Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Trip to the National Music Museum

This past weekend I was in Vermillion, South Dakota to visit the National Music Museum.  No, you've never heard of it unless you live near there or are a hard core musical instrument nerd.  And even among hard core musical instrument nerds there are few who have actually made the trek to South Dakota to see the museum.  I am now truly in an elite category of instrument geeks.

The Violin Society of America arranged a mini-conference there for the first 240 members who signed up.  I responded within a minute of getting the email and forwarded it right away to my friend and fellow luthier, Robyn, to see if she could come also.  The VSA conventions are huge and can be overwhelming.  This was on a much more personal scale, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with other violin people in that setting.  It was a great trip.

But far!  South Dakota is a good eight hours away from Milwaukee.  Robyn took the train up from Chicago to spend the night at our house so we could get a fresh and early start on Friday.  We stopped for a couple of hours in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, to visit my new nephew (that's an upcoming post I promise), but otherwise it was a straight shot to Vermillion.  (Minnesota is beautiful.  South Dakota is mostly wide.)

Vermillion is tiny.  It's a university town, but school had just ended so it was empty.  We found a good restaurant (thanks local-person-Mary from the lobby of the Prairie Inn!) and had a nice dinner, but there just really wasn't anything there to do.

We did bowl the second night, because there was a bowling alley next door to the hotel, but we had to ask the bartender in the restaurant to open it up for us, which he graciously did.  I've never had a bowling alley to myself before, so that was interesting.  Eventually we were joined by enough other luthiers that they opened a second lane. (Our lane was glitchy and would knock down the pins in the second frame for you if you'd gotten down more than a single corner pin, so we got credit for a lot of spares and had to bowl at an empty space every other time to trigger the pin setter, but it was a lot of fun.  I have never bowled worse in my life, but I laughed a lot!) 

Dome Sweet Dome
Everyone in Vermillion seemed nice, but it was hard to imagine life in such a remote place.  Which was especially odd to consider since for many people there it was probably bigger and more urban than where they'd come from.  The central focus of the place seemed to be the sports dome outside our hotel window.  All of that just made the location of the museum and the scope of its contents all the more surreal.

So what's in the museum you ask?  Well, they have over 15,000 instruments, of which about 2500 are on display.  Researchers have access to thousands of rare books, and the museum is happy to serve as a resource to let people study the items they have on hand.

Stradivari clamps
To give you an idea of how large and special this collection is, think about this:  Of the surviving clamps that Antonio Stradivari used in his workshop (all branded with his special mark) there's one in England, the museum in Cremona has one, and the National Music Museum has eight.

I've seen the patterns for Stradivari's guitar and mandolin in the museum in Italy, but this museum had perfectly preserved examples of the instruments actually made from them, including a mandolin with the only known surviving case.  In South Dakota.
Stradivari mandolin and case

Stradivari guitar
Me, standing with the case of Strads
When I talk to people about instruments many are surprised to learn that Stradivari made more than violins.  The estimates are as high as 1000 instruments that he is credited with making in his lifetime, and his shop worked with all the major stringed instruments in fashion at the time, including gambas.

Gamba family instruments, for those who are not aware, are bowed instruments similar to the violin family instruments that survive today, but they had frets (like a guitar) and usually more strings (6 or 7 most often). 
The biggest lessons the National Music Museum has to offer have to do with the evolution of certain instruments.  The general public is simply not aware of how much old instruments have been altered, and seem to believe that when they see a Stradivari violin on stage that it is relatively unchanged from when it was built hundreds of years back.  But there is no Stradivari violin (or viola or cello) being played in a modern orchestra that has not had its neck replaced, because the needs of players long ago required a new angle and longer fingerboards.

Strad cello converted from a gamba
Well, gamba playing essentially died out as people favored playing violins, so shops left with nice gambas lying around converted them into something that would sell.  So this is a Stradivari cello that used to be a gamba.  If you look closely you can see the lines where the sloped shoulders used to be, and where the wood above it has all been (expertly) added to create a new shape.  The ribs (sides) were all replaced, and the back is still flat (gambas have flat backs, not curved) but the angled part at the top near the neck is leveled out.  And now it's a Strad cello that Strad never built as a cello.

This is a common story, and one that makes it hard to study instruments in their original form in order to learn what the old masters really did.  The closest I can get to studying with Stradivari is to look at and try to understand his work as best I can, but most of the time we are really looking at the work of other restorers or builders.  The National Music Museum is a treasure trove of untouched things.

We had permission to use flashlights in the museum.  The light in many of the rooms is rather dim, and to see any details added light is needed.  (I remember this well from visiting the Guarneri del Gesu exhibit at the MET twenty years ago.  Violin makers from around the world all had their flashlights out and were pointing them inside f-holes and at corners and neck joints.  I was new to the game then and lacked my own light, but I had two this time!)
Robyn checking out a corner
With the light you can see where the scribed on lines have worn away (not an inlay!)
The first day in Vermillion we spent a couple of hours exploring the museum, took a lunch break, attended lectures all afternoon, and returned to the museum for a reception and to look around some more.  I really appreciated having a chance to explore on my own and form my own impressions, learn a bit about what was there, and return to look again.  By the end of the next day after a formal tour and a viewing the museum felt very familiar.  Normally when I visit an out of town museum there is no chance to reexamine things after you've had time to absorb it all, so two full days was excellent.

