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The Violin Maker: Finding a Centuries-Old Tradition in a Brooklyn Workshop

Overview

How does a simple piece of wood become a violin, the king of instruments? Watch and find out as Eugene Drucker, a member of the world?renowned Emerson String Quartet, commissions Sam Zygmuntowicz, a Brooklyn craftsman, to make him a new violin. As he tells this extraordinary story, journalist John Marchese shares the rich lore of this beloved instrument and illuminates an art that has barely changed since the Renaissance.

Marchese takes readers from start to finish as ...

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Overview

How does a simple piece of wood become a violin, the king of instruments? Watch and find out as Eugene Drucker, a member of the world–renowned Emerson String Quartet, commissions Sam Zygmuntowicz, a Brooklyn craftsman, to make him a new violin. As he tells this extraordinary story, journalist John Marchese shares the rich lore of this beloved instrument and illuminates an art that has barely changed since the Renaissance.

Marchese takes readers from start to finish as Zygmuntowicz builds the violin, from the first selection of the wood, to the cutting of the back and belly, through the carving of the scroll and the fingerboard, to the placement of the sound peg. Though much of the story takes place in the craftsman's museum–like Brooklyn workshop, there are side trips across the river to the rehearsal rooms of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln center, and across the world. Stops on the itinerary include Cremona, Italy, the magical city where Antonio Stradivari (and a few of his contemporaries) achieved a level of violin–making perfection that has endured for centuries, as well as points in France and Germany integral to the history of the violin.

A stunning work of narrative nonfiction that's also a finely crafted, loving homage to the instrument that most closely approximates the human voice.

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Editorial Reviews

Douglas Brinkley
“A magical, profound and elegant look at the continued need for high quality in our throw away society.”
Ben Yagoda
“Engaging…[In] the tradition of John McPhee and Tracy Kidder, John Marchese wittily deconstructs the capacious lore of violin-making.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“Informative. Insights (into) why classical music’s most analyzed instrument retains so many mysteries.
Santa Fe New Mexican
“You don’t have to be a fiddler to enjoy this small gem of a book. A fine, informative read.”
New York Times
“An impassioned account...shows what magic is secretly being practiced behind many nondescript doors.”
Newsweek
“Marchese is engaging and funny and he uses his substantial skill to tell a story worthy of his subjects.”
USA Today
“A deeply descriptiveand appreciative look at a slow, exacting craft. Marchese is a skilled writer.”
Hartford Courant
“Well researched...an appreciation for the ability and dedication of a man working with his hands.”
Entertainment Weekly
“Strikes a high note, with rich overtones on the themes of art, creation, and the power of music.
The Strad
“Honest, witty and dramatic. A thoroughly gripping read.”
Booklist
“Like The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, THE VIOLIN MAKER is easy, entertaining, and uniquely informative reading.
Publishers Weekly

Celebrated Brooklyn violin-maker Sam Zygmuntowicz recently accepted a challenging commission from violinist Eugene Drucker of the Emerson String Quartet: to make a new violin that would equal Drucker's beloved Stradivarius. Marchese (Renovations: A Father and Son Rebuild a House) documents their collaboration. He follows Zygmuntowicz through the exacting, scrape-by-scrape process of trying to transform a block of wood into an exquisitely wrought vibrating box that somehow captures the inexpressible sonic essence the finicky Drucker longs to hear. Along the way, Marchese goes on a pilgrimage to Stradivarius's hometown of Cremona and delves into the secrets behind the maestro's incomparable sound. Was it the wood? The varnish? The nap-time transmigration of his spirit into the violin under construction? Zygmuntowicz's example, Marchese finds, suggests a more prosaic, if no less marvelous, possibility—that the genius of craftsmanship resides not in magic ingredients or arcane techniques, but simply in taking infinite, exhausting pains with the work, in "caring more and more about less and less." He also broaches a more inflammatory corollary: that modern violins actually sound just as good as Strads. The result is a beguiling journalistic meditation on the links—and tensions—between art, craft and connoisseurship. (Apr.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

