Authors: John Marchese
A Search for the Secrets of Craftsmanship, Sound, and Stradivari
To four people who helped in so many ways
to make it possible for me to write any book, but who
didn’t get to see this one:
The Magical Box
The Old Guy
The Singing Tree
Tradition and the Individual Talent
Bach and the Problem with Words
Caring More and More About Less and Less
What Do We Really Know?
We Go to Cremona
Varnishes and Very Curious Secrets
What You Hear Under Your Ear
Based on a model of Antonio Stradivari’s, circa 1715.
Drawing by Sam Zygmuntowicz.
irst off, I have to thank Hana Smith for her contributions to this book.
The two men at the center of
The Violin Maker
, Sam Zygmuntowicz and Eugene Drucker, were in many ways collaborators as much as subjects. Sam graciously opened his workshop and spent many, many hours allowing me to look over his shoulder while he worked. I greatly appreciate the time he took to tutor me in the intricacies of his craft and his patience while trying to teach someone whose learning curve is often shaped more like a parabola.
Gene generously gave me opportunities to watch him make music and teach music and openly shared his thoughts and feelings. His musicianship is enlightening and inspiring. His literary skills will soon be on display with the publication of his first novel,
In some way, both men inform nearly every page, though, of course, any mistakes or inaccuracies are mine alone.
Thanks to the nice folks who worked in the Brooklyn workshop: Wiltrud Fauler, Dietmar Schweizer, and Gladys Thomas Toscano.
My appreciation also to the other members of the great
Emerson String Quartet—Phil Setzer, Larry Dutton, and David Finckel—who were always friendly and helpful, and, along with their colleague, remarkable and inspiring musicians. Da-Hong Seetoo, their brilliant producer and engineer, was great fun to be with.
I owe a debt to the Violin Society of America and the people who run and participate in the annual workshops for violin makers and acousticians at Oberlin College. They are top craftsmen and researchers who are pushing the art of violin making forward in its fifth century. They willingly shared their knowledge, expertise, jokes, food, and booze. They include: Gregg Alf, Pam Anderson, Tom Croen, Joe Curtin, John Dilworth, Chis Dungey, David Folland, Chris Germain, Feng Jiang, Francis Morris, Frank Ravatin, Ben Ruth, Ray Schryer, Fan Tao, Marilyn Wallin, David Wiebe.
At HarperCollins, Marjorie Braman was the person who lit the spark for this book. When the resulting flame seemed like it might become eternal, she showed great patience. And when there was finally a manuscript, she deftly guided it with a sure hand and a light touch. Every writer should be so lucky.
Once again, my agent, David Black, came through in the clutch. If only the Jets would draft him.
Last and most, I have to thank Jana DeHart, my living companion, traveling companion, erstwhile research assistant, and irrepressible scout. She helped in so many ways that to say this book couldn’t have been done without her would be a gross understatement.
his story is about a craftsman entering the prime of his career who let me follow him as he tried to build a musical instrument that might top the work of the man who many think is the greatest craftsman who ever lived. His name was Antonio Stradivari, and he died more than 250 years ago.
Not long after I first met Sam Zygmuntowicz in Brooklyn, he invited me to join him in Ohio, where he was spending two weeks that summer teaching at a workshop of violin makers held at Oberlin University. The town of Oberlin is a quiet and neat place that seems to just pop out of cornfields about thirty-five miles southwest of
Cleveland. The college dominates one side of the town with a mix of Gothic and modern buildings set on plush, trimmed lawns. There is a green and shady central square with clumps of tall trees that is dotted with monuments to fallen soldiers and murdered missionaries.
I drove to Oberlin in the first week of July, and the weather was shockingly hot and sticky. The shade of the square would have been a cool refuge at midday were it not for the fact that the college concurrently was hosting a festival of Scottish culture. Each day, bagpipers strolled on the thick grass under the tall trees, blew up their bellows, and emitted that ineffable sound that always makes me think a small farm animal is being slaughtered.
So, like me, most of the violin makers avoided the square at bagpipe time. It seemed a strange coincidence that aficionados of the world’s most annoying musical instrument would be in the same small midwestern town as two dozen people obsessed with the world’s most glorious musical tool. They didn’t mingle. The bagpipe has its fans, of course. Tucked under the right armpit, the windbag can sound less than noxious. I have heard an African-American man in Philadelphia play good jazz on the thing. And on the green and shady lawn of a cemetery, pumping out “Amazing Grace,” the bagpipe can sound sublime.
In fact, I had been to a funeral not long before traveling to Oberlin, and that funeral, in a strange way, had helped bring me here. The former governor of Pennsylvania, Robert Casey, had died in his hometown of Scranton, and he was buried after a large and elaborate mass
at the city’s Catholic cathedral. I was hired to play trumpet in a brass quartet that supplemented the church organ on regal processional music and accompanied a large choir through serious liturgical hymns. The choir loft was packed with instrumentalists and singers added for this special service.
In the midst of the mass, after communion had been taken, a young man who sat near me stood among the gathered musicians and tucked a violin under his chin. He then played, accompanied by only a soft piano, the former governor’s favorite song. It was Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Typical of Berlin, the song makes a lot out of little. The range is barely more than an octave. There are no long leaps between any two notes. The melody climbs through its range in a series of relaxed steps, like an old man on a staircase. It is a simple, pretty tune.
