters from the Life of a Cellist, Bong, 1960

22. Piatti was the source for the story (repeated by the Hills, “Antonio Stradivari…” p.132) and others) that Merighi had acquired the cello in 1822 at a very low price on the “streets of Milan.” Aside from the factual inconsistency with the notes of Count Cozio, neither Piatti nor his fellow pupil Alessandro Pezze were even alive when Antonio and Vincenzo Merighi acquired the cello. Furthermore, Piatti had left Milan, and Pezze was a child of three years of age when Merighi sold his Stradivari cello to Paganini. Thus neither of the Merighi pupils can be considered reliable.

23. Doring gives Paul Grümmer’s name as “Albert Kruemmer.”

24. Goodkind mistakenly fuses the provenance of the “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” with the “Boni Hegar” Stradivari cello.

Two pages from the notebook of Count Cozio di Salabue describing the 1707 Merighi Stradivari cello.

Images courtesy of the Biblioteca Statale, Cremona

A modern photograph of the Count and Countess of Stainlein’s Château in Liège, Château Nagelmackers.

“The Sound of Burnished Gold”
Bernard Greenhouse with the “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” cello in a publicity photo from the 1950’s.