March 10, 2011 at 7:26 AM
Brazilian violin maker Luiz Bellini did not envisioned the kind of success that came his way as a violin maker when he first decided this would be his profession. As he told me so naturally and full of spontaneity when I sat to chat with him about his life, “I was so lucky to be at the right place at the right time, how lucky can you be”.
For him it is that simple to explain, but once you meet him an get to know his work and the names associated with his development and professional career, you cannot help but to start underestimating the role luck played in his life. Bellini is one of the gentlest persons I have interviewed. You get a sense of simplicity combined with a vivid imagination for creation and the spark of a great artist when seating at his studio where he has been crafting violins for more than 40 years. A simple room about 12X12 in a brownstone in Astoria, Queens has been the birthplace of some of the best concert fiddles in the world. On this beautiful Monday morning in New York, I ask Bellini to tell me about his beginnings as a violin maker, his first teacher, the path that took him to Wurlitzer and his experiences with the great Sacconi at this most famous establishments, as he became one of the trusted workman of the great connoisseur and restorer, and about his retirement from the workshop to become a full time violin maker. The next two hours were among the most fascinating and inspiring of my life. I will try to resume them here for you, but I feel that a book would pay justice to such a great story. The occasion of the interview is to find out more about the man I am celebrating on the second concert of Stradivari Evenings Concert Series in NYC, which takes place on March 12, 2011.
Paolo: Mr. Bellini, please tell me a about your beginnings, what led you to violin making and what was your inspiration?
Bellini: I always liked wood, an even as a kid I used to make things out of wood. In the professional school (The equivalent of a technical college I assume) they gave me a choice, painting or wood carving. I liked both, but decided to pursue wood carving, so I spent four years studying it. At the end of the last year we were allowed to work in a project for ourselves, to create something for us. At that time, the professor one day brought a violin which was in the white to the workshop, and I grabbed it and look, and look, and said, wow….what a beautiful thing!!!!(Says Bellini full of emotion as he remembers this moment) The teacher saw I was so involved with the violin that he asked me, would you like to become a professional violin maker, and I knew this is what I wanted to do, so I said yes without hesitation. Then he decided to contact a violin maker he knew to see if he will accept me as a pupil.
P: Tell me about this first teacher.
B: His name was Guido Pascoli and he already had an assistant, but said he would love to have a pupil and to go see him. I went to see him very early one morning on January 1955. I left my house early because he lived far and I did not want to be late. He first asked me if I really wanted to be a violin maker to which I replied yes, I want to. He then gave me a violin which was out of tune and a pitch fork and asked me to tune the violin.
P. How did that work out for you?
B: Well, I have never tuned a violin before, so it took me a little while but I tuned the fiddle. So he asked me right away when would you like to start? I said, when you allow me to. He asked; do you want to start right now? So I started the same day.
P: That is like asking a violin student to tune the violin by themselves on the day of their first lesson. For how long you studied with him and how many instruments did you make?
B: With him a learned a lot of things not just about making but also about restoration and repair during the 5 years I was there. I made about 20 violins a viola and a cello. I also did frogs for bows so I learned a lot. We used to do violins without the internal form.
P: What happened after, did you go straight to Sacconi?
B: After five years, Pascoli told me that he had taught me everything he knew and that it will be good if I go to New York to work with Sacconi. He did not know him personally, but knew of him. I told him that I would really like to go, but that I had to be accepted. Fortunately in those days it was a rare thing to be a violin maker.
P: Who made the introduction?
B: We had a costumer, Geraldo Moderne, who was a businessman and travel to New York frequently, so he knew Sacconi and Rembert Wurlitzer. He carried the request and recommendation and when he came back he told us that Sacconi had said yes to me!!!!!! WOW!!!!!(Bellini expresses this with the happiness of someone that has just won the lottery)
P:This was the Mecca of the violin world and you were the rising star of Brazil. Tell me a bit about your time there, about Sacconi
B: I arrived at the Wurlitzer shop on November 20th 1960. Exactly 6 months after I arrived Mr. Sacconi told me “I would like you to make a violin under my direction.” Right away I said yes!!!! I would like that very much! Sacconi and Rembert Wurlitzer both had an eye and a memory for instruments to be reckoned with! They remembered every detail about every instrument. Mr. Wurlitzer died 3 years after I arrived. Sacconi was a great teacher, a great expert, and such a nice person, he couldn’t have been better, he was a great thinker, and a simple man.
P: How did the violin turn out?
B: It was one of the best things I have ever done. I used to have a quick lunch break of 15 minutes and the rest working on the fiddle with him. He knew every nuance every little thing about Strads, Guarneri and any other maker you can imagine. The good thing about him is that he would not do anything himself, he probably wanted to, instead he would tell you what to do, otherwise it would not be my work. He would bring a Strad and explain to me every detail, and how to look.
