The Clash between Performance and Preservation for Ages Revealed by Stradivari’s ‘Spanish Court’ Quartet

In Madrid’s Royal Palace’s ornate splendor, we can find four instruments that make the place more romantic. You can remember a fairy tale, perhaps the story of snow white as you watch them displayed like priced artifacts in a glass case. It was enchanting to see two violins, one viola and a cello with decorative details like they came out from a fairy tale. Their ivory inlays with a bead-like image in the ornamental borders and its motif of ornate plant and flowers are some of their intricate details. Added to that, are the painted forest animals appearing to leap out on the side. On the scrolls, they have swirling vine-like ornaments. Just like snow white, they fell on deep sleep, frozen in time as treasures.

The Great Luthier’s Artistic Quality

Antonio Stradivari was the creator of this remarkable quartet of instruments specially made for Spanish royalty between the year 1694 and 1709. This decorated quartet is among the 11 extant Strads that are decorated and was considered wholly as an ensemble. Among the quartet, the cello was the first one to be made and is the only cello that he decorated. Violist Ori Kam of the Jerusalem Quartet said that she was struck with sadness to see these beautiful instruments caged inside the glass. Their paintwork and inlays are remarkably beautiful which he no longer thought of them as an instrument but as an art. Kam along with his fellow members of the quartet are among those who have used these instruments in the past years.

Sound and Appeal

According to Elsa Fonseca Sánchez-Jara, the instruments were constructed with characteristics intended for sound and artistic appeal. Stradivari was indeed an excellent draftsman, his drawings are the best proof to that. Sánchez-Jara is a musicologist at the University of Salamanca in which the “Spanish Court” quartet is where she dedicated most of her studies. She conceptualizes the idea that the intricately designed drawing of Stradivari was inspired from his predecessor, Amati. She said that the “Spanish Quartet” had an impressive work on the outline of the two covers, filleting it with ivory circles and small rhombuses fixed on black material.  You can also find figures of beautiful animals and arabesque shapes included in the decorations found in the tuners and hoops. Pictures of rabbits can be found on violins and violas and the image of the child in the violoncello. You can see the decorations inlaid with black material on two of the violins displayed, while you can find figures drawn with Chinese ink on violoncello and viola.

King Carlos IV who is a violinist, who frequently played, purchased the instruments in 1772. Since then, they hardly left the Royal Palace. Initially, the ensemble was a quintet, and it has two violas – it was reported that the other one of it was deeper and broader. Fonseca Sánchez-Jara said that the instruments have been under the care of musicians, curators, and luthiers over the years since they arrived in the Royal Palace of Madrid. In specific circumstances, she said, that others have dedicated themselves repairing the instruments, while others are doing their daily maintenance. She said that during the 20th century, we have people like; José García Marcellán, the house hill, Arturo Saco del Valle, Étienne Vatelot, and Juan Ruiz Casaux that we should highlight.

Survival and Preservation

In the time of Napoleonic wars, French soldiers ransacked the two violas. Sánchez-Jara said that the contralto viola is the only one that was recovered so far. The Hill house in London brought it, and in 1951, King Alfonso had interest on the instrument, so it was brought back to Madrid. She said that since then, the quartet had been mainly performing on special occasions. However, the larger viola was still lost according to Sánchez-Jara. It could be possible that the other tenor viola is in a safe condition, but they have no idea about its location.


Violin 1

Upper bouts: 16.7 cm

Lower bouts: 20.5 cm

Middle bouts: 11.5 cm

Length of back: 35.5 cm


Violin 2

Upper bouts: 16 cm

Lower bouts: 20.2 cm

Middle bouts: 11 cm

Length of back: 35 cm



Upper bouts: 18.3 cm

Lower bouts: 24 cm

Middle bouts: 13 cm

Length of back: 41.4 cm



Upper bouts: 34 cm

Lower bouts: 44 cm

Middle bouts: 23.5 cm

Length of back: 75.5 cm





Musical Instruments or Historical Artifacts

The players haven’t lost their sheer cultural gravitas. Kam says it was moving to feel that you are holding a classical viola that was played during the most crucial part of history as it lives through all its monumental events. However, the instruments are primarily and officially viewed as historical artifacts. The great efforts of the Royal Palace to ensure the instrument’s proper handling and exceptional care were expressed by players.