Now is probably a good time to mention things the museum has that are not violins, lest you think that's all that's there.  In the Rawlins room, which is where the bulk of the famous violins are, there are also lutes and guitars.  Elaborate, astonishing instruments, with inlays of shell and ivory.  And the lutes with their unwieldy necks have unwieldy cases to match!  That made me laugh because only seeing such things in a display context I forgot that back in the day of course the working musician who used it would need a case.
Lute case!

There are other instruments on the first floor and more on the second (including a pristine Stainer violin--Jacob Stainer was regarded as the Stradivari of Germany), Elvis's Martin guitar, a full gamelan, harmonicas of every size, the full spectrum of mandolins, keyboards, horns, wind instruments, and curiosities from around the world.

Not a great shot, but there are pictures engraved in that pearl

Horns I know nothing about

Pochettes, which are like little travel violins


Violin that was completely edged in ivory

But back to violins.  Specifically the ones I GOT TO HOLD!

Philip Kass through glasss
On the second day of the trip we got a tour from Philip Kass (who turns out to have been stand partners with my college viola professor back in school!--See, the things you learn at a more intimate conference).  He's a walking violin encyclopedia with a mesmerizing voice, and it was such a pleasure to have him show us around the collection and be able to ask him questions.

Then after lunch we got our turn in the viewing room.  Eight instruments had been removed from their displays and laid out on tables for us to see.  There were strict rules about not holding cameras directly over the instruments, we had to remove necklaces and rings and roll up our sleeves, etc. etc. etc.  A timer would go off every seven minutes to move us from one spot to the next, but because we were the last viewing group of the day we got to hang out in the room for an additional ten to fifteen minutes (pretty much all of which I spent with the Nicolo Amati violin).  It was amazing.
viewing room
(If you thought this post was geeky, it's about to get more geeky, so fair warning, but at least there are lots of nice pictures.)

The first thing I got to hold was a viola made in 1793 by Pietro Giovanni Mantegazza from Milan.  Marilyn Wallin (the award winning instrument maker that I had the good fortune to work with at the varnish workshop near Boston a couple of years ago) was the caretaker of this instrument at its station, and she told us it was a viola she'd copied often.  Although she recommended making the arching fuller to avoid the whiny sound of the original.
The second station was the "King" cello by Andrea Amati.  It's the oldest known surviving cello in the world, and the only thing in the room we weren't allowed to touch.  Matt Zeller (who has done extensive research on that instrument) would flip it over for us, but I don't blame the museum for not wanting other people handling something that delicate and large.
The King Cello is just an archeological dig of repairs.  The whole thing was originally much larger and was cut down to more conventional dimensions.  This is an example where an untrained eye can see the extent of some of that work because it's obvious by looking at the paintings how much is likely missing.  The insignia shape in the middle of the back was once a full circle, and the female figure to the right of it was once much taller and had a left arm.

It was incredible to get to view this instrument without the glass in the way.  I'd admired it the day before in its display, but the paintings are luminous up close, and I could actually see the difference between the gold paint in the original areas and the gold used in the details on the corners that were done in a later restoration.

This instrument is traveling to the MET in New York in June.  If you have any interest in violins and have the chance to see it there, I recommend it.  (I wonder how many more people will see it in a day in New York than have ever seen it in South Dakota.)

The next instrument was also being tended by Matt Zeller, and was an Andrea Amati viola from Cremona made in 1560.

This viola is the most extraordinary piece of instrument conversion I've ever seen.  You would not guess at first glance (or second or third) that it was cut down from something larger, except again for the painting on the back.  But even that doesn't look wrong as an oval, it's just knowing it should be a circle gives it away.
The purfling (lined inlay) in the corners and C-bouts is original, but the rest of it had to be replaced.  The transitions between old and new are hard to spot.  And the paintings on it are no longer positioned correctly.

To give you an idea of how extensive the alterations are on this instrument, here is a slide from one of Matt's lectures showing the original outline of this viola and how much of it is left.
Pretty amazing to hold and get to examine up close.

Me and Amati
But the next thing was my favorite thing.  (If one can pick a favorite.  One probably shouldn't, but oh well.  This is what I would bring home if the museum people were feeling wildly generous and said, "Hey, why don't you pick something to keep?" and I could run away with it before anyone changed their mind.)

A violin by Nicolo Amati, Cremona, 1628.

This is a perfect violin.  It is charming in every way.  It glows.

The scroll is lovely.  The corners make me ache.  It is both exquisite and friendly.   I love this violin.