My guess is that the violinist may never have heard the seventy-year-old song before he’d been asked to play it. He was only a teenager, just finishing high school and headed for a top music conservatory—not a prodigy, really, but a talent. That was evident from the first phrase of the song, as he dug his bow into the thick low string of the fiddle. The kid had
The church was packed with politicians, many of whom seemed more interested in being noticed than in mourning their dead colleague. But the moment that kid made his first notes on the fiddle, the crowd stilled and all the extraneous noise seem to rush from the church as from a vacuum. For the next few minutes, as the boy played
Berlin, there was virtually no other sound in the large marbled vault. Even the accompanying piano seemed to disappear.
The violin in its low register sounded like a beautiful moan. On the second time through the chorus, the young man leaped to a higher octave and added more vibrato. The song became a sigh. The voice of the violin was singing without words. He climbed higher for the last notes—in the lyrics a final question:
“How high is the sky?”
—and it made the air in the church seem like crystal, like it could be shattered with a touch. When the violin stopped there was a long, long moment where it seemed the hundreds of listeners held their breath, lest they break the spell.
I have played the trumpet professionally for twenty-five years, never at a high level, but often with very good musicians. If I think of all the music created in the hundreds of gigs I’ve played, that one tune in a church—a Tin Pan Alley standard interpreted by a teenager with talent—is a highlight. It may have been the special circumstances, yet the more I wondered why, I came to think that it was the sound of the violin. The standard encyclopedia of music, Grove’s, explains it simply and authoritatively: “The violin is one of the most perfect instruments acoustically.” Acoustic perfection seems like something that can be measured and quantified, and, I would find, many have tried. But the sound of a violin eludes the grasp of mere numbers.
After the mass, on the sidewalk outside the church, I ran into a big city newspaper reporter I know, a tabloid guy who covers politics and who is typically tough and cynical. “When that violin played I nearly lost it,” he told me. “I think everybody did.”
I didn’t say anything then—I might not even quite have known it myself—but after those few minutes listening to the young violinist in the church, my goal would be to find something. I wanted to learn what makes the violin so special. How is it that this hunk of wood with the funny shape can express so perfectly the deepest and most profound human emotions?
I thought of my own musical experience, my life as a listener. As a music student in college, I had to work my way through the standard symphonies. I did a pedagogical survey of jazz and studied most intently the great trumpeters, something I still do. But as the years passed and music became more my avocation—my love, not my living—I was drawn to the sound of strings. Sure, I still might listen to jazz at dinner, or put on a symphony for Sunday morning. But at those times when the lights went out and I really wanted to
to let sound take me either out of myself or farther in, it was Pablo Casals playing Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, say, or a performance of Beethoven’s late string quartets.
I suppose my new search could have begun with violin lessons, but it seemed awfully late in the game for that, and I had enough trouble keeping up with the demands of the instrument I already knew how to play. One of the greatest violinists of all time, Eugene Ysaye, wrote,
“The violin is a poet whose enigmatic nature may only be divined by the elect.” Wouldn’t that be the people who
I did what people do nowadays—typed “violin makers” into an Internet search engine. Immediately, I had a dozen names, but Sam Zygmuntowicz stood out. First, because his surname seemed unpronounceable—it’s Zig-muntoe-vich. Secondly, since he lived and worked in Brooklyn, I could get to his shop by subway from my apartment in lower Manhattan. As I got to know him and the world of violins, I would realize that I’d made a lucky choice. Violin makers, I would learn, can argue a lot about little things, but there would not be much debate that Sam is among the best and most successful violin makers working today. Sure, he told me when I got him on the phone, he wouldn’t mind someone watching him make a violin.
And so, a month later, my pilgrimage into the world of fiddles began in earnest with a trip to Oberlin, Ohio.
I arrived a few days after the workshop began. Two dozen violin makers had taken over the college’s sculpture studio, a long basement room, with a wall’s length of workbenches under a high bank of windows just above ground level. They worked all day and long into the night, with breaks for impromptu symposia on subjects that then seemed hopelessly arcane to me. At one, there was a heated discussion on how to cut perfect miters for the purfling, the thin strips of inlaid wood that run around the edges of a fiddle. At another, a violin maker
from Michigan showed everyone how to make casts of famous old instruments using newfangled resins used in automotive design in Detroit. Twelve hours later, people were still making casts. Obviously, this was dedication that bordered on obsession.
Some of the participants in the workshop were officially instructors and some were students, but the division seemed blurry. Around five each afternoon, the classmates started cracking open wine and whiskey bottles, and began a working cocktail hour. Then they moved to a campus dormitory for a communal dinner lubricated with wine and beer. Then back to the studio for more work. By then, nearly everyone was a little blurry. It was late on another hot day in Oberlin that a violin maker from Boston and I sat outside in the chirpy and muggy night, sprawled on a loading dock behind the art studio, hoping to catch a breeze. Inside, his colleagues were still carving away at fiddles well past midnight.
“It’s amazing,” he told me, “that people like me come here from all over the country and the world, and get together to do what we do for a living. And all we really do for a living is make boxes.”
Of course, this made the job seem a lot less interesting and compelling than I imagined. A mere box could not have frozen those hundreds who attended the governor’s funeral. Building just a box would hardly attract a few dozen professionals to this torrid little town to spend their summer vacation working at their craft. But before I could question the violin maker he explained it all.
“The thing is,” he said, “they’re magical boxes.”