There is a man in Seattle who collects violins...
I first heard of David Fulton a while back, when I first interviewed James Ehnes. At the time, Ehnes had just come out with an album called Homage, which celebrated 12 of the finest violins and violas ever made by Stradivari, del Gesu, Guarneri, Bertolotti and Guadagnini.
Who owned these violins? The answer was David Fulton, an amateur violinist and founder of Fox Software, which was purchased in the early 1990s by Microsoft. Now living in Seattle, he had a impressive instrument collection -- some 22 instruments at that time -- that he had been building ever since he caught the bug in the early 1980's.
It would seem that Fulton caught that bug from Dr. William Sloan, who is a friend of mine, and a friend to many violinists and violin makers across the globe. Sloan is the Los Angeles-based urologist who owns the 1714 "Leonora Jackson" Stradivari and a 1742 Guarneri Del Gesu. Sloan has also made several violins himself, and he throws an annual Handel Messiah reading party that I've attended and written about many times here on Violinist.com.
In Fulton's words, Sloan is a "certifiable fiddle nut." Knowing Dr. Sloan, I can attest to that. The two met in college, at the University of Chicago, where both played in the University Symphony. Fulton was the concertmaster, but neither of them was a music major. They actually became good friends some 20 years later, when they found themselves living in Toledo, Ohio and recognized each other while attending an opera performance. At that time, Sloan was contemplating his first Strad purchase from Bein and Fushi of Chicago, and Fulton went along for the ride, literally. Soon later, Fulton bought a 1698 Pietro Guarneri of Mantua violin for more than the price of his home, and he has been collecting ever since.
I met Fulton and his wife, Amy, in October, after a recital at Dr. Sloan's house. After a nice conversation, Fulton said, "If you are ever in Seattle, come by and see my violins." I wasn't sure if he was serious. After all, I'm not exactly James Ehnes or Joshua Bell or the late Isaac Stern - all personal friends of Fulton's. Nonetheless, I decided that if I ever were in Seattle, a place I'd only visited once, I would certainly make an effort to come see the Fultons and those fiddles -- and make a report for everyone!
As fate would have it, just a few months later my son announced that he wanted to attend a youth film festival in Seattle called NFFTY, which would be screening two of his films. Robert and I decided to go along -- and to factor in an extra day to see the sights.
For me, seeing the sights meant: 1. good coffee and 2. Fulton's fiddles.
Fortunately, the Fultons would be in town when we were there, and David encouraged me to take an Uber over to his house to see the collection, which he has thinned considerably. Over the years he has owned eight Strads, eight del Gesùs, and 14 other instruments (violins, violas and cellos) with names such as Bergonzi, Guadagnini, Amati, Rugeri, Montagnana and Testore. His bow collection included 17 Tourtes, 14 Pecattes and seven others, most collected with the help of bow experts Paul Childs and Charles Beare.
So on a grey day in early May I headed to Fulton's house, nestled on a wooded hillside in Bellevue, overlooking the serene waters of Lake Washington. As I walked down the long driveway, I noticed the guest house -- Fulton had told me that its first guest was Isaac Stern, back when Stern was selling Fulton his 1737 "ex Panette, ex Balâtre" Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù. I approached the door, under a beautiful stained glass window.
Fulton ushered me into his living room, with its panoramic views of the water, and I sat with him on the aqua green couch as he told me about his violins -- and violins in general. I was impressed with his deep knowledge of violins and their history, as well as his genuine interest in violinists and the music they make.
"In this room, we have had the majority of the world's concert artists," Fulton said. He doesn't exaggerate -- he's kept track of the best-known artists who have visited, and besides Isaac Stern and James Ehnes, the list of 62 of artists includes big names such as Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, Eugene Fodor, Pamela Frank, Lynn Harrell, Leila Josefowicz, Midori, Jimmy Lin, Elmar Oliveira, Salvatore Accardo, Vadim Repin, Gil Shaham...
"I've played chamber music with many of them -- it's a little like playing tennis with a partner who is a lot better than you!" Simon James of the Seattle Symphony is a regular chamber partner, and Gil Shaham -- "He's a fantastic chamber player." And of course, there was Stern, who played with Fulton and even gave him a lesson. "He stayed with us a number of times. He was quite a character."
At the time I visited, Fulton had sold some 20 instruments but retained many of the best, including violins such as the 1709 "La Pucelle" Stradivari; the 1715 "Baron Knoop" Stradivari; the 1742 "Lord Wilton, ex. Lord Yehudi Menuhin" Guarneri del Gesù; a 1698 Pietro Guarneri of Mantua; violas such as 1676 "Conte Vitale, ex. Landau" Andrea Guarneri and the 1793 "ex. Rolla, ex. Wanamaker collection" Guadagnini; as well as a 1713 Stradivari cello called the "Bass of Spain." He still has an astonishing collection of Tourtes, Pecattes and other fine bows, kept in three cases that hold a dozen bows each.
In building his collection, Fulton worked with most of the major dealers of the last half-century and counted Robert Bein as a close friend. During the process he learned a lot about what is authentic, what is fake, who knows the difference and who will actually impart that knowledge, at least most of the time. Fulton's sharp memory has been helpful, so has his curiosity and willingness to dive deep. For example, Fulton helped build a computerized database of all the photographs, stock cards and other pertinent information from Rembert Wurlitzer Co.. Located in Manhattan, the company operated from 1949 through 1974, during which many of the world's finest violins were bought, sold, restored and certified by Rembert Wurlitzer -- whose certificates are still highly regarded. Fulton, of course, retained his own copy of that database, which is now also "the database that the major dealers all share," he said.
