To violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, it was love at first sound. She already had owned a violin made by Antonio Stradivari, the "Royal Spanish" Stradivari of 1730. But this one was different. Known as the "Molitor," this Strad is thought to have originally belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte, and takes its name from former owner Count Gabriel-Jean-Joseph Molitor, a general in Napoleon's army. And then there was its sound -- lush and sweet, yet powerful.
Meyers bought the "Molitor" last week through an online auction for $3.6 million, the highest price on record for any musical instrument sold at auction. We asked her about its characteristics, its hefty pricetag, and how to avoid leaving it in a taxi.
How did you come across this instrument?
I was in New York playing concerts and I wasn’t looking at all. I had to go visit [the luthier] René Morrel. He brought this violin to my attention and the second that I tried it I was floored and hooked. This was one month ago.
What about it caught your ear?
Its incredible power. If you could imagine being in a Ferrari and being rocketed to outer space at zero to 120 miles per hour in one second -- that's how it felt. Its power and its evenness over the registers were incredible. You could play up high on the D string or the G string and not have to worry about it squeaking. It can take it. You have to get out of the way of its sound as well. It’s such a different technique with this kind of powerful violin. Instead of trying to scoop out the sound, you have to know how to finesse it out and stay out of its way.
Did you give it a test drive?
I actually played one concert with it already, in Chicago. I got it a couple hours before. There’s such a difference from when you just doodle around on a violin versus playing it in a concert, so I needed to know if it would take me in concert. It really did. It took me to new places with the exploration of the sound quality and its tone. I played Claire de Lune on it. It was just an incredible mind-blowing experience.
Not many violinists can afford a rare instrument. Have you been saving up for this?
Violinists today have to play on such expensive equipment. It's insane, absolutely insane. Most violinists cannot afford this kind of instrument unfortunately. In the days of Paganini and even at the turn of the 20th century, any artist could get their hands on a Guarneri del Gesu or Stradivarius but today most of the violins are in foundations or sponsors' hands. There are many limitations put on the instrument and how it can be concertized with. I had a steady diet of that my whole life until I was able to purchase the "Royal Spanish" five years ago. There’s nothing like ownership. There’s nothing like being able to own your voice. I’ve been saving up for it my whole life.
Will you have to sell your old fiddle to pay for it?
I am going to have to sell my "Royal Spanish," unfortunately, which is really like losing a dear friend. I've toured around the world with it and made three CDs with it. It’s going to be a sad day when I part from that.
There’s been a peculiar rash of string players leaving their instruments in taxis in recent years – Yo-Yo Ma, Philippe Quint, Hahn-Bin. How do you hope to avoid such a fate?
Well, I feel a lot of those are publicity stunts. But for a lot of musicians we do get scatterbrained. We do travel a great deal and there’s so much going on every day that you have to just -- I really cannot ever imagine leaving it in a car or even when I’m staying in different hotels it’s very nerve-wracking knowing I can’t carry it wherever I go. I can’t go to the bathroom with it. There comes a point where you think, it’s a very expensive piece of wood and you do your best trying to protect it.
It managed to survive Napoleon’s army. Is modern air travel comparable?
I always try to think, what was it like back in 1700 or 1720? How did they carry these violins and what kind of case to they have? I have a fancy carbon fiber case that I put it in. So many times I heard that there would be so much water damage done on violins because people would leave them in their cellars and the violins would be floating in this damp nasty muck! It’s amazing that it’s survived this long.
Do you have a wish list of recordings you'd like to make with this?
I’d definitely love to make another recording of the Barber Violin Concerto, which would be coming around full circle. That was my debut disc and it’s one of my favorite concertos to perform. Even just playing the same repertoire on a different instrument you can change phrasing and fingerings and the sound based on the instrument you have. I’m sure I’ll be doing a little bit of changing with whatever limitations I have on the "Royal Spanish." With the Molitor I can change the tone and the color on different repertoire that I’ve been through.
So I'm trawling the used instrument section on Craig's List right now. Any advice for me?
When you fall in love with the sound that is the essence of why we are musicians. A lot of times it's really wonderful if you can actually put blinders on and not be so status-obsessed with names. There are a lot of great contemporary makers today that are making violins that sound quite good. I have a contemporary violin as well that I’ve toured with and it’s good to keep your options open and to try to remember as much as you put into the instrument it’s going to give back to you as well. Try to find something that you really fall in love with. It’s pretty instantaneous when it does happen.
Interview has been edited and condensed.