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Kate Little

The Story of My 100-Year-Old Violin

June 27, 2015 20:27

My violin came from my husband, who got it from his mother, Marty, who got it from her Uncle Al, a “wheeler-dealer” (as Marty describes him) in the Jewish immigrant community of 1930’s Detroit. The violin’s interior label says “Antonius Stradivarius” and “Made in Germany.” Between Marty’s childhood acquisition and the beginning of my studies, 3 years ago, the violin was used very little. Despite this, the fingerboard needed planing to smooth out divots caused by excessive playing. With these clues, and a few historical facts, the following (probable) early history of my violin might be deduced.

Before iTunes, before iPods, before CDs, before LPs, before wax cylinders, if you wanted music, you made it yourself, or you found a friend to make it for you. Either you sang, or you played an instrument. Piano and violin were popular. Amazon.com and FedEx did not exist back then. But the incomparable Sears-Roebuck catalog and the Wells-Fargo wagon did! In the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s they delivered hundreds of thousands of violins to locales large and small all over the United States. These Sears-Roebuck violins originated in individual workshops (a cottage industry), primarily in western Bohemia (modern Czech Republic), to be finished in and exported from Markneukirchen (region of Saxony, Germany). The story of the origin and trade of these violins created for mass export to the United States a century ago is wonderfully told by Richard Ward in his article “German-Factory Fiddles: The Mystery of Origin.” A new book by violin dealer Bruce Babbitt, titled “Markneukirchen Violins and Bows from Saxon and Bohemian Musikwinkel Late 19th and early 20th Century,” provides further well-researched text “on the growth and history of the region’s once-bustling violin-making trade,” according to a review.

The Sears-Roebuck Catalog #124 (1912) includes 6 pages (Nos. 685-690) of violin outfits (prices ranging from $2.95 to $34.00, including “free of charge a course of 50 lessons with the best Correspondence School of Music in America”), bows and supplies. Of the 18 violins for sale, at least 10 claim to be modeled after or use the pattern of Stradivarius. One of these, a “BERT GOETZ TRUE COPY VIOLIN AND OUTFIT A RARE AND EXCEPTIONAL VALUE,” priced at $24.95, caught my eye with this description: “MODEL – Perfect copy of STRADIVARIOUS . . . FINISH – A rich reddish amber, except where age is supposed to have left its marks where the natural yellowish color of the wood stained by time shows through . . . TONE – The kind you’ll admire, pure, even, loud enough for orchestra work and yet sweet and delicate for solo or parlor use.” Looks and sounds like my violin to me!

The 1891 McKinley Tariff Act required items imported into the United States to be labeled with the country of origin. In 1914 the act was amended to require the words “Made in.” The label in my violin clearly says “Made in Germany,” so it probably was sold out of a later catalog than the 1912, but the marketing hyperbole of the day was undoubtedly unchanged.

Who was enamored by the catalog description and made the original purchase? Probably someone in the Detroit area, and given Uncle Al’s connections, probably a European-Jewish emigrant, but there is no way to know for sure. My violin did quickly make its way into the hands of someone who played it a lot – as evidenced by the divots in the fingerboard in 2015. Maybe it was a student, maybe it was a professional. Who knows? I like to imagine my violin as a member of a depression-era klezmer band, playing joy in hard times.

Martha (Marty) Papo was born on a small family farm outside of Detroit in 1933. The family provided much of its own food, and Martha’s job was to kill and pluck the Sunday chicken. An industrious child, she invented and built a guillotine for the task. Martha had 2 cousins who played the violin. They lived in the city and performed on the school stage in white dresses with matching bows in their hair. They attended a wonderful summer camp “on a lake called Interlochen.” This was all much more appealing than Sunday chicken, and Martha begged for a violin. Uncle Al, the “wheeler-dealer,” was able to procure one at a cost Martha’s family could manage. Possibly the previous owner had passed away and the heirs needed money. The Depression era was recent. Martha enrolled in private lessons at the local convent, and, once a week, rode her bicycle 5 miles to her lesson, violin balanced on the handle-bars, and 5 miles home again. She was then 11 years old.