Violins sold at Wurlitzer retained a "Wurlitzer number," a number glued inside the fiddle. "They put it in there to identify it, for later use. The Wurlitzers always did that, the Hills always did that. Bein and Fushi also did that," Fulton said. "The Wurlitzer stock cards reveal a great deal about an instrument. They would put, on the stock card, the history of the instrument as it passed through their hands, as well as what they paid and sold it for, which is in a code....They encoded it so that someone glancing at the stock card couldn't necessarily tell what it sold for -- but (Charles) Beare told me the secret," he said with a smile.
I have the feeling Fulton knows enough intriguing back-stories to make at least 20 more movies like The Red Violin. On that day, though, we examined four of his instruments: two violins, a viola and a cello. Fulton showed them to me and told me the fascinating history behind each. He also allowed me the honor of playing a bit on the two violins. Here's a little about each one:
1709 "La Pucelle" Stradivari violin
"Like most of (the instruments) that are well-preserved, it hasn't been heavily used," Fulton said. "It happens to be a great violin."
Sometimes a violin has not been used because it simply did not prove to be a great concert instrument. In the case of "La Pucelle, "it's mainly been in amateur hands most of its life," Fulton said.
For a while, the violin was in the hands of the French luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, who sent it to a 1872 Exposition at what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum -- it was in a double case, along with the 1716 "Messiah" Strad -- Fulton has seen the photograph.
How did "La Pucelle" get its name? It had to do with its pristine condition.
"Vuillaume got a hold of the fiddle in the mid-1800s, opened it up, and observed that it had not been opened since it left Stradivari's hands," Fulton said. "He said, 'It's never been opened -- comme une pucelle!' Like a virgin." Its current pegs and tailpiece were carved by Vuillaume, "and on the tailpiece you'll see a woman in armor, that is of course 'La Pucelle d'Orléans' - Joan of Arc."
Fulton said that, as suggested by Charles Beare, he has it set up with gut strings, in order to go easier on the instrument, as modern strings exert more tension. "The instrument has no sound-post patch nor any significant cracks; Beare suggested it would be good if it stayed that way. Besides, the earlier set-up allows the violin to speak more openly," he said.
One more little detail about this violin -- when it was sold to Fulton, its owner tried to make him sign an agreement that stipulated that he basically lock it away and never let anyone know about it, see it or play it. Though he nearly had to back out of the deal completely, he did not make that agreement!
So, I did play it, with a few pieces like Meditation from Thais, a little of the second movement from Wieniawski 2, Bach G minor first movement.
Fulton advised me to go very lightly with the bow, something I was already generally aware of, when it comes to Strads: the idea of "playing soft" to find the tone. Even being conscious of this, I needed to go even lighter than where I started. The instrument absolutely did not want to be pushed, and I kept backing off and backing off -- until it at last produced a creamy, beautiful sound. Wow.
1742 "Lord Wilton, ex. Lord Yehudi Menuhin" Guarneri del Gesù violin
Next we looked at the Lord Wilton del Gesù, once played by Menuhin. Looking at it -- it is a beautiful object, gorgeously made. Holding it and thinking of its amazing history - that made time stand still a little. And then - I get to play it? No way. But it is a violin, and I do know how to play a violin. So I did, and what a treat. It had a thick and warm sound, and every note had deep character and color.
What a story this viola had. For one, it was made by Andrea Guarneri -- grandfather to the famous Bartolomeo Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri, AKA "Guarneri del Gesù." It is also one of just five known violas by Guarneri.
Fulton told me the story of one of its previous owners, Dr. Felix Landau. Landau was an attorney who assisted the London-based violin dealers, the Hills, with transactions in Germany during the 1930s. He was also Jewish. "He very wisely sent his instruments, including that viola, to London for 'repair,' just to get them out of Germany," Fulton said. "He was killed by a taxi cab, shortly after that viola was sent over to London. This is in the Arthur Hill diaries. Whether that's true that he was killed by a taxi cab -- it was in April 1935 -- given what was going on at that time, I'm not at all sure." Landau also owned the 1743 “Carrodus” del Gesù, one of the fiddles Fulton also owned.
"The point is, he sent the viola to London, to escape the Nazis, because it would have been confiscated. The Nazis at that time were confiscating all the precious things that all the Jewish families had," Fulton said. "Landau wisely got it out of there, but apparently didn't get himself out."
The viola is featured in "the Hill book" -- Violin makers of the Guarneri Family first published in the 1930 by William Henry Hill. Naturally, Fulton has the book -- a beautiful book, elaborate and full of illustrations. Fulton leafed through it, looking for the colored plates that picture his viola -- and there it was:
1713 "Bass of Spain" Stradivari cello
Fulton also showed me the "Bass of Spain" cello, which has a well-documented and colorful history, part of which is told on its Tarisio page. I can hardly do it justice in abbreviated form, but I'll try: it was first owned by a family in Madrid who took it in for a repair - and the luthier replaced the top! Eventually Luigi Tarisio spotted the top in a violin shop, managed to buy it, and was determined to find the bottom. He did, but nearly lost the cello in a storm at sea. Once reunited (an operation done by Vuillaume), the cello went on to several collectors and eventuarlly landed in the hands of Isabella Boyer Singer, widow to Isaac Merit Singer, of the Singer Sewing Machine fame, who had quite a soap-operatic life. It had many adventures in the Singer family and beyond, and finally found its way to Fulton. Again, one could make a movie, but I simply offer you a picture of this very beautiful instrument and its current owner and caretaker:
If you are interested in Fulton's collection, I would recommend the 2009 CD/DVD project Homage, which goes into great detail on 12 of Fulton's finest violins and violas. The photography of the rotating instruments is stunning, then Ehnes demonstrates their sound in the recording, with detailed descriptions and commentary in the booklet.
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