The break-up of Czechoslovakia was generally amicable. There were grumbles from people in both parts of the country about the lack of a referendum. Some families found themselves split between two separate states. The Czechs had to travel abroad to ski the Tatra Mountains, and Slovaks had to study abroad if they were accepted at Charles University in Prague.
Everything that was fixed to the ground – buildings, roads, bridges – stayed where they were. As for movable property, the two countries were meticulous in the division of assets. Two-third of everything went to the Czech Republic and one-third to Slovakia, the formula based on the relative populations. As The New York Times reported on the eve of separation in 1993, “officials are working overtime to count and then divide the country’s property, from the army’s 1,435 tanks, to the last rival bullet, and from Government B.M.W. limousines and computers to paintings in Government offices.”
But somebody forgot to divide up the musical instruments, which were surely movable property. It’s something that still nettles Slovak concert violinist Rastislav Sipos.
“There was a big collection in Prague at the National Museum with five Stradivariuses, a 1744 Guarneri del Gesù (Prince of Orange), a 1674 Andrea Guarneri violin, and several rare Italian concert instruments of very high quality,” Sipos told me in an interview in Bratislava last April. “And these instruments were borrowed by only a very few violinists and soloists. After the breakup, all these instruments remained in Prague. Slovakia didn’t get any of them.”
How should these national treasures have been divided? “At least one Stradivarius and one other rare violin and two cellos should have come to Slovakia, because they were originally from this region,” Sipos explains. “In 1990, I offered my services to the biggest businessmen in Slovakia to invest in such rare instruments to bring some of the historic professional value back to Slovakia. I myself didn’t have any capital as a young musician, but I was able to offer my experience and knowledge as an acoustic expert and connoisseur of old string instruments. It wasn’t met with any interest from these businessmen.”
As a young man, Sipos was able to borrow a Stradivarius to play at concerts throughout Europe. But he dreamed of owning an instrument of comparable quality. “I have great contacts with fine artists and master craftsmen who make instruments throughout the world,” he concluded. “And the fruit of my work, after 34 years, is that I own and use a violin of Guarneri del Gesù from 1732 and a violin of Carlo Bergonzi from 1742, which are two of the rarest in the world. These instruments have the best quality and an ideal sound, for example like Caruso’s voice.”
We talked about his musical career, the state of culture in Slovakia, and why an ability to evaluate rare musical instruments is so highly valued.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was here, at home. I was not really directly touched by the occasion since I was at home in Slovakia and that happened in Germany. But it’s good that it happened.
Did it affect your life in any major way?
A new dimension of free movement without restrictions opened up at that time. I was able to perform concerts around the world. Private ownership began. That meant, for me as an acoustic expert and connoisseur of old string instruments here in the Slovak Republic, that I could own a very rare violin, like a 1732 Guarneri del Gesù, a 1678 Andrea Guarneri viola, and a 1742 Carlo Bergonzi. Before, it was not possible, so it is important for me as a composer, performer, and concert virtuoso to own these instruments.
When did you start playing violin, or stringed instruments, and how did you become interested in such a career in music?
I come from a family with a long musical history — 200 years on the side of my father and 150 years on the side of mother. I was in the Slovak Folk Orchestra SLUK. As I was growing up in this orchestra, I saw musicians practice on the instruments. That is where I was touched by the music and by these instruments. My father played in this orchestra for 34 years. My older sister played second violin in orchestra. I was a first violinist, soloist, and concertmaster in SLUK.
You began studying music before the fall of the Communist government in Czechoslovakia. Did the fall of Communism make a big difference? You mentioned your ability to play concerts around the world and own instruments. Were there other differences in terms of availability, opportunity, or access to resources in Bratislava?
From 1996, I stopped playing in the orchestra and became a private musician. I was very impressed by certain paintings and started to compose my own songs for these pictures. I began to play concerts throughout Europe. I had a great manager who borrowed a 1714 Stradivarius that I could use for my playing. I was searching for just such an instrument and sound. I have great contacts with fine artists and master craftsmen who make instruments throughout the world. And the fruit of my work, after 34 years, is that I own and use a violin of Guarneri del Gesù from 1732 and a violin of Carlo Bergonzi from 1742, which are two of the rarest in the world. These instruments have the best quality and an ideal sound, for example like Caruso’s voice.
