February 3, 2013 at 4:12 AM"He was the best violinmaker and restorer of the 20th century" -- this is how many in the violin-making community viewed Carl Fredrick Becker, who died Wednesday in Chicago at the age of 93.
Born in 1919 in Chicago, "Carl was a brilliant man who could have done almost anything he wanted to do," said New York violin maker Charles Rufino, who worked for Becker for nearly four years during the early '80s. "During World War II, he became a pilot and was such a fine pilot, they kept him here as a trainer of other pilots. He had offers from the airlines to become a pilot -- a pretty glamorous, well-paying job in the '50s. And he said, 'No, I thought about working with my father and making the instruments up at the lake, and that was more important to me.'"
Carl was born into violinmaking; his father, Carl G. Becker (1887-1975), was a prolific and well-respected luthier who worked for the Chicago firm, William Lewis and Son. The younger Carl started apprenticing with his father at age 16, making cello ribs. The two went into business together in 1968, when they founded Carl Becker and Son in Chicago, in a multi-level building on Belmont St. that served as the family's shop as well as their home. (The shop now is located at 30 E. Adams St., in the Chicago Loop.)
"If you said to Carl, which is the better, you or your father? He would have always said his father was the better," said British luthier and violin dealer Charles Beare, retired director of the London-based J & A Beare. "But I've always thought, from his work, that (the younger) Carl was actually the very best violinmaker of the 20th century -- anywhere. You get differences of opinion on that, but for me, the best of Carl was the best we ever got between 1900 and 2000."
Carl Becker made his first violin in 1948. After that, he made nearly all his instruments in collaboration with a family member, said his son, Paul Becker, who, along with his sister, Jennifer Becker, also is a violin maker. "He made only 13 violins and violas by himself," Paul Becker said. "All the rest are in partnership with mostly my grandfather, and then also with me and my sister -- about 800 violins, violas and cellos, total." Two of his grandchildren, Stephanie Jurewicz and Vada Becker, also apprenticed with him and are luthiers.
"He was responsible for uplifting the quality of our instruments," Paul Becker said. "His hand, my grandfather always said, was much better than his own, and felt that dad was responsible for making the finest instruments."
The late violin dealer Geoff Fushi, of Chicago-based Bein and Fushi, owned two of the instruments that Becker made on his own, one which Becker made specifically for him. Fushi prized them greatly, said Fushi's daughter, Suzanne Fushi, who said that her father always trusted her to get the Strads, Guadagninis, Amatis out of the safe, but "when it came to, 'Go get my Becker,' he instructed me on how to carry a violin: 'Pick it up by the neck, have your hand on the bottom, take your time, don't rush around any corners…'"
Much of Becker's violin-making occurred at the family's secluded cabin in Wisconsin, by Lake Pickerel, where he worked in a studio over the garage. (It's also where he practiced one of his favorite pastimes, muskie fishing.) But the instrument-making was a part-time endeavor -- weekends and evenings, and in the summers. His time in Chicago was devoted to repairing and restoring violins.
"He was a wonderful restorer, and he was painstaking," Beare said. "He would always be on the side of the violin, or whatever instrument he was working with, rather than on the side of the people he was working for. It was always the violin that was important."
Carl Becker worked on many very famous and valuable violins, violas and cellos, including the Lady Blunt Stradivari violin, which was sold in June 2011 by Nippon Foundation for a record price of $15.9 million.
"Carl could take the most intractable problems and solve them," Rufino said. "It was like watching someone try to untangle a big, tangled knot of string: Carl would just stick his hand into the problem, lay a firm grip on it, and follow that string to the end. Then he'd turn around and go in the other direction, until it was all in a neat bundle."
"He had boxes and boxes of little jigs he had made, and he worked with such incredible sensitivity to preserve," Rufino said. "In restoration, he would bend over backwards, tie himself in knots and go to astonishing lengths to preserve the original maker's work."
For example, in restoring the Muntz Strad of 1736, which Stradivari made when he was 92, Becker had to address some wear on the corners of the violin. "Anybody else would have just cut off the worn corner and replaced the wood with a new piece of wood," Rufino said. "Carl went through this elaborate process of slicing the thickness of the wood and pulling the original wood up, higher and higher -- it's almost impossible to describe."
"He took Stradivari and analyzed it better than anyone has, as far as translating it from Stradivari's work to his own," said Jim Warren of Kenneth Warren and Son violin dealers in Chicago. Warren bought one of the last violins that Becker made.
