“What enables anyone, in any country, to make a really good violin?”
Musician, collector and instrument dealer David Bromberg had pondered this question for years. And he had an answer. Sure, a violin maker would need “some talent with woodworking” but they’d also had “to have seen a great violin. That’s the secret,” Bromberg added. “It’s true even in the town of Cremona. In order to make a really good violin, you have to have seen something great.”
Flying blind, as it were, didn’t stop the occasional 18th-century American. The Museum of the Moravian Historical Society in Nazareth, Pennsylvania preserves the earliest dated example of American violinmaking, an instrument crafted by the 19-year old John Antes in 1759.
If “colonial American makers were limited by the quality of the instruments on hand to copy” that situation would rapidly change when the European masters embarked on American tours. According to Bromberg, “the European virtuosi treated America as their piggy bank—if they were broke, they came to America to make money. Along the way, they made a valuable contribution to American violin making, thanks to the great instruments they carried.”
“It’s possible that if you were able to trace the itinerary of these virtuosi, you’d see the lutherie improving behind them as they went,” claimed Bromberg.
One early instance: an 1843 visit by the Belgian Alexandre Artôt, “the first European virtuoso known to have visited the United States.” Violin maker Ira J. White happily welcomed Artôt and his Stradivarius into White’s Boston shop. Not long after, the Norwegian soloist Ole Bull stopped by with his Guarneri.
When Ole Bull’s tour brought him to Philadelphia, he visited the shop of John Albert. And Henri Vieuxtemps brought his Guarneri to the Arch Street shop of Albert’s son, Charles F. Albert, himself an “artisanal violin maker and restorer.” (Much later, the Vieuxtemps Guarneri found its way into the hands of Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman). And on one occasion, the younger Albert got to repair the Stradivarius of Polish-born Henryk Wienawski, who was to perform at the Academy of Music.
Albert successfully eliminated a wolf, an unwanted overtone, from Wienawski’s Stradivarius. After trying out the repaired instrument, according to Albert’s obituary, the master “embraced Albert, and “kissing him on the forehead, [and] exclaimed: ‘young man, you have done what no other man could do for me whether in Europe or America.’”
At the start of his performance at the Academy, according to The Inquirer, Wienawski “walked about a little among the players as if he were wishing to introduce his beautiful Stradivarius to the other violins in the orchestra, so that they might go well together… “
And go well together they did.
“How can we speak with sufficient praise of Wienawski’s remarkable gifts?” wrote The Inquirer, “he is altogether unequaled by anyone we have heard, [his performance] “all full of soul and fire.” Wienawski had “a magnetic dash which was quite contagious among the orchestra, who followed him with almost equal impetuosity. … “
Albert proudly framed the bridge he removed from Wienawski’s violin alongside the virtuoso’s autograph.
“American luthiers became as good as any luthiers in the world when they had access to iconic instruments…” wrote Bromberg, “It reached a point where America was making things as good as anything found anywhere.” Yet, the idea that Americans couldn’t match the Europeans persisted. Meanwhile, Philadelphia became a center of good, and occasionally great violin making by such makers as the Pennsylvania-born Joseph Eastburn Winner, John Pfaff from Bavaria, Joseph Neff from Baden, the brothers John G. and Frederick August Klemm, Charles A. Voigt, Charles Hammermiller, the Primaveras and the de Luccias. And then there was Martin Nebel, who traded under the name of Charles F. Albert on 11th Street, keeping the Albert name alive into the 1960s. And then there were the Moennigs, whose shops in Philadelphia survived for more than 100 years, lasting into the 21st century.
What did these accomplished Philadelphia luthiers have in common? More than one might think. Many incorporated American woods into their instruments: spruce from Blue Mountain and maple from the Poconos, working in a local flair unknown to European luthiers.
[Sources: Erin Shrader, “David Bromberg on His Collection of 270 American-made Violins,” Strings Magazine, May 5, 2015; Christopher Germain, et al. The American Violin ( AFVBM Foundation, 2016); Rubinstein And Wienawski,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 30, 1872; “Famous Violin Maker Dead,” [Obituary for John Albert], The New York Times, January 3, 1900; Charles F. Albert Succumbs to Cancer, The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 2, 1901.]