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Remembering Luthier and Violin Making School of America Founder Peter Paul Prier (1942-2015)

Laurie Niles

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Published: June 19, 2015 at 9:20 PM [UTC]

If Salt Lake City has become a wellspring of fine violin-making, it all traces back to the vision of one man: Peter Paul Prier, who founded America's first violin-making school there in 1972.

Prier, 73, founder of the Violin Making School of America, died on Sunday from complications from Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Peter Prier, at the door of his shop, in 2010.

Any roster of the finest living makers in the world today would have to include a hefty number of graduates of the VMSA: Samuel Zygmuntowicz, Peter Beare, Terry Borman, George Yu, Jeff Phillips, Colin Gallahue, Michael Doran, Guy Cole, Guy Rabut, Christopher De Groot -- honestly, it's hard to pick the top names from that list, with so many award-winning luthiers whose instruments are in the hands of top musicians around the world.

Born in Germany, Prier started playing the violin when he was seven, and at the age of 14 he went to the State Violin Making School of Mittenwald, Germany, where he studied with Alouis Hornsteiner, Paul Seckendorf, and Leo Aschauer. He graduated in 1960, after which he came to America to work for Pearce Music Company in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In 1965 he opened his own shop, now called Peter Prier and Sons Violins. Over a lifetime of lutherie, Prier made 164 violins, 17 violas, 32 cellos, 2 ½ basses, and 3 classical guitars.

In 1972 Prier started Violin Making School of America (VMSA) on the upper floor of his shop, with four students, and Prier as the only faculty member. He eventually expanded the school into more buildings, also constructing a recital hall. Prier served as Director of the school until 2006, when he sold the school to long-time head instructor Charles Woolf, its current Director. The school has had nearly 300 graduates, with an average enrollment of about 26 students a year.

Sam Zygmuntowicz was among the early students at the VMSA, where he studied from 1978 to 1980.

"The first graduates just burst onto the scene," Zygmuntowicz said. Suddenly, late in the 20th century, all kinds of violin makers were coming out of Salt Lake City.

There was an element of tension between this charismatic, old-world artisan and these idealistic young Americans of the 1970s.

"He wasn't used to people like us, and we weren't used to people like him," Zygmuntowicz said. "But I think it was a very fruitful kind of culture shock; it was a charged dynamic that led to a lot of development in a short amount of time."

The VMSA was set up in the mold of Mittenwald, a place "not dissimilar to Salt Lake City," with its mountains and fairly quiet life, Zygmuntowicz said. VMSA students tended to live close together and focus intensely on their work. "It was a very cohesive enclave of people focusing on one endeavor."

Violin maker Antoine Nedelec went to the VMSA in the late 1990s and also worked for Prier.

"Peter made wonderful instruments, especially in the 70s and 80s," Nedelec said. "They looked gorgeous, like old Italians, and they sounded gorgeous, too."

He said that Prier far preferred being at the bench upstairs, making violins, than being downstairs in the office doing paperwork.

Prier, who played in the Utah Symphony from 1961 to 1964, also was a good violinist, said Nedelec, who recalls playing quartet music at lunch time and occasionally getting to play with a Strad or del Gesú.

Prier's work ethic was legendary: "He was the first in the shop and the last one out," Nedelec said. "It didn't matter how hard I was working; he was always working harder."

Violin-making was an absolute passion for Prier. "As far as dealers go, he struck me as the one who really loved violin making," Nedelec said.

Peter Prier
Peter Prier with a Baroque violin made by VMSA graduate Jeffrey Robinson, in 2010

"Peter's heart was definitely in the right place, when it came to his students," Nedelec said. Nedelec recalled when he was finishing a scroll on his third violin at school. "Peter stopped by to pay me a compliment: 'Nice Guarneri scroll,' he said. When I told him it was supposed to be a Strad, we both knew I needed help. He sat next to me and re-carved one half of the scroll. He then handed it back and told me to try to match the other half. It was the best scroll I ever carved at school."

Prier often would bring top soloists to the school -- Schlomo Mintz, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma. "First they would show us their instruments. We would learn the sound that they liked, the sound that they wanted," Nedelec said. "Daniel Heifetz tried all the students' violins -- took 10 violins to the hall and played all of them," so the makers could hear their instruments played.

In fact, Prier made a copy of Daniel Heifetz' 1722 "De Chaponay" Stradivarius. "It was a very good violin," Heifetz said. "I did some performing on it," including some concerts that expressly compared the two instruments, and Prier's instrument "sounded darned good, compared to the Stradivarius!"

"The violin he made for me had a lot of his personality in it," Heifetz said. "There was a genuine sweetness to the sound, and it had more depth than I expected, from a brand-new modern violin and was very agile. It's like I'm describing Peter! I was very impressed with it. It really carried in the hall. It had warmth, it had depth, and it had projection."

Prier had a way of talking about violins and violin-making that captured imaginations.

"As a teacher, he was very intense and passionate about making and great instruments, and that always came through in his teaching," said current VMSA Director Charles Woolf. "Sometimes you'd just walk away from one of his lectures, so inspired by what he had said. You wanted to just get back on your bench."

Prier also made it a point to continue learning about his craft and its history. "When he started his shop, every night when he went home, he would research and try to memorize a different maker and their traits," Woolf said. "So he was very serious about increasing his knowledge."

"Peter had a unique sense of humor and a positive outlook on life that was very contagious," said violin maker David Gusset, an early graduate of the VMSA. "The violin making school he founded was the first of its kind in the U.S. Peter had the great foresight and patience to take on the founding and operation of the school and the unique ability to provide a quality program there. I began at the violin making school in 1974 during its third year, but ended up being one of the first graduates. After finishing school and moving on to the international violin making scene, I always felt that many of my own accomplishments often reflected the quality of his program to the outside world. In fact many of the graduates from his school have faired quite well in international violin making competitions and made names for themselves on their own. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to be part of the early school, for all the initial skills I learned there under his and Paul Hart's tutelage and for the lifelong occupation and passion that the school helped initiate for me.

Prier, who was over six feet all, "was larger than life," Nedelec said. "Certainly, he was one of the most important figures in American violin making."

Peter Prier
Here I am, holding one of Peter's 1971 Guarneri-model violins and speaking with him in April at the ASTA Convention. I will miss those conversations!

Prier is survived by his wife of 50 years, Madeline Kay, and their six children: Martin, Très, Paul, Tamara, Kristen, Daniel, and 15 grandchildren. A memorial is being planned for mid-August.

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