By David Lusterman
Violin maker Francis Kuttner, builder of the acclaimed Ellen M. Egger quartet of instruments and dear friend to scores, no—make that hundreds—of colleagues in the music world, passed away in his sleep early in the morning of Saturday, June 3, 2023 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he had been living for nearly two years while receiving treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Born in Washington, DC, on March 2, 1951, Kuttner attended schools there and in New Haven, Connecticut, before studying art history at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He built his first instrument, a dulcimer, while attending Antioch and pivoted briefly to guitar making before attending the Scuola Internazionale di Liuteria in Cremona, Italy, and devoting himself to violin making.
After working privately with Cremonese violin maker Francesco Bissolotti, Kuttner established his workshop in 1978 in San Francisco, joining a community of young builders that grew to include David Gusset, Stephen Lohmann, Sigrun Seifert, Joseph Grubaugh, Carla Shapreau, Jay Ifshin, Boyd Poulsen, and Roland Feller, many of whom rose to prominence as makers, restorers, and dealers.
Kuttner soon earned numerous gold and silver medals for his violins, violas, and cellos in international competitions in New York, Ottawa, Cremona, Manchester, and Paris. He later served as resident luthier at many European chamber music festivals and as a judge for international violin making competitions in Mittenwald, Paris, and Cremona.
He mentored a number of prominent younger luthiers, notably the Toronto-based Mexican violinist and violin maker Itzel Avila.
In 1986, entrepreneur Fritz Maytag, perhaps best known for raising San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company from the ashes and in the process launching America’s craft beer revival, commissioned Kuttner to build a quartet of matched instruments as a memorial to his sister, Ellen M. Egger. Intended as a unique lending library of fine instruments for promising young musicians, the instruments are brought together annually for a memorial concert. The project led to a decades-long collaboration, bringing Kuttner and Maytag together with several prominent string quartets, chief among them the San Francisco–based Alexander String Quartet.
Eighth in a family of nine children, Kuttner was always at home in a crowd and relished the company of his parents, siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews, and an extraordinarily large circle of friends and colleagues. Indeed, virtually everyone who met him wanted to be his friend, a trait which seemed only to enhance his modesty, generosity, and delight in good companionship.
I met Francis Kuttner shortly after launching Strings magazine. Living in proximity, we found many occasions, social and professional, in which a friendship developed. When Strings began to host small group tours of Italy’s violin making history and culture, it seemed only natural to invite Francis to serve as our guide. He clearly felt even more at home in Italy than in his native America, so it was no surprise when he eventually settled permanently in Cremona.
In 1987, I asked Kuttner to write a remembrance of his student years in his adopted home for an issue of Strings commemorating the 250th anniversary of the death of Antonio Stradivari. That article, Digesting Cremona, originally published in the fall of 1987, appears online here for the first time. Like his later article Taking Off the Clamps, the piece brings our dear friend vividly to life.
Details for a memorial service in August 2023 have yet to be announced.
A more comprehensive remembrance will appear in the September/October 2023 issue of Strings magazine.