There are several people who would have fought me for that violin had I tried to take it, but few probably harder than Joe Robson (varnish maker and instructor at the Concord varnish workshop).  He was caretaker for the Amati all day and was perfectly content to stay in that seat with it hour after hour.  I loved having the chance to chat with him in person again.  He really inspires me, and it was a privilege to study that violin while getting his insights on it at the same time.
But then the timer dinged again and I moved on to probably the craziest thing in the room: a tenor viola by Andrea Guarneri, Cremona, 1664.
It is huge.  It also can't be brought up to playing tension because X-rays reveal that the neck is riddled with wormholes.  But this is what a lot of old violas were before they were cut down to more modern standards.

After that was the Stradivari violin known as "The Harrison," Cremona, 1693.  This instrument was prior to his golden period (which started in about 1700) but is just a stunning example of his craft.  It's absolutely beautiful.  Holding a real Strad is always a bit overwhelming, but time was limited so I had to go through a mental checklist of what to study while I had it in my hands.  The time went too fast.

Originally the necks were nailed in.  Today we use a dovetail joint and glue alone

After the Strad was a viola by Peregrino di Zanetto of Brescia, 1564.

One piece top, unusual f-holes
This instrument was certainly interesting, but if I could have swapped it out for the Stainer violin on the second floor I would have.  I really wanted to see that instrument up close, but I understood why they didn't want to open more cases than they had to.

The last instrument was also a viola.  It was a Gasparo Bertolotti da Salo from Brescia before 1609.

I loved this viola, and according to the few who have heard it, it sounds great.  The thing that's funny about it, is that like all the Brescian instruments it looks sort of wonky and odd, but it's lovely in its weird way.  I would never copy it, but I genuinely like the look of it. 

It was a pretty viola heavy selection overall, which was fine with me.  It's a pretty viola-centric museum in many ways.  The oldest known viola is there, and the viola is the oldest of the violin family instruments.  The word "violin" actually means "little viola," so many believe violas came first and the other instruments followed.  Which suggests we should really be talking about "viola family" instruments, but eh.  We'll let the violinists think they're special.
Andrea Amati, ca. 1536-1559
After the instrument viewing it was only about 2:30, and we were essentially done.  Robyn and I both felt we had seen what we had come to see, and instead of staying one more night as we had planned we decided it was time to head home.  We packed up, drove across Iowa, and arrived in Milwaukee by about 11:00p.m.  Robyn had downloaded several audio books, and I'd brought CDs to listen to, but we ended up talking the whole drive both ways.  I couldn't have asked for better company for this trip.  It was fun reviewing everything I'd seen with someone so like-minded.

One of the pleasant surprises of this event was the number of women in attendance.  I didn't feel like the only person with two X chromosomes in the room of male violin makers for a change, and it was wonderful.  I have a theory that since securing one of the coveted slots required quick response on the internet maybe a disproportionate number of women were at an advantage by being plugged into social media at the right time.  Or maybe there are just more women in the VSA now!  That would be even better.

I met some good people, had a chance to catch up with others I hadn't seen in a while, and I learned so much.  I mostly came away equal parts awed and horrified by the combination of talent and arrogance it would take to cut into an old Italian instrument in order to "improve" it.  I'm glad we're no longer in a period where that's considered acceptable.

But what a remarkable resource in such an unlikely place!  It's worth keeping in mind if you find yourself heading to Mt Rushmore, Wall Drug, or the Badlands and want to add one more stop in South Dakota.  Very glad to have gone.
Inspiration for my own Amati scroll!


  1. What an amazing trip! I'm so glad you got to see and hold such awesome instruments. BUT...did you see Yakov Smirnoff??

    1. No! But I did get to thinking about other parts of our trip to Mt Rushmore and wondered if that raccoon is okay.

  2. Thank you for sharing this insider look into a marvelous collection. I will have to visit someday! (Particularly to see those traveling violins.)

    1. Those pochettes are crazy cute. I guy I knew at the conference brought one he made and I got to try it! It sounds in real life like a recording of a violin through a small speaker, which is probably why they haven't taken the world by storm, but still, the adorable factor is very high. May have to make one someday (in all my free time).

  3. How cool to read about you exploring your passion and the pictures are awesome. I love reading about your violin making because it is something I know nothing about. Thanks!

    1. And now you know something! You're a regular enough reader you probably know more about violins than almost anyone you run into.

  4. Congrats on achieving such an elite level of musical geekdom! Very cool! Who knew such an impressive museum was in... South Dakota, of all places!

    1. Everything has to be somewhere. And the advantages to South Dakota are that it's an inexpensive place to house it all, less general accessibility means better protection, and it's possible for a group like ours to go and still have space. I keep thinking how mobbed the King Cello will be in New York, and how I got to look at it up close and out of the case and ask the leading expert on it questions one-on-one.

  5. Thank you for the fine summary of the "out of the case" instruments. I'd forgot to bring a camera, and didn't take any notes. I was trying so hard to hold the instruments properly and notice the important features of each one, that I couldn't have taken notes at the same time anyway. It was a memorable day for certain. The next weekend, I met Marilyn Wallin at the "Tallgrass Fiddle Contest" in Beatrice, Nebraska. She had a table set up there with her husband and one of her students, with violins people could try! -- David Fowler, Lincoln, NE.