The violist of Cuarteto Casals, Jonathan Brown, thinks that the tension is very complicated between using or playing the instruments and preserving the instruments based on the perspective of players. The ensemble, Cuarteto Casals, was one of the groups that perform on the quartet. Clearly, Brown said, that the Royal Palace’s priority is not to have these instruments played. It is frustrating if you based on the perspective of playing because all the musicians that he talked to that have played the instruments believed that they could have a much better sound. From the standpoint of the antique collector, he understands the logic of it.

The Line Between Playing and Preservation

There was a program established by the Royal Palace in 2013 which is the quartet-in-residence program. This is a yearly program wherein each participating ensemble will perform six concerts on the instruments. If we look back in the classical world’s history, you will see that these instruments were only reserved for invited guests and special occasions; today, it has greater access for the Spanish people. However, the concert preparation was affected because the instruments were prioritized as antiques. The belief that the sound quality of the instrument will improve through regular playing is no longer applied. Cuarteto Quiroga cellist, Helen Poggio, said that the instruments will become better. All the harmonics can be awakened and will come alive. Cuarteto Quiroga was the first quartet-in-residence.

Poggio recalled the time she was sitting at an outdoor café in Madrid on one balmy August morning overshadowed by Teatro Español. As a native of Madrid, she remembers how she marveled when she saw the instruments behind the glass years ago at the Palace. She thought it would be an honor to play these instruments as she smears on a crunchy piece of toast a mashed potato. However, the privilege of using the instruments is quite a challenge. As time passes, they had to cut short the rehearsals before concerts to preserve the integrity of the instrument. The officials of the palace are very meticulous that they limit the amount of contact of those who would use the instruments. At the start, the time to comfortably adjust is just limited and even less in exploring their musical possibilities at a full range.

A squad of security guards would often flank the players. Poggio said that quartet rehearsals were supposed to be intimate, so she finds it strange. She said it was like someone is watching you how you work on the recipe while cooking in the kitchen.

“The feeling of holding a viola, which “lived” through all of these historical events, and was played in such pivotal moments in history, was truly moving.” —Ori Kam

Other players in the past would quickly stress out that people should hear the instruments more often. “It was like drinking from the Holy Grail,” said Cuarteto Quiroga violinist Cibrán Sierra. They had one violin which response remarkably quick. Sierra noted that it was almost magical to experience a violin that is really powerful, with sound so rich in all registers, projecting its sound at an enormous range with outstanding clarity. The feeling is like driving a top of the line racing car or imagining yourself riding on the most extraordinary horse. Such immense power is quite tough to handle.

The Instruments’ Unique Blending

The quartet’s smooth connection is the central aspect of their character. Some would testify the seemingly effortless blending of the ensemble. This particular feature came out as the Cuarteto Quiroga was rehearsing one of Beethoven’s three “Razumovsky” quartets, the String Quartet No. 7, Op. 59, No. 1. According to Poggio, they sounded like they are one when all of them play a few unison parts in the piece. It was something difficult for them to achieve using their own technique as a quartet. But the instruments allowed them to reach it, making them do nothing. She said it was like a magic trick.

This mysterious phenomenon was also experienced by Brown as he recalls saying you will see, hear, and feel immediately that this quartet was indeed created together. You don’t have to think about issues like the blending of sound. These instruments will do that particular work for you.

It was argued by many players that the decorated Strad quartet should be looking forward in the future and not like other exhibited Royal Palace’s objects that portals back to the past. For one, the players of Cuarteto Quiroga believed that the instruments should be exposed more to the greater public through concerts, broadcastings, and recordings. Indeed these instruments are technically a possession of Spanish people, but many believed that they don’t fully understand their value.

It was indeed a pity, said Sierra, to have them in their showcases, mostly lying silently in a year. They are a fantastic tool for making a quartet, but due to the instruments’ situation, they were prevented from flourishing and blooming to their astounding full potential. Their sound should be heard by the world more often, and it’s no other than the sound of Madrid.