Printer-friendly version
Christian Linke

The intercontinental journey of restoring my old family violin

September 2, 2012 at 11:01 PM

Hello everyone,

I would like to share this little story with you, it is about the long journey of my family's old violin, a violin that has been passed down for 4 generations and that had not been played since my great-grandfather had owned it.

A few years back, my grandmother had to move out of her old house due to her advanced age, and everything that was found in the depths of her cabinets, closets and attics was either sold or passed on to my parents...
Among those many, many things, the old violin of my great-grandfather.

Since this great-grandfather, there was no musician in my family, and during the difficult times of Post-war Germany, my grandmother would give the old violin to her foster kids, as a toy. Unfortunately, this violin was not used to be played as an instrument, but from what I could deduce from the instrument's looks, rather as a club or a tennis racket.

As I had been a musician, playing the guitar, bass and singing, the violin was plainly given to me. "Whatever you do with it, do it. You are a musician, if there is anyone who can find this thing useful, it's you. But don't sell it!"

Well, there I was, with this "violin"... it did not have any strings, no tailpiece, no label, it smelled bad, and it was on me to find some use for it. Truth be told, I had always been wanting to somehow get my hands on a violin to start playing it, but THIS was not what I had hoped for.

As a young man with little money, it was quite difficult to get this violin restored, especially living in a very small town in Northern Germany, not having a car. I sent a few emails to luthiers in the larger cities in Northern Germany with the photos of my violin-thing attached, and received a few disheartening responses: The price of restoring the violin was definitely higher than the value of the violin. It would only make sense to restore this violin to put it on a wall.

Well then, I thought, it is a wooden object that should somehow make a sound when there are strings attached. It must be possible to somehow play this violin! I had to get the violin somehow going. It took some time till I found out: There was an old, retired violin luthier in my town. A few months after I had received this piece of wood, I met up with him, and sealed the deal: He would not really do anything on the aesthetics of the violin but rather supply with me utilities to make the violin functional for roundabour 100 EUR, which was not cheap to me, and a few hours of my time cleaning his garden.

After two weeks, I got my violin back, and I was pumped to start playing. I was told that it was an old German violin, probably 100-120 years old. Wow, I thought, quite a nice violin it must be!

But, alas, I was not supposed to play this violin for now.

After several attempts of getting a clean stroke out of the strings, it was sheer impossible. I was freaking out. Was I just too bad, or how was this witchcraft supposed to work?

The only option I had to find out was the internet... I would post some photos of the bridge and the violin, and unfortunately would find out that apparently, the violin luthier was either too old or not good enough of a luthier; The bridge was a complete mess, carved so bad that the strings were pretty much in one straight line so that it was impossible to play the strings inbetween, and the soundpost was crooked as hell.

Well, there I was, having an ugly, unplayable violin. What would I do? Oh, how my great-grandfather would laugh at me when he would see this thing, his old violin, in such a poor state.

This time, I decided to do everything I could to get good results. I would save money over the course of a few months, take a train to Kiel, the nearest bigger city, and go to a small but proper luthier. There, it was confirmed that my violin was a complete mess, and that whoever worked on it was a complete dilettante.

This time, after the people from the store would make adjustments and do everything that's possible without adding the sorts of costs I could have never paid(like varnishing etc.), I would actually get back a functioning, not completely terrible looking violin:

While I did not like the looks and the sound of it too much yet(On these photos, it looked quite nice and antique I think, thanks to my professional photographer mother, but in reality, it would have this very cheap looking, brownish color and all kinds of scratches and marks that would not make it look antique and impressive, but plainly cheap), I was able to use it as an instrument now. My great-grandfather’s violin, at least! This time, I was told that it was roundabout 100 years old, and from Mirecourt, France. Hmmm, so where the hell did this thing actually come from?

I would play the violin for a few months, but then had to stop playing:

It was early 2010, and was moving to the United States, on my own. It had simply been something that I had always wanted to do, and I had finally received my green card, in the age of 22. I only really had a big bag to take with me, not to mention that I would not have the space to practice violin without bothering my neighbors. I left the violin at my parent's house in Germany, and spend the next year building up my existence in a new country and continent, not having any money nor time to play the violin.

Roundabout two and a half years later, here I am. Today. My parents visited me half a year ago and brought the violin. Two months ago, after moving into a place which finally did not have any shared walls, I started playing the violin again, started taking violin lessons, but was not sure if the violin was still okay, not being played and touched in two years, and still having a rather mediocre look and sound.
Now, working full time and having the space to practice, I actually decided to get serious about playing the violin, and brought the violin to a luthier, indeed, to a well known, established, great luthier, here in LA, and ask him to do whatever he thinks makes sense to make the violin sound good and look pretty. Both sonically and visually, I was not able to enjoy the violin at all in its current state... The sound post indeed was not set up properly anymore, the tailpiece and chinrest caused some rattle, the fingerboard I think(?) was a little crooked, the pegs were stuck, and the chosen string band sounded plainly terrible on this violin... The cheap rental violin that I would get so that I could keep practicing sounded way better than my old family violin.

Well. Yesterday, after 3 weeks at the luthier, I received my violin back:

For the very first time, I am really, really happy to look at my violin, and also to play it, since it sounds and plays wonderful. For the first time, the violin does not feel or sound cheap, and for the first time, I can look at the violin and imagine how it must have looked and sounded like when my great-grandfather played it, back in the day. For the first time after all these years, since my great-grandfather had stopped playing it when he died, the violin was shining again.

To this day, I don’t know who built the violin, and when and where it was built. I also don’t know what its value is as I have consciously not been asking for it. All I know is that it’s the violin of my great-grandfather and that it is wonderful. :)

From Robert Pait
Posted on September 3, 2012 at 1:01 PM
What a great story! I can so relate as my violin was my great grandmothers and needs to be restored. I am lucky enough that it is playable and sounds quite nice as a fiddle. But all the bumps and bruises as well as a nice new coat of varnish would certainly pretty it up. I too feel a connection with my gmother while playing it. Thank you for sharing.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on September 3, 2012 at 5:20 PM
That's so sweet!
From Benedict Gomez
Posted on September 4, 2012 at 3:53 AM
Great story, I love hearing tales like this.
From Philanthi Koslowski
Posted on September 4, 2012 at 4:14 PM
My husband's grandfather, whom I unfortunately never got to meet, was a Canadian fiddler who played a violin that had been passed down from his own grandfather. I have been told by so many people what a great fiddler he was (sadly, no one has any recordings of him playing), and how he was always the happiest when playing his fiddle.

That is the violin that I am learning to play on. It's not a Stradivarius by any means, just a very old fiddle, and I love it. We brought it to a luthier who cleaned it up a bit for us and confirmed that it was indeed still worth playing. We named it Earl in honor of my husband's late grandfather. It might sound corny, but in some way, it makes me feel connected to this very beloved man.

From Thomas Cooper
Posted on September 4, 2012 at 10:59 PM
That's one beautiful looking instrument.

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine