Book review: 'The Violin Maker'

April 7, 2007, 12:05 AM · All Stradivari had to do was to make new fiddles.

Luthier Sam Zygmuntowicz, on the other hand, has to make a new fiddle that will look, feel, and sing like an old one, and not just any old one. His client is Emerson String Quartet violinist Eugene Drucker, a violinist whose very soul has been shaped by his relationship with his Stradivari violin.

Zygmuntowicz's job is considerable: to make a companion violin that will be interchangeable with Drucker's beloved 1686 Strad.

What a set up!

We get to go along for the ride, thanks to author John Marchese, whose book, "The Violin Maker" is out this month. It's one of those books that violinists will love, and also one that helps explain our little obsession to the rest of the world.

John Marchese and Sam Zygmuntowicz
Marchese, left, and Zygmuntowicz. Photo courtesy John Marchese.

Marchese spent a year shadowing Zygmuntowicz as he turned one of his finest pieces of wood into the violin commissioned by Drucker. Marchese manages to both delve deep and to explain it with a simplicity that both violinists and non-violinists will appreciate.

Early on, Marchese discovers that the violin he's following has its roots not only in Zygmuntowicz's shop, but also in an entire world of lutherie and violin lore. His curiosity for these details leads him to Cremona, Italy, Stradivari's hometown, in search of the age-old secrets to violin-making. It leads him to Drucker, who explains what he hears when he plays his Strad. Drucker leads him to the Bach Chaconne, which he listens to until he hears in it "a monument to the human spirit."

Does he find the secret of Stradivari? Does Zygmuntowicz give him his favorite recipe for varnish? Does Drucker fall in love with his new violin and sell his Strad?

I don't think I'll be giving anything away if I tell you what happens:

Zygmuntowicz makes a beautiful, new violin. And we understand the incredible complexity and importance of this art form, and why we still, after 400 years, need the Violin Maker.

Note: Check back tomorrow for my interview with Sam Zygmuntowicz!


April 7, 2007 at 01:22 PM · I have read and enjoyed the book very much. I also want to add that I know Eugene Drucker and have played that violin (the Zygmuntowicz) many times; it is a marvelous instrument

April 7, 2007 at 03:27 PM · But, if the average decent player goes to Zyg would he or she get the same quality violin or was this a special effort?

April 7, 2007 at 05:27 PM · Thanks for heads-up on this book! I look very much forward to it. Daniel Phillips left his Strad at home and played his Sam Z. in the Beethoven violin concerto with us in New Britain Symphony last month. I've loved Phillips' style for decades, and treasured meeting him and hearing him again. And the violin sounded awesome, just great. Everyone was asking about it (and I heard about bow, but like an idiot I forget now...). Looking forward to your Sam Z. interview, Laurie!

April 7, 2007 at 09:20 PM · I feel a need to defend Sam for a moment here. It makes no sense to me when people suggest that he would hoard all of his best violins for the most visable clients, and I will tell you why.

When Sam starts to work on your violin, it is YOUR violin. By that I mean you have likely made certain requests regarding model (almost all do actually), the specific violin to be copied, or even more specific requests regarding the wood to be used. So from the beginning, the violin is lined up for you. I have seen Joshua Bell's violin "in the works" sitting on the shelf next to a violin being made for a less well known collegue, and in both cases, and in every case, I am sure, Sam is hoping for them both to be exactly what the player was looking for, and what he was trying to achieve.

The implication that he saves his best work for a soloist is as silly as the idea that a concert artist saves his best playing for the big cities... No. Any true artist, and Sam is one of the finest I have ever known in any field, has a standard to which they hold themselves...

April 8, 2007 at 05:00 AM · I'd love to read the book. My friend and i were talking about the travels a violin has in its journey...amazing to realize that every violin, just like every human being, has its own biography and adventures.

April 9, 2007 at 05:52 AM · It sounds like a wonderful book. Thanks for telling us about it, Laurie.

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