Freelance trumpeter Marchese (Renovations: A Father and Son Rebuild a House and Rediscover Each Other) combines his knowledge of woodworking and music in this entertaining rumination on the construction of a violin by Brooklyn, NY-based master craftsman Sam Zygmuntowicz for Eugene Drucker, first violinist of the Emerson String Quartet. Similar to recent titles focusing on piano making (e.g., James Barron's The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand), the text follows one particular violin from its origins in spruce and maple trees to its presentation to Drucker at his surprise 50th birthday party. Along the way, Marchese makes intriguing detours to Cremona, Italy, a historic center of violin making since the 1600s; visits with the attendees of a violin-making and acoustics summer workshop series in Ohio; and chats in great detail with his two subjects. He shows a talent for engaging turns of phrase, and his accessible style and dry humor commingle well. Despite some editorial lapses (e.g., Vienna might blanch at being called a "German" city) and the lack of illustrations of the process, this is warmly recommended for all libraries.
—Barry Zaslow

School Library Journal

Adult/High School
The violin maker who this book examines became interested in making instruments as a young teen. The musician for whom he is currently making a violin began playing when he was eight and a half. Sam Zygmuntowicz is the maker, and the violinist is Eugene Drucker. Drucker's other fiddle is a Stradivarius. Many of the top players in the world have turned to Zygmuntowicz to make replicas of the finest old violins, or magical boxes, as they are also called. He worked in a famous repair shop where he got to study, take apart, and eventually re-create the most exquisite examples. He also designs his own instruments. This is a field where changing the length by one quarter inch, as Stradivari did for eight years, constitutes a revolution. The author spends a good deal of time recounting what is known of the Italian master. He adds his own perspective by visiting the town of Cremona, made famous by Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivari, and which now has a school of violin making where many acolytes try to recapture the magic in the box. Teens, especially those who dream of being the next Zygmuntowicz and Drucker, will find this study entertaining and inspiring.
—Will MarstonCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews
Reporting on the construction of one particular instrument, musician and journalist Marchese (Renovations, 2001) investigates how a box with strings attached can make such astonishingly beautiful sounds. Before the eyes of the reporter, Brooklyn-based fiddle-maker Sam Zygmuntowicz, on a commission from violinist Eugene Drucker, fabricates a musical instrument out of spruce, maple, glue and varnish. Tradition is the keynote. Zygmuntowicz works in the centuries-old mode of Cremona's skilled luthiers, who made the finest stringed instruments of all time. Master Stradivari, it is generally agreed, made the best of them, though to this day, no one seems to know exactly how. His ghost inhabits the workshops of the world's luthiers. Craftsman Sam competes with old masters in his creation of a violin for Drucker. The author follows him on an edifying adventure from hewn log to work of art. Though Sam adds just a bit of innovation, the construction of the classic sound box, with its bass-bar and bridge, f-holes, fingerboard, scroll, ribs and, of course, its purfling of three layers of wood, has survived industrial revolution essentially unchanged. From start to final coat of varnish, there is no assembly line for the artisans whose professional lives are bounded by legend, myth and politics as much as by acoustic science. Marchese illustrates them all as Master Zygmuntowicz makes Drucker's violin. Readers will be as eager as the author and the luthier to know if it satisfied the violinist. On-pitch reporting documents an inspiring craft.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060012670
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/27/2007
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

A musician and award-winning journalist, John Marchese is the author of Renovations: A Father and Son Rebuild a House and Rediscover Each Other. He lives in New York City and in New York's Catskill Mountain region.

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Read an Excerpt

The Violin Maker Finding a Centuries-Old Tradition in a Brooklyn Workshop
By John Marchese HarperCollins Copyright © 2007 John Marchese
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-001267-0


Chapter One The Magical Box

This 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 a sound.

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?

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Violin Maker by John Marchese Copyright © 2007 by John Marchese. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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