“Antonio & Isaac: The Annotated Account of Phillipe Wolf, Composer & Spy” by Todd Shimoda

violin

Stradivarius violins are the most coveted in the world and for good reason. Four hundred years ago, Antonio Stradivari created violins and other string instruments in his studio in Cremona, Italy. It’s estimated that about half of the 960 violins he made still survive. Since this expert “luthier” lived during the Age of Enlightenment, could he have developed an even finer violin if he’d had the help of a scientist and mathematician like Isaac Newton? Todd Shimoda imagines such a collaboration in his new novel, Antonio & Isaac: The Annotated Account of Phillipe Wolf, Composer & Spy, a clever, creative and humorous story that takes place during the War of Spanish Succession in the early 1700s.

Captain Phillipe Wolf is an Austrian military man, composer, and spy sent to England as a liaison of the Austrian army. He works closely with his British counterpart, Captain John Brookfield, who introduces him to a Catherine Barton, niece of the yet-to-be-knighted Isaac Newton. Phillipe and Catherine bond over their mutual love of music. Catherine is a violinist and Phillipe helps her find a better quality violin with which to play a concerto he has written. She also suggests he meet her famous uncle.

Phillipe is not only interested in meeting this uncle for his scientific expertise, but also sees it as an opportunity to get closer to the charming Catherine. Newton is a guarded man, but forthcoming with the way he related science to violin design:

 

The transmission of energy from the strings, vibrating at varying wave forms, is through the bridge and sound post to the body of the violin, specifically to the top and back. The tension and type of strings, placement and tension of the sound post, quality of the bow, and the construction of the body, all contribute to the loudness and tonal quality of the sound. But we must further explicate those dimensions on the mechanistic generation of sound to understand which is critical and at what varying degrees.

 

Newton’s talk inspires Phillipe to find a luthier to create the perfect violin, but he soon learns that someone like this is not to be found in England, but rather Cremona, Italy. Phillipe and Captain Brookfield travel to Cremona, currently under French occupation. Music conveniently becomes the perfect cover to gather intelligence about French military plans; they pose as Frenchmen who are interested in purchasing instruments for court musicians. Through a referral in Cremona, they meet Antonio Stradivari, who welcomes them into his home and studio and runs through

 

the different types of wood he used and their ages, origins, and other points which he ran through like a priest in a hurry to name those who died during a week at the height of the Plague.

 

He’s as warm and friendly as Newton is cool and reserved, and is open to hearing about this English scientist’s theories about violin-making.

 

Antonio & Isaac: The Annotated Account of Phillipe Wolf, Composer & Spy, Todd Shimoda (Shimodaworks, October 2021)
Antonio & Isaac: The Annotated Account of Phillipe Wolf, Composer & Spy, Todd Shimoda (Shimodaworks, October 2021)

Shimoda brings together science and music in this story, but it’s Phillipe’s humor and modesty that stand out. There are dark alleys, espionage, and physical altercations, yet Phillipe never loses his cool. He pines for Catherine back in England, yet feels an affinity for Caterina Stradivari, daughter of the violin maker. The structure of the book is also engaging, which includes photos and drawings of violin construction, musical notation, maps, and buildings, among others. The chapters are grouped into sections, from opus one to six, followed by a coda. The annotation on the title takes the form of footnotes, some signed with his initials TS and others PW, or Phillipe Wolf. For instance, toward the beginning, he includes this footnote as a way of explaining the history without taking away from Phillipe’s first person narrative:

 

The power struggle between the Austrian Hapsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire, and the House of Bourbon in France, was at the heart of the War of Spanish Succession. PW

 

Shimoda adds footnotes when a detail would not be something early 18th century Phillipe would know:

 

An interesting parallel story: a violin sound post was made from the Miracle Tree in Japan, which survived the Fukushima tsunami of 2011. TS

 

Although, as Shimoda makes clear in his author’s note, there’s no evidence that Newton and Stradivari had ever met, let alone had heard of one another, that hardly matters. It’s entertaining to think about what could have happened if they had.

 

Author Todd Shimoda is an occasional contributor to the Asian Review of Books.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.