Toby Faber - author and lecturer


Purchase book in UKI first had the idea for a book about Antonio Stradivari when I read an article in the London Times about one of his violins, The Messiah, which hangs in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It is a hugely influential violin - much copied - but the article outlined a controversy that was then raging around it: dendrochronology appeared to show that the front of the violin came from a tree cut down after Stradivari’s death. Almost incidentally, the article outlined some of The Messiah’s history, which was fascinating.Purchase book in US


I had always been interested in Stradivari since my days as a schoolboy violinist. There is a central mystery to him: how come his violins are still the best in the world, despite three centuries of technological progress. There and then I had the idea for a book that addressed that central mystery by following the fortunes of five of Stradivari’s violins from his workshop to the present day.


At the time I was a publisher, and my initial thought was ‘who can we get to write this?’ My colleagues, however, were not especially enthusiastic, and when I stopped publishing a few months later I still had the idea floating around at the back of my head. Within a few months I had written an outline that is very similar to the final structure of the book (it was my British publisher who suggested the addition of a cello into the mix).


The book has been published in the UK, the US (as Stradivari’s Genius), The Netherlands (as Maestro), Brazil, Italy, Greece, Korea, China and Japan. What follows is the original draft jacket copy for the US edition, followed by comments from reviewers and other authors.

“’Tis God gives skill, but not without men’s hands: He could not make Antonio Stradivari’s violins without Antonio.”George Eliot 

Antonio Stradivari was a perfectionist whose single-minded pursuit of excellence changed the world of music. In the course of his long career in the northern Italian city of Cremona, he created more than a thousand stringed instruments; around six hundred survive. In this fascinating book, Toby Faber traces the rich, multi-layered stories of six of these peerless instruments—five violins and a cello—and the one towering artist who brought them into being.

Blending history, biography, meticulous detective work, and an abiding passion for music, Faber embarks on an absorbing journey as he follows some of the most prized instruments of all time. Mysteries and unanswered questions proliferate from the outset-—starting with the enigma of Antonio Stradivari himself. What made this apparently simple craftsman so special? Why were his techniques not maintained by his successors? How is it that, even two and a half centuries after his death, no one has succeeded in matching the purity, depth, and delicacy of a Stradivarius? 

In Faber’s illuminating narrative, each of the six fabled instruments becomes a character in its own right—a living entity cherished by artists, bought and sold by princes and plutocrats, coveted, collected, hidden, lost, copied, and occasionally played by a musician whose skill matches its maker’s.

Here is the fabulous Viotti, named for the virtuoso who enchanted all Paris in the 1780s only to fall foul of the French Revolution. Paganini supposedly made a pact with the devil to transform the art of the violin—and by the end of his life he owned eleven Strads. Then there’s the Davidov cello, fashioned in 1712 and lovingly handed down through a succession of celebrated artists until, in the 1980s, it passed into the capable hands of Yo-Yo Ma. 

From the salons of Vienna to the concert halls of New York, from the breakthroughs of Beethoven’s last quartets to the first phonographic recordings, Faber unfolds a narrative magnificent in its range and brilliant in its detail. “A great violin is alive,” said Yehudi Menuhin of his own Stradivarius. In the pages of this book, Faber invites us to share the life, the passion, the intrigue, and the incomparable beauty of the world’s most marvellous stringed instruments.


‘An extraordinary accomplishment and a compelling read. Like strange totems that cast an irresistible spell, these instruments bring out the best and the worst of those who would own them, and Faber deftly tells the stories in all their rich and surprising detail.’

- Thad Carhart, author of The Piano Shop on the Left Bank 

‘Fascinating, accessible, and enjoyable.’

- Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring 

Stradivari’s Genius, Toby Faber’s first book and a work of nonfiction, is more enthralling, earthy and illuminating than any fiction could possibly be.’

- Eugenia Zukerman, The New York Times Book Review 

‘He loves what he here writes about and has made himself an expert on it, but he is neither a professional musician nor a musicologist; rather he brings to the subject an infectious fascination with Stradivari’s life and trade.’

- Nicholas Delbanco, Chicago Tribune  

The Cremonese luthier has been an inspiration to every serious musician ever to encounter his handiwork and will no doubt continue to be so for hundreds of more years into the future. Faber's book is a fine introduction to this legend of a man.’

