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.
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|
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.
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|
|Me, standing with the case of Strads|
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).
|Strad cello converted from a gamba|
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!)|
|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|
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.
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 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.
|Me and Amati|
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|
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|
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!|