Dick’s Forum – No. 17
“"I own a Stradivarius violin”
Anyone involved with violins occasionally meets someone who tells the story of having found a real Stradivarius violin in an attic, a yard sale, in an old shed “out back”, or from some long forgotten member of their family in years past. I have found it senseless to challenge these stories or to offer historical information regarding the odds against the likelyhood of this happening. It seems I either do not know what I am talking about, do not believe these stories or worse yet, am trying to somehow cheat the storyteller out of their priceless possession. So, I have taught myself over the years to listen with a smile and allow the conversation to move on to other areas.
In fact, you could go to the web site of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers (AFVBM.com), one of the more prestigious organizations dealing with violins in the United States menu item titled “So You’ve Found a Stradivarius” and there you will find a more complete statement of the information I’m discussing here.
Very briefly, Antonio Stradivari, lived and made violins in Cremona, a small town in the provence of Lombardy in what is now Northen Italy. Even in his life time Cremona was a central hub in the business of violin making and several violin making families lived there including the Amati’s and Guarneri’s. These families made what are now recognized as the finest violins ever made with Antonio ultimately being recognized as the ne plus ultra, the finest of them all. He made violins for kings and courts and wealthy patrons throughout his known world. In today’s market it is not unusal for healthy specimens of his violins to bring millions of dollars at auction or when sold.
Now to move the story ahead to the end of the 19th century. The United States had a growing economy, searching for all kinds of diversions and entertainments to embellish daily life. Germany and France were manufacturing all kinds of things and importing them into this growing economy and lust for life. There were no automobiles, telephones, televisions, cell phones, video games, or home entertainment centers. Music, and music made at home was an important part of many lives. Singing around the family piano, learning to play an instrument, and participating in local musical organizations was important.
Lots of people wanted to play the violin and the towns of Markneukircken and Mittenwald in Germany and Mirecourt in France had developed violin making industries capable of filling these needs. And in much the same way as the Chinese are manufacturing and importing consumer goods into the United States today, these European areas were more than ready to fill the needs of their day. They developed their violins by making copies of the violins of Antonio Stradivari, and many other Italian masters. In some cases these copies were awful, they looked awful and sounded awful. However, these Europeans also made copies that were quite good, attempting to faithfully reproduce construction techniques, wood samples, and design characteristics like “f” holes and scrolls and even the makers labels that faithfully reproduced their Italian models.
Over a period of roughly the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the beginning of World War II these violin making centers produced, and imported into the United States, thousands, if not millions of these facsimile violins. My mother, born in a farm community in Nebraska bought her first violin from a Montgomery Ward mail order catalog during the early 1920's. Her violin came complete with violin, bow, case, rosin, method book, and mute and cost her father less than $5.00.
So, when someone tells me they have found a Stradivarius violin, I am pretty sure that the violin is one of these facsimile violins that found their way into attics, the shed out back and under grandma’s bed.
On a Sunday morning here in Leakey, Texas after I had played the violin in church, a very sweet, pleasant and dignified lady paused to thank me for playing that morning. She told me she had a real Stradivarius violin and had given it to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. That is about all she said, neither she nor I made a issue of her comment. Over the next few years this scene would repeat itself a few times. I would play in church, she would graciously thank me for playing and briefly tell me about her Stradivarius violin. I did learn through my wife that her name was Elsie Lard, a former teacher and long time member of this small Texas community.
Time passed and Elsie died. Her family contacted me and told me that she asked that I play for her funeral. I was pleased to do so. On the morning of her service as the church was gathering I noticed with growing interest a man carrying a violin case. I took a few minutes to read through the program for the service and found to my amazement he was Emanuel Borok, concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and he was there to play Elsie Lard’s Stradivarius violin. Elsie had asked that both of us play at her funeral. When his moment in the service arrived, Emanuel stood and told the story of how Elsie and her husband had aquired this Stradivari violin as he held it for all to see, and how she had graciously loaned it to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to be played by the concertmaster. He then played a movement from a solo suite by Bach and he and that violin were a marvelous match.
So now when someone says “I have a Stadivarius” I smile to myself and say “Thank you Elsie” for sharing your story and your Stradivari violin.