- Al Regnery, American Spectator 

‘Faber is chatty, user-friendly, eagerly non-elitist, and minimising of sources, yet his passion for his subject, his painstaking research, his faith in the integrity of musicianship and craftsmanship lift this book above gossip for the string-playing classes. His overarching question – how to explain the continuing supremacy of the Stradivari violin, “one of the great mysteries of our era” – provokes to the end; though it is unanswerable, Faber’s observations are always illuminating….Fairy godmothers and villains, madmen and salesmen, the genius and the fake – Faber has found in the Strad a delightful leitmotif for an original comédie humaine.’

- Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times 

‘Even the most straightforward biography of Antonio Stradivari, the virtuoso instrument-maker whose craftsmanship to this day baffles scientists and musicians alike, would make for a gripping read…But Toby Faber is far too restless and instinctive a storyteller to be content with a single time or place. His is more of a quest across centuries and continents in search of elusive treasures rather than a conventional ‘life’…It is fascinating to follow his passionate pursuit of the Davidov, a cello currently in hands of Yo-Yo Ma, and five violins, including the fabled Messiah…Faber keeps the many separate strings of his story in harmony.’

- Kelly Grovier, The Observer 

‘Stradivarius is an inspired idea for a book. Because these instruments and their players have reputations that have endured, Faber has been able to find fine tales that hang on each of them. Unlike so many books of this sort, which focus on small things and pan out into world history, Faber has needed no padding or special pleading. Best of all, he remains clear-headed about his subject.’

- Tom Payne, The Daily Telegraph 

Even a tone-deaf trucker knows that the most famous, the most expensive, the most desired violin in the world today is a Stradivarius. But why should these 300-year-old instruments be so sought after? And why have they never been eclipsed? These two questions lie at the centre of Toby Faber’s enlightening book about a man with magical hands…The real delight of Mr Faber’s book lies in his decision to tell the Stradivari story through the lives of six of the master’s best-known instruments.’

- The Economist 

‘All these stories, and more, Faber weaves seamlessly together, in prose of admirable lucidity…[He] pitches his story just right, neither patronising nor baffling the reader.’

- Richard Morrison, The Times 

‘In this book, after describing Stradivari’s career and the history of the violin before his time, Toby Faber follows the fates of five violins and one cello through various hands, famous and otherwise. The result is…generally highly readable. It even has a twist or two, as one world-famous Strad is accused of being a forgery, and another turns out to be a case of mistaken identity.’

- Martin Gayford, The Sunday Telegraph 

‘Faber's fresh narrative style will appeal to many readers, specialists included.’

- Calina de la Mare, The Guardian 

‘There have been other great makers of violins, but the ‘Strad’ is supreme. Stradivari, said Paganini, ‘used only the wood from trees on which nightingales sang’. That flight of fancy typifies the reverence which these instruments still inspire, and that reverence pervades Toby Faber’s knowledgeable study of the Strads, sharpened by scholarship and a keen eye for an anecdote.’

- JWM Thompson, Literary Review 

‘Faber’s stylish account savors Stradivari’s marvelous acoustics and the individual personalities of his instruments while exploring the science behind them (X-rays, chemical test and tree-ring analysis have all been deployed to unlock their secrets) and regaling readers with colourful tales of the musicians who built their careers around them. The result is an illuminating look at an enduring cultural monument.’

- Publishers Weekly 

‘Faber, a first-time author and scion of the publishing house Faber and Faber, has written a captivating account of the often tangled histories of six celebrated Stradivarius instruments… Especially impressive is Faber’s depth of research ….Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries.’

- Library Journal 

‘The legacy of Antonio Stradivari’s lifetime of violin-making is a heady subject for a first-time-out author; but with an ear carefully attuned to the back story that attends his subject, Toby Faber’s debut, Stradivari’s Genius, proves him capable of striking a high note….Even if Faber doesn’t draw any startling new conclusions about the tempestuous maestro from Cremona, music lovers will surely find this immensely readable history a worthy contribution to the ongoing legend of Stradivari.’

- Andrea Hoag, Minneapolis Star Tribune