June 6, 2011
Sam, a widower in the autumn of his life, lost thirty pounds, had a face lift, dyed his hair, took elocution lessons, bought a smart new wardrobe, withdrew all the money from his bank, and flew to Miami for a brand new life. Soon after, Sam met a lovely woman at his hotel’s casino and fell in love. But before the romance could even get started, Sam suffered a massive heart attack and died. At the pearly gates, he took no time in accosting God. “I lead an upright and devout life. How could you do this to me”, he demanded to know. “Frankly, Sam”, God said, “I didn’t recognize you”.
Last summer, this old joke was somewhat replicated in real life. A friend of mine showed me a violin I had once played and owned. The violin was made in 1739 by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù, one of the world’s greatest violin-makers. I had performed hundreds of concerts and recorded well over a dozen works on it over a period of several years. Unquestionably, the Guarneri had been an intimate partner in my music making. You might think that seeing it for the first time in thirty years would produce a rush of emotions, but I felt nothing when my friend took the violin out of its case and handed it to me. Just as in the joke, I didn’t recognize it.
For anyone who plays a string instrument, this sounds as improbable as not recognizing an old friend after a long absence. The variations in a violin’s shape, grain, and color make each one unique. I bought the Guarneri del Gesù at Rembert Wurlitzer’s rare violin shop, one of the dozen or so places in the world where one could find these treasures. Simone Fernando Sacconi, the shop’s head violin guru who looked like an aging Italian movie star, greeted me warmly at the door and before I knew it he had placed the Guarneri in my hands. It took no more than a dozen notes for me to fall in love with the violin’s dark and husky voice, a characteristic of Guarneri del Gesù violins. Sacconi told me about the violin’s improbable story: rumored to have been painted black in the nineteenth century, hung on a wall for decades, re-varnished poorly in France, the violin’s F holes re-cut top and bottom to resemble the more gothic arching of the very last made and much sought after Guarneris, and finally re-varnished once again by no less a master violin-maker than Sacconi himself. I learned later yet another exotic detail from the highly respected English rare instrument authority, Charles Beare. The violin at one time lay in pieces in the London vault of his father, Arthur—its maker then suspected to be John Lott, a nineteenth century expert copier of del Gesù’s work—but eventually recognized to be a genuine Guarneri.
As a young violinist in the early stages of a career and with nothing resembling a trust fund in my background, such a violin would ordinarily have been beyond my means. Starting prices for Guarneri del Gesùs—numbering only one hundred or so in existence—are currently in the millions of dollars. When I innocently walked into Wurlitzer’s in 1968 they were going for one hundred thousand dollars plus. As with any object of value, be it an oriental rug, a house, or a master painting, condition is all-important. The re-varnishing and altered F holes of this violin enabled me to buy it for a fraction of its mint condition price.
Eventually I sold the violin. As seductive as its sound was, it simply didn’t have the carrying power to fill the big halls I often played in. The Budapest String Quartet’s Russian born cellist, Mischa Schneider, who tended to mix up his “V”s and “W”s, once told me after hearing a concert of mine, “Your wiolin is veek”. That veek wiolin has changed owners several times since then before winding up in the hands of my friend (who prefers at this point to remain anonymous). A. Nonymous as I’ll call him had a plan when he bought the Guarneri—a rather daring one considering the time it would take, the considerable expense, and the uncertainty of its outcome. He gave the violin to John Becker, one of the most skilled violin restorers of our time. John took two and a half years mostly in painstakingly removing the Sacconi overvarnish to get back to the remains of the original underneath. He spent hours and hours going a bit further each time to make sure he removed only the Sacconi material. After the many strip teases this violin has undergone (take it off, put it on, etc.), a not insignificant amount of original brownish colored varnish remained, stubbornly clinging to the violin.
John Becker kindly sent the following technical list of things that he did:
- Remove old varnish applied by Sacconi after consulting with Charles Beare.
- Take apart the violin and choose the correct approach for this restoration.
- Remove the old work and correct the top shape using several stages of plaster molds.
- Replace the old patches with select old wood.
- Install a new bass bar.
- Restore the rib height and install new end blocks to replace the old ones.
- Reassemble the body violin.
- Replace the peg bushings and old neck graft.
- Make a new fingerboard.
- Fill the old cracks on the instrument and revive the ground coat where it was missing.
- Retouch varnish on the violin with the appropriate varnish of correct elasticity, density and thickness of many of the master works by the maker.
- Set the neck of the violin to the optimum angle, taking all of the aspects of the violin under consideration.
- Set up the violin with a new bridge and post and adjust for (A. Nonymous).
When the violin finally arrived back on A.’s doorstep, he wrote to me about its extreme makeover: “In addition to its remarkable physical change, the transformation of the sound is most extraordinary. While it seems that the fiddle retains much of the intrinsic character which drew you to it at Wurlitzer’s, John has succeeded in finding its inner del Gesù. I really feel its power now, and the G has broadened incredibly. I’m particularly aware of an edge to the sound that comes with that incredible focus which is so common with del Gesùs of this period (that common characteristic of Jascha Heifetz’s  and Isaac Stern’s [1737 and 1740] and almost lasers the sound to the center of the note”.
A. Nonymous generously gave me the Guarneri for an extended period of time. The violin without question was no longer “veek”. It had a powerful presence that demanded your attention. I had the feeling over weeks of playing that the old and new parts of the violin were getting to know one another, and that the rough edges of its more forceful sound were gradually disappearing. Elements of the violin I once knew began to emerge. After all these years, I had not completely forgotten the distinctive grain of the violin’s back or the somewhat asymmetrical but pleasing way that Guarneri del Gesù had carved its scroll. Traces of the dark and husky voice that had once seduced me in Wurlitzer’s shop flickered through its newly assertive sound. That old joke about Sam and God seemed less apt now. I recognized the violin.
I played a recital on the Guarneri del Gesù before giving it back to A. As the applause came to an end, I couldn’t help wondering whether this was not the beginning of an exciting new chapter in its life. Or was it simpler than that but no less remarkable. Here was a violin being given the unlikely opportunity to take up its distinguished life where it had left off well over one hundred years ago and resume its rightful place on the concert stage. Welcome home.
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