In October of 1995 when my friend Jeff was studying in Columbus, Ohio, I wrote him a letter that he eventually sent me back a copy of. He’d told me, “Your relation of your grandpapa’s violin is just the sort of stuff you should write. Just the sort of stuff I like to read, in fact.”
I never forgot that unmitigated affirmation, rare from him, and I’ve always meant to slip the piece in here when the blogging was slow. You may or may not notice but the style of this older piece — reentered here in original form minus my last name — is a little different from that of the writing I do now, though its subject matter somewhat foreshadows it. It’s slightly more acrobatic, more deliberately self-conscious and post-modern — more winky — but much less so than other things I wrote back then. Even though I would write it differently now, the heart of the thing is still a story I feel good telling.
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When my father returned from a trip to Baltimore a few years ago he brought back his father’s violin, or at least its remains. Before finding several decades’ rest in my Aunt Miriam’s (dad’s sister’s) attic, the old fiddle had apparently been the target and recipient of neglect or abuse or both, for it had come apart in several places: the bridge was off, as was a string, one of the keys, and the entire fret-board. In addition, the post supporting the bridge inside the violin’s body had come unglued and was rattling around inside. Missing completely were an ebony string support at the narrow end of the instrument’s neck, and aught to draw across the strings: No bow. Most of the dislodged pieces were in the battered case, and the body of the violin itself was intact but for one small crack near where player puts chin. Withal it was a sorry sight and no sound.
My father could remember James Ezra F-, Baltimore college teacher of German and French, stern disciplinarian and tolerator of no back-talk, father of five who did not talk back (including my father Willard Foster) and one who did (Aunt Vivian, who for her insubordination was once chased upstairs with a glass of water by Granddad) and lover of music, scratching away on this violin in his upstairs bedroom late at night, after the children were put to bed (when Dad was a child, the youngest of the six) and in later years whenever the mood took him, though by then my dad was out with his buddies, far from the noise of Granddad’s fiddle.
My dad’s older brother Jim told him (Dad tells me) that before Willie was born James Ezra and Jennie Viola, his wife, my “Granny”, used to play popular duets in the living room, she at the piano, he standing or sitting nearby. Uncle Jim, who is my dad’s senior by fourteen years, has told him they made beautiful music together. Dad has his doubts, judging from the sounds squeaking under the upstairs bedroom door years later. Who knows, though? Those would have been the years after the Great War and before the Depression, and wasn’t everything more beautiful then?
The violin is a forgery, technically. This startling news from Herr Hermann Bischofberger, Seattle Violin Maker and Reparateur since 1956 (of Chicago before that since 1948, before that from Germany or Austria somewhere) to whom my father and I took James Ezra’s fiddle-pieces in hopes that they might be reassembled and once more made to bring forth sweet sounds. After holding the thing up like a newborn babe and tapping on its body several times in several places, and after rummaging through the case — essentially a puzzle-box of broken parts, only some of which could be reused — he assured us that it could be made good-as-almost-new, but that it was not an echt Jacob Stainer wiolin, othervise ve vould be sitting on $50,000 – $100,000, despite ze damage. As it was, hundreds of mediocre “copies” of this “Stradivarius of German violins” were being hastily assembled toward teh end of the last century and sold as J. Stainers. The real ones were made by the master in the late 1700s, an entire century before, and (though Herr B. did not say so) I imagine that the real McCoys were not fitted with a parchment-like paper inside — visible through the * slots — with the first two numbers of the alleged manufacture date printed and the last two penciled or crayoned, as ours was, thusly: 1799.**
We were disappointed, though only in an immediate sense and only in relation to the news that a Stainer was any kind of violin name at all. We had not entered the violin shop with any hopes that our busted fiddle was a collectors item worth tens of thousands. My chagrin was not about the money, but at the fact that granddad’s fiddle was a copy of something instead of that something itself. Once repaired our forgery will be worth $500 or more (it is still, and will ever be, an antique) but I would almost rather have an actual cheapo, an authentic beginner’s fiddle, than a copy of something better.
Be that as it may, and forgery or no, it was my father’s father’s violin, and both his son and grandson (the latter of whom he never met, having succombed to a liver infection in 1951, eight years before yours truly was born — first born son to his last born) valued the thing as such. “We’ll go ahead and do it,” said my dad with quiet certainty, despite the $350+ repair estimate.
“Don’t you want to take it home and think about it?” I asked him [aside]. I had not expected such cost, and felt a pang of guilt since it was I who had suggested to Dad that we bring the thing in after having it sit in a corner of our house, shut up in its dusty case, for four or five years. I had been about to open my mouth and tell Bischofberger that we thanked him for his prognosis but would have to go home and speak with our inner piggybanks. Dad’s quiet announcement surprised me.
“I don’t want to take it home and have it sit around for another forty years and get banged up even more,” he reasoned. We agreed that we didn’t know what he would tell Mom (for whom, it turned out, the impulsive decision needed no justification whatsoever, James Ezra and his violin being who and what they were), but he’d worry about that later. I agreed to lay out for a bow, which cost was not part of the estimate since that missing piece was not known to be broken but merely missing and was anyway not necessary to make the violin whole and playable again. I’ll choose one when we return around October 20th to pick up the restored violin. Since this whole adventure came about because of a renewed desire on my part to play jigs and reels, I figure the $50 for a beginner’s bow is a justified expense…
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There was a little more at both ends of this letter that I’ve excluded. In Jeff’s enthusiastic response, which I reference for historicity and because Jeff was an inimitable correspondent, he scolded me gently for giving any thought to the idea of forgery, saying “For sooth, Sternherz†, a copy it is not. It’s your grandpapa’s violin! And there’s only one…This is magic, Matthew. What you are doing is that which should be done. You and Willard Foster are okay in my book. That violin’s voice, a voice all its own and exactly matched by no other violin anywhere, will be heard again two generations after its last stroke. How very Middle Earth. Bravo Matt!”
Bischofberger’s was located at the time in a century-old Victorian house on East John Street near 14th Avenue on Capitol Hill, but after a four-alarm fire gutted the place in 2000 they retreated to 1830 12th Avenue East, which according to the Seattle Times (July 20, 2000) was the shop’s original Seattle location, a building the family still owned. They are still in business on Capitol Hill, and an elder son has opened a shop on the Eastside.
As for the violin, I never learned to play it, and I gave it back to my parents when a young niece expressed interest in violin lessons. I don’t know where it is now or what became of it. But it’s okay, I have a concertina to wrestle with.
*In the letter, I drew a slot shaped like an elongated s.
**In the letter, I wrote in the two nines by hand as they were done in the instrument.
†German for Starheart, one of Jeff’s nicknames for me.