Sunday, November 13, 2022

an old family fiddle

The last time I visited my aunt at Tulette (Drome, France), we were talking about the young cellist in my family, and it suddenly occurred to her that she once had a violin, growing up in Aachen in the 1930s, never got on with it, but the instrument was still buried in her attic in Tulette.

When her house was cleared out after she died, my cousin found this violin and was surprised as he hadn’t heard the story of his mother’s failure to learn the instrument back in Aachen. In June I visited my cousin and retrieved said violin with a view to bring it back to life. It looked like this:

i.e. soundpost, bridge, chinrest, and three strings missing, no bow, a bit scratched, but otherwise ok. In the photo it sports an improvised bridge I made from half a bamboo ring. I kind of like the dark look with the light borders and I don’t mind the scratches. So I took it to a luthier for an appraisal and was quoted £250 (plus strings) to get it into shape, with the perspective that it might be worth up to £500 in perfect condition. Not a really good instrument but “good enough for folk” as we like to say in folk circles, semi-ironically.

While I was pondering whether or not to do this, I discovered at Oxfam an old book on The Making of Stringed Instruments for £ 4 (George Buchanan, 1989). As it happens, it contains a very useful page on the part I thought I couldn’t do, namely putting the soundpost inside the instrument. I cut the post from a random bit of wood I had lying around. Turns out with a bit of wire bent to make a holder, a tool I made from a broken spoke, and four or five attempts, I was able to fit it in. One crucial bit of information from the book was that one can easily unplug the peg that holds the tailpiece, and thus get a hole through which one can actually see the placement of the soundpost very nicely.

I bought a bridge online for £ 2.50, and the book was again very helpful on how to shape it correctly. I had a set of violin strings sitting around which I put on (I kept the historic E string though, see how long it lasts!), and now it’s beginning to look like a proper violin:

(in the battered historic case which is lovely but not very practical for sessions, it doesn't offer much protection and doesn't have shoulder straps)

And it may be me having a Pygmalion moment here, but I do like the sound of it. Will practice a little to be able to record a video that’s not too much out of tune. UPDATE: Here's my attempt at playing Bear dance and Hunt the squirrel on day 7 of trying to play the fiddle.

Meanwhile I spotted a Stentor student fiddle at Gumtree sold for £ 25 from an address where I cycle past every week, so I picked that up on my way – it came with two bows, and I’ll probably use the case and the chinrest for the old fiddle. It also had two packs of rosin, one new and one maybe used three times.

Oh, and with hindsight, looking at the old photos taken in my grandmother’s flat at Idar-Oberstein, I recognise the violin case sitting on top of the piano (eg here and here). Better than the attic, and I do wonder whether it was ever used in those years (until 1961).

Along with Heinrich the cello, Frieda the piano, and Blue the guitar, this is the fourth instrument we have that’s been in the family for more than half a century (and I’m not even counting my school recorder, which isn’t a very good one). In this sense, this should have been episode 3 in the much-neglected all instruments series, but it comes in at number 22. Oh, and maybe I should list my house as a shelter for neglected instruments.

Update 2.12.2022 After I figured out where the gears and the brakes are on this thing, I began to realise that the historic E string didn't sound as good as the new strings, so I replaced that one as well. And with the full set of new (Dominant) strings, the instrument is really sounding quite lovely. Oh, and I'm creating a violin tag, as I feel I will obsess about this instrument some more.

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