"Carl was like Violin Yoda," Rufino said. "Carl had a sort of Platonic ideal of a violin, which did not exist in space-time. You cannot have the perfect violin, but you can have an idea of a perfect violin, and he would just compare the reality that was in his hands to that perfection."
"He saw the violin as an engineering problem," Rufino said. "He taught me to see the violin as a question of the distribution of tension." If you redistribute that tension, the instrument will sound different. The secret to adjusting an instrument lay in manipulating the pressure of those strings: by changing neck angles, by changing specific points about the fingerboard, adjusting the sound post, adjusting the bridge.
"He also came to it from a very human point of view: the violin is a musical instrument that only has value when it's played by a musician. Carl's entire focus was: make it play great, and make it comfortable for the musician. There's an awful lot of arcane knowledge that goes into making an instrument comfortable."
"The supreme gift of Carl's work was that he had a mastery of line that was so elegant," Rufino said. "Carl loved ballroom dancing and was an excellent dancer -- all the ladies at any function wanted to dance with Carl. If Fred Astaire had been six-foot-three and a violin maker, his name would have been Carl Becker. His work was supremely elegant."
His patience was legend, "Carl Becker would have driven St. Francis to insanity, he was so patient," Rufino said. "Time did not exist for Carl. He didn't care about time, he cared about doing a job perfectly. His work was of exquisite delicacy and sensitivity."
In restoring the famous "Lady Blunt" Strad, the violin "had developed this spontaneous dimple in the middle of the back, a little dent -- these things sometimes happen. He wanted to push it out to restore the arching." And he did it -- over a period of six months, applying a little bit of pressure each day. "He described to me, how he made these little mini bass bars that would put a very light pressure on the dent, pushing it out. He would dampen it very lightly with water and apply the tiniest bit of pressure." In the end, he fixed the dent, without endangering the integrity of the violin; "He didn't have to heat it or do any kind of destructive or threatening thing. This was the way he worked, all the time."
Carl Becker did not reserve his patience only for the finest instruments on the planet; he also gave his full attention to the instruments of professional musicians who came from all over to have their instruments repaired and adjusted.
"He was a polite, deliberate, considerate, soft-spoken man in a field with its share of sly, self-important fast talkers. My no-name violin never sounded better than it did than it did after a few minutes in his hands," said Rick Lohmann, violinist and teacher in Santa Fe, N.M. "It still has the bridge he made for it over 20 years ago. He came the closest anybody ever did to identifying the maker. I always breathed a sigh of relief as I walked up that narrow old staircase on Belmont St., knowing that whatever tonal glitch was haunting my violin, it was about to be solved."
"He would work until 3 in the morning on someone's adjustment, to get it right," said Paul Becker. "He did that regularly, and he did it without question. He connected with people one-on-one, one at a time."
"Carl was generous and warm-hearted with everyone who shared his love of violinmaking," said violin maker Gregg Alf. "Although our violinmaking styles are different, we were able to connect as colleagues with mutual curiosity for the profession we love. Carl's approach was very methodical, extremely well thought out. No part was left to chance. Carl was a a true gentleman, generous with his time and knowledge. When he took on an apprentice, it was with the true spirit of helping them grow, both as a maker and as a person. I think many young makers will remember sitting beside him, his OptiVISOR ('Becker checker') lowered, while discussing the finest details of their instruments."
The list of luthiers who learned from Carl Becker is long and includes: Raphael Carrabba, Charles Rufino, Thomas Immel, Sebastian Zens, Sam Zygmuntowicz, Michael McMahan of Australia; Glenn Bearden, Whitney Osterud, Michael Reis, Michael Lochner, Peter Beare, Eric Benning, Vada Becker, Stephanie Jurewicz and Jonathan Woutat.
Becker worked on stringed instruments for some 76 years, and "he experimented and tested himself every day, all through his life," Paul said. "He always advanced violins, from the day he started until the day he died. The very best instruments were the last ones he produced, and he was in the middle of making two violas when he passed away."
"I expect he's up there in heaven, grilling Stradivari about one thing after another," Rufino said. "'Why'd you make those fiddles so thick at the end of your life, I don't understand it!'"
Carl Becker is survived by children Paul Becker, Carol Henderson, Marilyn Becker and Jennifer Becker; eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Memorial services will be August 10, at a venue to be announced.
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