P: Most of your work has been a copy of certain models, the Lord Wilton Guarneri, the Baron Knoop, for example, why did you choose those specific instruments?
B: The Baron Knoop I got to know at my house when violinist Rony Rogof brought it. He took one of my violins for a concert tour and I said jokingly that I would take the top off to make a cast and I thought he was going to jump of panic! But he actually encouraged me to do it and look after any crack once the violin was opened. In the end I had the violin here for a month. I love to do Strad copy because you have to be precise, on everything. If you miss something is not a Strad anymore. You got to be very careful.
P. Tell me about the Lord Wilton and your relationship with Ruggiero Ricci, who was a very big enthusiast of your work.
B. The Lord Wilton is one of the most beautiful Guarneri violins ever. In 1966 Sacconi gave it to me and said “ we are going to do some work on it”. I worked on it for quite a bit because the bass bar was pushed up, and in his opinion it was a crime to leave it like that. That’s when I decided to try to make a copy because until then I had never tried to make one. Sacconi encouraged me and gave me a set of pictures from the Wurlitzer collection. This violin was my lucky break because Ruggiero Ricci bought it. I closed the violin in 1967 and varnished it. At the end I did not like the varnish so I took it out of the violin and I put it away until 1974. That year Charles Beare was visiting the shop of Jack Francaise and told me “ I hear you are making a copy of the Lord Wilton. I would like to see it” said CHARLES, to which I replied that the violin was without varnish. Charles insisted that he would like to see it anyway.
The next day I brought the violin and hang it in my bench. Bill Monical happened to be there, and took the violin in his hands and said jokingly “Hey!, somebody removed the varnish from the Lord Wilton!” (Bellini laughs as he recounts this story), Charles Beare came and saw the violin and a couple of hours later Ruggiero Ricci comes in to give two bows to re-hair to Michael deLucia, and pointing to my violin he asked, “Who is making a copy of the Lord Wilton? Can I see it?” He took a long look, he examined the scroll, and he looked and looked carefully and then told me, “When you finish I would like to try it.” WOW ( Says Bellini full of surprise) So I started to work on the varnish right away!
P: Were you able to look at the original Lord Wilton again before varnishing?
B: Yes, I knew the owner his name was Jack Marlane, and he knew Ruggiero, so he called me and said that he would be able to drop off the Lord Wilton on Saturday evening and pick it up Sunday, and he did that for about four weeks. It was a big challenge because I did the top, which I think is the best I have ever done, but the back is very busy, and I did not have the technique yet, it was my first copy, but I did the best I could. Jack and Ruggiero came together to pick up the original and try my copy. Ruggiero tried for a while in the other room and came back saying “This is going to be a great violin” He understood the potential of the violin. He took the violin for tour and came back after two months. He called me and told me “ I have three orders for you because during the tour I played mostly your violin and it works, it cuts!” From there on every time he would play I would get orders. The ones I sold to other players, other people saw and they ordered as well. Ricci put me in business, so much that in 1985 I had 15 years of work ahead of me in commissions.
P: Mr. Bellini’s list of clients in 1985 read like a who’s who of the violin hierarchy which included Menuhin and Gidon Kremer. The rest is history. It is important to know that Mr. Bellini always worked by himself and there were never assistants in his shop. His hands are the only ones that work in his violins. Right now he says that he takes more time per violin and if you want one you may have to wait two years or more. He used to take one and a half month average per violin and made 8 violins a year. Now he takes up to three and a half months per violin and he enjoys having the luxury of time to make even better violins than before. He has kept his prices very moderate for a top modern violin.
On a final note, Bellini expresses to me with great joy how much he loves his work, and that he sees no reason to retire. I am more than inspired by this great man and his passion for his craft. He recognized his calling the first time he held a violin in his hands and with conviction never looked back and never stopped loving his work. Is because of this that he has made his mark! Luck……..I don’t think that was really the case.
Thanks, this is a wonderful and inspiring interview!! Do you think one can be a very dedicated and hard working person + happen to be lucky (the right place at the right time)?
I think that many great artists were in such a situation... but lucky doesn't mean that they didn't have to work like crazy to get there ; )
Yes, he deserves his fame!
Wow! Thanks for sharing this nice interview! I never met Bellini, he visits Sao Paulo somtimes (and I visit NYC every year too) but never met him.
I had the oportunity to see Geraldo Modern's instruments sometime ago and, among the instruments, there was a 3/4 violin wich label menitoned that Bellni had made it under the guidance of Guido Pascoli.
Guido Pascoli (Bellini's first teacher in Brazil) was quite a fine maker, he made bows too.
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