February 1, 2014
I own three violins.
I have a Lorenzo Storioni made in Cremona, Italy around 1785. This violin’s sound is dark and husky. Its varnish is lustrous, and the swirling patterns of its wood grain are remarkably beautiful.
I also have a violin made for me in 2006 by Samuel Zygmuntowicz, a distinguished American string instrument maker. This violin has a robust and appealing sound, and its varnish is artfully antiqued.
Then I have a third violin. Its tone is not dark and husky. Its varnish is certainly neither lustrous nor artfully antiqued. I did not want it or ask for it but, still, I’m happy to have it. What’s more, the violin came with a nice story attached to it.
One summer, my friend M decided to build a little rowboat for his pond in upstate New York. I witnessed the boat slowly taking shape a stone’s throw from the pond’s edge since I swam there regularly. At summer’s end, M proudly showed me his finished handiwork and invited me to a combination boat launching and birthday party the following week.
I accepted happily. What a great little boat M had built and what a nice way to celebrate his birthday. “Why don’t I play “Happy Birthday” on my violin in your new boat,” I blurted out without thinking. M’s face lit up as if it had been plugged into an electric socket. “What an absolutely great idea,” he exclaimed.
You know that sickening feeling you get when you’ve said something you instantly regret and wish the words could somehow be sucked back into your mouth and made to disappear? This had just happened to me. I began to backpedal by sheepishly telling M that as much as I’d have liked to play, my violin was much too valuable to risk being put in a tiny boat surrounded by water. M thought this over for a couple of seconds and then a faraway look came into his eyes. “What if I got you a violin? Would you play then?” Of course I would, I told him, but how on earth was he going to find a cheap, old violin? M was not connected to music in any way, and besides, we were in the country, virtually in the middle of nowhere.
M showed up on my doorstep the very next day with a violin. I was flabbergasted. “I got this at Yesteryears,” he told me, as he took out a violin without strings from its ratty case. Depending on whom you asked, Yesteryears was either a junk shop or an antique store located in our neighborhood. I’d happily split the difference by calling it a “junkique” shop. My wife, Dorothea, and I were often in the place. Over the years, we had bought there such things as an old wrought iron standing lamp and a set of coffee mugs. “I made a deal with the owner,” M told me excitedly. “I asked her to lend me the violin for a week and said I’d return it in much better condition.” M looked at me confidently: “I figured you’d be able to string it up.”
As I held the violin in my hands, it suddenly occurred to me that I had in fact seen it hanging unstrung on the wall in Yesteryears only days earlier. Everybody hopes to find a Stradivarius in Aunt Minnie’s or Uncle Oscar’s closet, and I’m no exception. But I could see even from afar that this violin was no Stradivarius. It had a generic shape, a scroll that looked almost machine-made, and a plain but beat-up-looking varnish. Written on a tag hanging from one of the violin’s pegs was the asking price: $96.00.
I had walked out of Yesteryears without even looking closely at the instrument. Ninety-six dollars was, of course, a ridiculously small price to pay for a violin. A genuine Stradivarius made some three hundred years ago would sell for millions of dollars today, but even a fine new violin goes for many thousands. The cheap price tag not withstanding, what on earth would I do with such a fiddle?
M stood around while I checked the violin out. Aside from the nicks and scratches acquired over time, its separate parts seemed to be at least properly glued together. I put some old strings I kept in my case for emergencies on the violin and tuned it. As in the Frog Prince fairy tale, I hoped against hope that in drawing my bow across the strings of this beat up old frog of a violin I might turn it into a prince who could sing ravishingly.
But there would be no fairytale ending here. After playing only three or four notes, I could hear that the violin’s tone was simple and uninteresting. There was a silver lining, however. This violin produced the loudest sound I had ever heard coming out of an instrument. If its mother was a violin, then its father must have been a trumpet. The instrument would have no trouble carrying across the water not only to the birthday guests on shore but also to every squirrel, chipmunk, deer, and bear in the surrounding woods. I gave M a thumbs-up. There would be water music at his party.
When the great day arrived, my young son, Alexej, rowed the boat around the pond as I sat in it playing “Happy Birthday” for M, his guests, and an entire pig roasting on a spit nearby. The violin and I were a big hit, and our performance, if you could call it that, was certainly a singular event in my musical career.
The next morning, I drove to Yesteryears with every intention of returning the violin, but by the time I entered its front door, I had changed my mind. This instrument would be perfect on camping trips and on vacations if I wanted to practice without worry about damage or theft. After all, it was just a worthless old fiddle. I plunked down ninety-six big ones on the counter and walked out of the place with my new old violin.
Over the years, this violin has proved surprisingly useful. I’ve fiddled on it by meandering mountain streams and prickly desert cacti, in funny out-of-the-way hotels, and even in my own living room. Despite the instrument’s apparently humble origins, I’ve always wondered about who made it and how old it is. Looking inside its left F hole, I could barely make out on the label affixed to the bottom an image of a lyre surrounded by an aura, and underneath, the initials J.T.L. But who was J.T.L.?
I brought the violin to my friend, Paul Childs, a highly respected dealer and assessor of violins and bows. He immediately recognized the initals. Paul told me that the shop of Jerome Thibouville-Lamy, located first in Mirecourt, France and then in Paris, mass-produced violins primarily by machine from the middle of the nineteenth to well into the twentieth century. In 1891 alone, his factory made thirty-five thousand violins of varying degrees of quality. After looking over my violin carefully, Paul guessed that it was of mid-level quality and probably worth around fifteen hundred dollars, a cool fifteen times what I paid for it.
My machine-made violin stands ready at a moment’s notice to follow me anywhere I ask of it—combat duty you might call it. Its sound is only a distant relative to that of my Lorenzo Storioni, my Samuel Zygmuntowicz, or the Stradivarius I have yet to find in Aunt Minnie’s or Uncle Oscar’s closet, but who’s complaining.
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