Were these rare instruments in Czechoslovakia during the Communist period? Were they in a museum?
The instruments that I own were not in Czechoslovakia at that time. There was a big collection in Prague at the National Museum with five Stradivariuses, a 1744 Guarneri del Gesù (Prince of Orange), a 1674 Andrea Guarneri violin, and several rare Italian concert instruments of very high quality. And these instruments were borrowed by only a very few violinists and soloists. After the breakup, all these instruments remained in Prague. Slovakia didn’t get any of them.
In 1990, I offered my services to the biggest businessmen in Slovakia to invest in such rare instruments to bring some of the historic professional value back to Slovakia. I myself didn’t have any capital as a young musician, but I was able to offer my experience and knowledge as an acoustic expert and connoisseur of old string instruments. It wasn’t met with any interest from these businessmen. So I started to build my own dream without any help. It took me 34 years. But I fulfilled it by 300 percent. So, I am very happy.
How were you able to bring your rare instruments to Slovakia?
Through my experience as an acoustic expert and connoisseur of old string instruments, I was occasionally called on to evaluate rare instruments owned by a collector, a craftsman, or another musician. In this way, I saw the best instruments in Europe. Occasionally I had the opportunity to buy them.
But they are very expensive.
Yes, they are.
Did you have to find investors to acquire the instruments? Or, because of your musical career, were you able to buy them yourself?
The second is correct. The best musicians who play stringed instruments use Guarneri or Stradivarius. I acquired these instruments to represent Slovakia at the highest level possible. If we compare it to the Formula 1 racecars, you can only drive an F1 to compete, not just any sports car. To represent Slovakia at the highest level, I needed to have such an instrument.
Each one of these instruments has a specific history. It was owned by this person, then that person. I’m interested in hearing about the genealogy of your instruments.
This genealogy of the instruments held and played by the well-known musicians around the world for the last 50 years is known. But that’s not a question for my instruments, which were part of private collections of families for more than 100 years. They were in pretty good shape, though they needed some basic service. And then I started to play on them actively.
Those families were in Europe, in Russia?
I understand that a number of these instruments became available from Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.
In 1917, there was a Czech named Eugen Vitacek whom Lenin gave special permission to protect these rare instruments from the Tsar’s residences in Petrograd. That is how the special state collection of the best rare stringed instruments and bows came together. Only the best players who won the Sibelius or Tchaikovsky competitions were given these instruments to play for one year in their concerts. The collection exists from that time. It’s a Russian collection now, and it will never be distributed or sold.
Stradivarius made about 600 violins, and we now have about 500 of these instruments. It would be a big event if we found another Stradivarius. In 1937, there was a jubilee exhibition in Cremona on the anniversary of Stradivarius’s death. Although Stradivarius had manufactured approximately 1,000 instruments altogether, of which there were about 600 violins, the number of violins that came to this jubilee exhibition was approximately 3,000, the great majority of which were not genuine.
So, they had to determine which were real and which were not.
There were about 200 real Stradivariuses and several hundred non-originals..
Were they made by a different workshop at the same time, or were they modern copies?
There were old and new as well.
Your instruments are the only ones of their kind in Slovakia at this time?
Do you only play them yourself, or do you loan to others?
Only I play them.
But there are still quite a few in Prague.
Vaclav Hudecek plays a 1729 Stradivarius. Ivan Zenaty plays a Guarneri del Gesù. Maybe five other soloists and the Smetana Quartet play this level of instrument. In the museum of these rare instruments in Prague they loan out about 20 pieces. Before World War II, there were instruments in Prague and Bratislava too, but after Czechoslovakia became one republic all rare instruments valued more than 100,000 Czechoslovak crowns went to Prague.
When Czechoslovakia was split in two, what do you think should have happened?
At least one Stradivarius and one other rare violin and two cellos should have come to Slovakia, because they were originally from this region. After World War II, all instruments worth more than 100,000 Czechoslovak crowns — maybe a couple hundred thousand euros in today’s money — were deposited in the national museum in Prague.
They were taken from people’s families? They were nationalized and brought to Prague?
