Interview with David Schoenbaum: A Social History of the Violin

March 13, 2013, 12:09 PM · In a way, David Schoenbaum has been researching his book, The Violin: A Social History of the World's Most Versatile Instrument, ever since he started playing the violin, as a child.

The ViolinThe idea for a history of the violin formally occurred to him in the early 70s, with a series of New Yorker pieces published as a book by Joseph Wechsberg, called The Glory of the Violin. "I reviewed it for the Times," Schoenbaum said. "And while I'm an unqualified admirer of Wechsberg, who writes in his sixth language better than most people in their first, and was himself a trained violinist, there was a lot of story there that he didn't get, and nobody else got, and I thought would be nice to read, and couldn't -- because nobody else had written it."

A native of Milwaukee, David Schoenbaum started playing the violin as a fourth-grader at his local public school when he was eight. Things were different in the 1940s: "This was a great American industrial city," Schoenbaum said. "It took its public school seriously, and the public schools took their music programs seriously. They provided lessons; they provided instruments. Like any city in those days, there was a series of orchestras, beginning with the school orchestra and working up to a city youth orchestra. So during my school days, I made my way through that and came out concertmaster at the other end."

Schoenbaum went on to specialize in history, most famously writing the 1966 book, Hitler's Social Revolution and working as a Professor of History at the University of Iowa until his retirement in 2008. He continues to play the violin as an amateur.

His history of the violin was a 20-year labor of love.

"My publisher thought this would be a nice, 250-page book," Schoenbaum said. It's actually 710 pages, if you include the 68 pages of notes and references, plus the index. "I signed the book contract in 1993, and the book came out last December. It took me a long time to go where I had to go, to read what I had to read, and to meet whom I had to meet." Schoenbaum said. "When I turned it in, the publisher looked at it and told me, now please reduce it by 20 percent. He was absolutely right. You've got to stop somewhere!"

Indeed, Schoenbaum paints a huge picture, and one should not count on reading this book like a novel. Schoenbaum's voice is engaging enough, but the story of the violin is wide in scope and dense with facts. Read with a bit of patience, this book connects dots scattered across the world, uncovers mysteries and relates quite a few entertaining stories. Schoenbaum has compiled a history that is staggering in its breadth and detail. The portrait emerges of an instrument whose survival seems inevitable --yet teetering on the brink of extinction at every turn.

For example, I'd always taken for granted the supremacy of Antonio Stradivari, and the worldwide worship of his instruments. But here was a shocker from the book: did you know that Stradivari's will wasn't unearthed until the 1990s? That the city of Cremona, where Stradivari made all his violins, didn't get around to procuring a Strad of its own to display, until 1962? As for anecdotes, how about this gem: a pair of luthiers -- women luthiers! -- stealthily switch out a maple shelf from a hospital phone booth, replacing it with shelf made of different wood, so one of them can use the maple for a viola back. No, I'd never heard that one!

"There are a lot of books on the history of the violin, but in a sense, there are only a few because they all recycle the same six anecdotes," Schoenbaum said. Most of those histories have been limited in subject to the collectors, makers and dealers of violins. "They're recycling the oral tradition of the succession from (collector, Count) Cozio to (collector, Luigi) Tarisio to (violin maker and dealer Jean-Baptiste) Vuillaume, to the Hills to (dealer Rembert) Wurlitzer, to (Chicago dealers) Bein and Fushi, or (London dealer) Beare.

Such books tend to lack much historical perspective, beyond listing the facts -- and even the facts are up for argument, so sparse was the real research upon which to base them. "There really wasn't a decent book until (David D.) Boyden's "The History of Violin Playing"," Schoenbaum said.

Schoenbaum's aim was to put the violin into a larger, historical context.

"It's an art, it's a profession. It's a marketable commodity, it's a capital gain," Schoenbaum said of the violin. Schoenbaum's history is written in four sections: "Making It," about the birth of the violin and its evolution as an instrument; "Selling It," about the ever-changing and global economics of the instrument; "Playing It," a comprehensive overview of the way the instrument has been taught, its most famous players and teachers; and "Imagining It," about art, literature and poetry inspired by the violin.

His research was full of revelations.

"I began, like most players, with no clue about violin-making," he said. "Like most people, I had no clue about the market, and boy, I learned a thing or two about that. And while I thought I knew something about playing, all I had to do was talk to any pro, and so much for that! Then it occurred to me that, I can't think of any other instrument that has so appealed to the imagination of artists of all kinds; the violin has a kind of iconic status that you just don't associate with the accordion or clarinet. So there turned out to be 500 years of paintings," and novels, and more recently, movies about the violin…"You just can't do that with any other instrument. There may be a romance of the pianist, but there is no romance of the piano because it's an industrial product and susceptible to metal fatigue. Violins are forever, providing you don't sit on them."

"The big discovery is that the collected memory, by default, was the dealers," Schoenbaum said. Why? "The only people who were interested in violin history, for obvious practical reasons, are dealers."Contained within that is the still bigger surprise: that it never occurred to anybody that (the violin) has anything to do with the way the world works," Schoenbaum said. "It had to do with wars and revolutions and currency fluctuations and social status and all of those categories that historians have discovered but never associated with violins: race, class, gender."

"After a while, I had a missionary feeling about it. I'm trying to persuade people that something very important is going on here," he said. He even needed to persuade violin makers. "I'm sure I'm the only professional historian who was ever invited to talk to the British Violinmakers Association and to the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. And in both cases, I had the curious experience of telling them that they were a lot more interesting than they realized. And for obvious reasons, they listened with interest!"


March 14, 2013 at 04:04 AM · One great book,

One great review...

I'm happy to own two!

March 14, 2013 at 05:26 PM · Bought the Kindle version. Enjoying it.

March 16, 2013 at 08:16 PM · Thanks for this! I'm going to buy the book right now :)

March 18, 2013 at 05:29 PM · Congratulations and thanks to David Schoenbaum for completing this project. I'll be reading all day long . . .

March 19, 2013 at 05:04 PM · I intend to buy the book, but could anyone tell me whether it includes personal stories as to how folks came to play the violin? I met Mr Schoenbaum a few years ago and he was interviewing people as part of his research for a book. It seemed as though part of his idea for the book at the time was how the violin fits into various cultures.

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