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How does a simple piece of wood become the king of instruments?
The violin does something remarkable, magical, and evocative. It is capable of bringing to life the mathematical marvels of Bach, the moan of a Gypsy melody, the wounded dignity of Beethoven's Concerto in D Major. No other instrument is steeped in such a rich brew of myth and lore—and yet the making of a violin starts with a simple block of wood. The Violin Maker takes the reader on a journey as that block of wood, ...
How does a simple piece of wood become the king of instruments?
The violin does something remarkable, magical, and evocative. It is capable of bringing to life the mathematical marvels of Bach, the moan of a Gypsy melody, the wounded dignity of Beethoven's Concerto in D Major. No other instrument is steeped in such a rich brew of myth and lore—and yet the making of a violin starts with a simple block of wood. The Violin Maker takes the reader on a journey as that block of wood, in the hands of a master craftsman, becomes an instrument to rival one made by the greatest master of all time.
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 samesmall 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?The Violin Maker
Posted March 13, 2012
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