Fred’s “Stradivarius” Violin

This week’s post is a little different. It is a true story with a twist, about an old friend of mine. As I send it to you, we are about to depart for Melbourne, a journey of 3,500 kms from here in Fremantle. I’m telling you this because we’re driving – it will take about 4 or 5 days – and I’m hoping that I can send my next post from somewhere along the way, in the Outback.

Fred was a lovely old bloke, with more enthusiasm for all things violin than anyone I knew. Obsessed really, which was a bit of a problem, because he tried to repair them. But more about that later. I was just there to buy a bow.

Lady Blunt Stradivarius

Lady Blunt Stradivarius

I’m looking for a good bow, Fred. Have you got anything interesting?

He peers around the door, his face a smile of recognition.

Oh yes, John, I’ve got quite a few. Come in, come in!

It’s early evening and I’ve had a long day teaching. I follow him into the living room, where he beckons me to take chair. There are bits and pieces of violin paraphernalia over the laminex table. I see a box of pegs. Some are exquisite – ebony with gold studs. In another box are rosewood and ebony tail pieces. One has a pretty inlaid fleur-de-lis, the pearl shell glinting under the kitchen light.

Have a seat. Look, I won’t be a minute. Before I show you the bows I want you to look at some violins I have been working on.

Inwardly I groan. I know what this means. Showing me violins means playing them. Not by me. Fred loves to play, but he can’t keep in tune. The trouble is, he’s such a kindly soul I don’t have the heart to dissuade him. Unhappily, no-one wants to listen to his earnest violin playing, which makes him a little desperate to find an audience.

He emerges from his workshop with the one of his latest treasures. It’s a darkish golden brown violin with a pretty one-piece back, made in Germany in 1902. With a grin of anticipation, Fred rosins the bow. As he plays, the notes slide around perilously under his wide slow vibrato, mournfully out of tune. His face is a mixture of intense concentration and pleasure, oblivious to the sour notes. But underneath it all I discern the sound and character of the violin. It has a kind of distant quality. Perhaps the top plate is a little too heavy. Or, surely not, revarnished? No. The middle range isn’t bad, but the higher frequencies are weak. F natural on the E string is way too dominant. It may settle down with lots of playing, and a better brand of string. Fred hands the violin to me with reverence. I spin it over in my hands to look at the lovely flame of the back and place it carefully on the table.

The next one is a Breton, from Mirecourt, with a light yellow varnish. I have great respect for some of the old French violins. Often they have a richer bass sound than German violins of similar quality and are less inflated in price than comparable Italian instruments. The tone of the Breton is too harsh for my liking and the scroll has had major reconstruction. I see a crack in the top that has been poorly repaired. It’s had a tough life.

I had to fix the top, Fred says, handing it to me.

Four more violins lie on the table in front of me before I venture a reminder about the bows.

The bows? Oh yes, John. You want to see the bows. Hold on.

Now, I love bows – these wondrous objects crafted from pernambuco  – Caesalpina echiizata Lain. The tree grows primarily in the Mata Atlantica region of Brazil, in the state of Pernambuco, so most people call it pernambuco as well. Originally exported to Europe for use in dyes, it was the wood of choice for most bowmakers by about the beginning of the 19th century, because of its extraordinary strength and flexibility.

A great bow is a joy to play with. Difficult passages become easier and the music flows sweeter and cleaner from the violin. Lately, new cheap bows from the East or carbon fibre fabrications have elbowed the old masters aside. They’re improving in quality, but I’m biased towards the European bows. And when a student buys a nice violin I’m perplexed when they turn up with an ordinary bow.

Fred returns with a case containing ten bows. At first glance they seem a pretty uninteresting lot. A couple look as if they have been left wound up in their cases for years, resulting in a fatal loss of strength and tension. There’s a gleam of silver on a dark hexagonal bow and I pick it up. It is an old silver mounted German Weichold, with a very elegant slender tip. The weight feels just right and I look along it lengthways for straightness. Mm, pretty good. It could be nice to play with, so I pick up one of Fred’s violins and draw it across an open string. Ohh! It has perfect balance and tension! I tune up, launch into a Beethoven sonata and the bow springs into life.

How much is this one, Fred? I ask.

He names a price less than I expect and I accept immediately. The bow is a real discovery. I am thrilled to find it and stand up to go. The thought of playing music with this lovely bow gives me a little frisson of pleasurable anticipation. It will prove to be an enduring friendship. The Weichold is still my treasured mainstay many years later.

Fred is happy that one of his bows has found an appreciative owner. Or has the bow found me? As I turn for the door, he says,

I think that bow is meant for you. Now look John, before you go, I want to show you something really special – my Stradivarius violin.

I glance at my watch. It is after 10pm. I look up to tell Fred that I really can’t stay, but he’s gone. A minute or two later he returns with a violin.

Several times over the years Fred has mentioned his “Stradivarius” violin. Of course, I don’t believe him. No-one does. Legendary Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737) is universally acknowledged as the greatest of all the makers. About 650 of his 1,000 or so stringed instruments survive today, including 450 to 500 violins. They sell for millions, and are owned by famous players and wealthy music academies. The list includes Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman, Yascha Heifetz, Joshua Bell, Nathan Milstein, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Salvatore Accardo and Maxim Vengerov. Fred’s claim is fanciful to say the least. On the labels of many old violins and you will see the name, Stradivarius. Original ‘Strads’ have been assiduously copied, simply because they are the pinnacle of violin making.

"Antonio Stradivarius" picture

So I sit through another excruciating rendition of Humoresque and take my leave, thanking Fred again for the bow. This turns out to be the last time I see him. Allie, I and the children leave Australia in 1986 to spend several years living in Matsumoto, Japan, where I study violin teaching and performance with Shinichi Suzuki. Following Japan is a year teaching in England before we return to Perth. Back home I’m saddened to hear that dear old Fred has passed away.

One day I ask a colleague what happened to Fred’s violin collection. She looks at me in surprise.

You don’t know? A family member sold off most of them and put the remainder – the 5 worst looking ones – up for auction at Gregson’s. My husband bought the lot for $2,000. One of them was the “Stradivarius”. On a whim, we investigated the origins of the violin. Eventually we took it to Charles Beares, the Stradivarius expert in London. He verified it as an authentic Stradivarius! It needed some expert restoration to fix up Fred’s repairs and the top plate is not the original, but it could be worth up to a million dollars.

Incredible, I think, laughing to myself – picturing Fred’s beatific smile as he played away that night long ago. He was right.

It was the real thing, an original Strad!

Thanks for coming to Teach Suzuki Violin!

Cheers for now, John


About the Author

Post a Reply


Powered by WishList Member - Membership Software