They were legally bought at that time.
Did anyone from Slovakia after 1993 ask for those instruments back?
It was like with other things. We should have asked for some of these instruments for our use or the use of our musicians. But no one from the government took an interest in this. It was an unanswered question.
You could still ask for it, yes?
But who would do it?
Your prime minister. Or perhaps your cultural attaché in Prague, whom I interviewed there. He used to be the minister of culture here in Slovakia: Ladislav Snopko.
It would be a big miracle if this happened. It would have major cultural value and prestige. It would be very important.
Perhaps Mr. Snopko can help you.
He has heard me performing on several occasions with the 1742 Carlo Bergonzi violin.
In the United States only a minority of people are interested in classical music. Are people here interested in classical music especially played on period instruments?
In Slovakia, it’s different because the school system was set up positively towards classical music. We have a few very big names in music — musicians and singers. The older musicians opened the way and provided connections for the younger. The interest is still growing, and there are many concerts.
There were quite a few concerts in Prague but they played the “greatest hits” of classical music. Is there an effort to play lesser-known composers?
There is a festival of modern music, and Slovak Radio Concert Hall actively promotes a wide repertoire throughout the world including lesser-known names. Composers and students from around the world — Brazil, Venezuela – are coming here to perform with our musicians.
What do you particularly like to play?
Johann Sebastian Bach, particularly the sonatas and partitas for solo violin. I also play my compositions, which are inspired by contemporary fine arts.
How would you describe your own compositions? Are they modern or are they similar to Bach?
They are stories about my life. The songs are the testimonies of my emotions and my life. I’d put them in the classical music category.
If you were minister of culture here in Slovakia, what changes would you make?
It’s difficult here because the minister of culture has a limited budget. For the same concerts played here, musicians are paid three or four times the amount in Austria. So, the musicians simply go abroad to play. I’m happy to be a soloist, and I would never want to be the minister of culture here in Slovakia.
How often do you play each year?
I do recitals two to four times a year, and I play in two or three concerts a month. I play five concerts abroad each year.
Where do you play abroad?
Vienna, Prague, Germany, France.
Do you hope to have a quartet here in Slovakia in which all the players play these rare instruments, like the Guarneri Quartet?
Unfortunately there are no such quality instruments in Slovakia. There are, however, some young and very talented musicians. For instance, Dalibor Karvay has won some overseas competitions. But when he wanted to represent Slovakia at the highest level, he had to borrow a representative instrument from abroad just for the competition.
Whenever a musician has enough money, he would rather buy than borrow such an instrument. If there were a special fund with enough money to pay all the people involved, also the guards and the experts, I would offer my services to find and acquire these rare instruments for Slovakia.
How would you evaluate the split between Slovakia and the Czech Republic, culturally speaking, in terms of music? Was it positive, negative, or neutral?
Even before we had a brotherhood. We were like one body with a Czech hand and a Slovak hand. Culturally and from the point of view of music, the relations are the same: friendly. Nothing has changed.
From the point of view of music, has membership in the EU been entirely beneficial? There has been an economic crisis, for instance.
There is an economic crisis, but we as musicians have to play and exist as if there is no crisis. It is up to the businessmen to pay us enough even during this crisis. And we can go and play concerts worldwide to get more money.
As musicians, you have an opportunity that many other people don’t have.
Yes, I also do evaluations of instruments. Recently I was brought five master instruments. I opened the cases and immediately identified them. Just looking at them, I could correctly evaluate four out of the five instruments. The clients were so satisfied with my performance that they wanted me to play in their country, even to get married there and stay to live there.
The art that inspires your own compositions is here in Slovakia?
It is art from all around the world. I’m inspired by everything: architecture, nature, a rock in the fantasy shapes of an organ or aface… One evening I composed my song, “Mountain Fantasy,” based on unusual formation of the Adršpach-Teplice rocks in Czech Republic. Or a Bernini statue in Florence where you can see the fingerprint in the stone, or antiques or rare pictures… I’m also interested in the materials that are used to make a violin – especially the acoustic wood for violin production as well as the manufacturing process and the acoustic sound qualities.
Bratislava, April 30, 2013
Interpreter: Pavol Kuštár