After a year, Martha gave up.

But she did keep her beloved violin.

Eventually, college and a scholarship beckoned. While away at school, Martha’s mother loaned the violin to a friend’s daughter. Eventually it was returned and sat lonely in a closet until the then-married Martha discovered it at her mother’s passing. The scroll was cracked in two, the bow missing, the strings snapped; and so it sat in a closet in Martha’s home while her children grew up. Her middle son, after college, moved to New Jersey, discovered contra dancing, and, in a moment of inspiration, asked for “that fiddle that’s been sitting in your closet all these years,” that he might learn to play. The violin was refurbished by a Philadelphia luthier, but it was still a difficult instrument to learn, so it was stored again in the back of a closet in his home, as he married and his children grew. This is how the violin came to be 100-years-old, and began a new life of music.

5 replies

Bow Hair: You Have a Choice

June 21, 2015 22:31

Did you know that? That you can choose what kind of hair is on your bow? The supplier Bowhair.com lists 13 different types. My luthier, Tim Stevenson of Salt Lake City, keeps 8 types on hand, including Mongolian stallion, Siberian stallion, Argentinian mare, and Manchurian mixed gender. Tim does not stock Pepper-and-Salt or Color-Dyed (green, red, blue, yellow, purple, orange!) bowhair.


(Tim Stevenson's bow-hair cabinet)

Hair types vary in coarseness, weight, thickness, purity, strength, and color. Factors affecting choice include: instrument played (cello? violin?); music played (bluegrass? classical?); bow quality ($300? $30,000?); player level (student? professional?). Hair types can also be mixed to produce the playability and sound desired by the musician.

Many luthiers keep their hair and their re-hairers out-of-sight in the back workroom and choose your bow hair for you. Not Tim. Tim invites you into his studio to discuss your bow and your musical needs, and the choices available to meet them. On my bow’s last re-hairing, we used Mongolian stallion looking for a smooth sound for classical studies. This time we chose ½ Mongolian stallion and ½ Siberian stallion, looking for a grittier sound for fiddling. Any ability on my part to hear and feel a difference will be testimony to auditory and instrumental progress. At this point in my violin studies, Tim and I plan to experiment and try a different hair choice each time. Through trial-and-error, and with experience, I should find something that I like in particular. Exercise freedom of choice, and you’ll find what you want, too.

3 replies

Embrace Failure

June 12, 2015 19:32

In the final stages of diligent preparation for a series of performances this spring, I realized that I had met all of the technical and musical goals set earlier in the year, and that the performances would be all that I had hoped they would be.


(David = Teacher)


And yet, I was dissatisfied. My playing was still not something I wanted to share. Then the realization dawned: While sailing confidently forward with daily practice, my horizon had unexpectedly receded. Despite achievement, I felt failure:

Overwhelmed with the work left to do, sensing urgency to press on, the horizon beckoned. Now is time to double-down. Maybe next spring . . .

Prior to violin studies, my decades were spent in a concrete world: the math problem was solved, the contract was signed, the paper was published. Tasks were achievable and definitive, pervaded with confidence and pride that attend closure. This new feeling attendant studying the abstract, is unfamiliar: a nagging sense of not-good-enough, a shame of inadequacy. This, perhaps, I realized, is what it feels like to be a musician.

Yes. Studying music, the horizon does always recede. The more one learns, the more one discerns, and the more one wants to achieve. One spends a lifetime studying, and still has not arrived. Maybe next spring . . . There will always be a sense of not-having-quite-got-it-right, a depressing sense of failure. The trick is to not succumb. Instead, embrace failure. Exploit inadequacy for the springboard that it can be, and head back to the practice room.

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