Monday, October 22, 2012

Adventures in violin rescue, part two

Saxon/Bohemian violin, c.1800, all set-up and sounding fabulous...

This last week I posted images of this violin on and found out some interesting things about this instrument I had written about in the previous post.  That 1791 Casper Strnad label is a standard lithographed copy of the original copper engraving label, in other words--not genuine.  Another participant had a similarly-anonymous violin attributed everywhere from Prague to Schönbach (west Bohemia) to Saxony with this same bogus 1791 Casper Strnad label.  Apparently in the late 19th century, violin dealers in Markneukirchen in what had been Saxony (but was now a part of the new German State) had copied labels of famous makers and stuck them inside violins, in this case, into one that was already around 100 years old at the time.  It probably had lost its label decades before; maybe it's under the fake label.  It seems that most features of this violin point to late 18th-century violins made in Saxony and western Bohemia.  One weird feature of this violin that indicates that it could have been made in Prague is this hole in the back of the peghead.

Apparently some makers in Prague (including our man Casper) would drill a hole to make stringing the A string easier, but the consensus on the site was that the dealer who put in the fake label probably had his guy drill this hole and then plug it, so that it looked like it was from Prague.  More likely is that it is from further west, as the original Skinners auction description proposed somewhat tentatively.

So, not a Caspar Strnad.  Looking at all the repairs, both participants and my friendly neighborhood string instrument repair god, Paul Hill, suggested that this might not necessarily sound very good.  When I showed up at his workshop yesterday, I was expecting that I had thrown my money out the window, pretty much.

After carefully checking that every single repair was stable (especially the ugly ones), he fitted a bridge to the top, cut a rough arc on top of the bridge, and put the strings on.  Here he is in action.

Then he handed it to me, I tuned it up, and...

Oh, my...Both of us looked at each other with our eyes wide--this thing was wonderful!  So, then it was worth it to go all out.  He trimmed down the bridge, we kept going back and forth, playing a bit, shaving the bridge here and there...Then he tweaked the soundpost here and there.  In about an hour, it was perfect.  As Paul said, "This fiddle has a voice!"  

I played a real Stradivari once, which was interesting in the way it threw an amazing singing tone out all around me.  I can see why classical players love this, but it's not an instrument for fiddle music.  The 17th-century Jacobus Stainer I played once was a different story; that violin had a rich, intimate sound, complex and dark down low and sweetly singing up high.  I wanted that fiddle!  And I have to say, this anonymous 200-year-old violin from Schönbach or Markneukirchen or wherever had that intoxicating Stainer sound.  For about $250K less than a good Stainer would cost. 

Ideally I should include a link to a little soundfile of it on my website, which I will eventually do, but first I have to get to know this instrument for a couple of weeks.  We'll be spending a lot of time together...

Friday, October 19, 2012

Adventures in violin rescue, part one

(What I think is a) Caspar Strnad violin, Prague, 1791

I have been interested (some would say obsessed) with antique Central Asian nomadic carpets for a few years now.  Besides being enchanted by their beauty, my recording environments are tuned by their presence on the walls and floors.  Another part of this story, though, has been my discovering the online market for these weavings, and I confess to a delight in combing eBay and so on for undiscovered treasures.  Buying a rug from internet images and getting what you think it ought to be is not all that difficult, provided you know the rugs, and though I suspect the golden age of rug acquisition in this way may be fading, there are still some pretty nice rugs for not much money on eBay (and A LOT of wretchedly awful ones for too much money).  Official fancy auction houses like Skinners, Christies, Grogans, Rippon-Boswell, etc. have oriental rug auctions of course, but unlike eBay, the best auction houses appraise their items and offer their inventory to dealers.  Not much is going to get past that audience into the hands of a "bottom-feeder" like me, but I still look at those online catalogs to learn more about rugs and I do just like looking at them.

So, in September I was looking at an odd auction that Skinners in Boston runs once a month, called a "Discovery Auction," where they offer all sorts of different things, including sometimes good rugs.  As I was scanning the items, I was surprised that it had a few violins, violas, and related stuff.  They never do that, or at least rarely.  And the violin above was lot #827.  I thought it had a very lovely shape, elegant scroll and f-holes.  Lots of face cracks.  And they said it was c. 1800 "probably Saxon" and labeled "Casper Strnad."  A little research confirmed what I thought, that Strnad (1752-1823) is a famous violin maker in Prague, who around 1800 started building violins in the lower-arched style of the Italians like Stradivari and Guarneri. The way that Skinners description was worded made it sound like they thought the label was suspect (the famous violin-making centers of Saxony are over the border from Prague, which is in what was then called Bohemia).  I wondered if the usual competition from dealers and other interested parties that would keep me away from the official Skinners musical instrument auction might be absent at this event.  The estimate was only $200-$400. 

Fake labels in violins are more common than genuine labels.  Thousands of cheap "factory-made" fiddles have been produced in Europe (and more recently in China) labeled as "Stradivarius" or "Guarnerius" and the conventional wisdom is that a label is usually worthless, unless it exactly matches the known surviving examples of that maker's labels, and the other aspects of the violin correspond to that maker's style and quirks.  I liked the look of this violin somehow (in spite of the considerable cracks), in the way a good rug will catch my eye in an online image, though I suspected it was a nice Neukirchen (Saxon) violin of some sort or another.  Still, a 200-year-old violin of a sort that can sound wonderful for fiddle music, and I got to thinking that I might try a bid.

Buying a musical instrument online is of course an entirely different enterprise than buying a rug.  There are more knowledgeable people out there hunting for violins, there is generally much more money involved, it is far easier to conceal evil of various sorts, and most important--you can't play the instrument!  I have a friend in Boston, though, who regularly goes to the Discovery auctions looking for rugs, and his partner is a retired professional 'cellist, so I asked him if they would take a look, and the report was that it was a pretty interesting looking old violin, though I didn't have a photo of the label...

OK, so I bought it for $356 ($300 plus buyers premium).  That's less than you would pay for one of those German factory fiddles.  I put it out of my mind that it could actually be a Caspar Strnad.  The violin in the Skinners auction had the higher arching of the earlier Tyrolean/Saxon/Bohemian style, but of course this is the style that Strnad used for the first forty or so years of his life.  I wonder if the Skinners appraiser was looking for Strnad's later style.  Who knows?  As far as I'm concerned, the sound of the higher-arched style is much better for fiddle music, and I have in fact played a few fabulous Italian violins, including a Stradivari.

When the violin arrived yesterday, the first thing I wanted to see was the label, because I had tracked down an image showing two versions of Strnad's labels...
Here are two views of the label inside my violin.  It sure seems to me to be very similar to the first one, above...I will post images of this violin on a violin site and see what some experts have to say...It sure looks like this is the genuine article.

So now the next part of this adventure is to get some strings and get this instrument set up, and I will find out if this violin can sing!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Southeast view from the porch this afternoon.

Today I finished the score and recording of the first act of my opera.

It is a peculiar experience to finish something I have worked on for so long.  And of course I must go right into the second act, but this is something that I will be able to send out to a few people who have expressed interest, so it represents the beginning of putting it in the world.  Or yet another beginning, and there are more to come.