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The Sound of Music in Slovakia

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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.

The Interview

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?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.