By Karen Peterson | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
Two world wars, a cold war, two revolutions, on-again off-again Soviet occupation, a homeland split in half, and yet the Špidlen family, with roots in Bohemia and the Czech Republic, has stayed on point—creating fine violins through four generations of makers and into a fifth. For nearly 125 years, from the late 19th century and continuing into the 21st, the Špidlen bloodline of luthiers has been winning acclaim and awards for their instruments and accolades from the masters of classical music as far back as Eugène Ysaÿe, the “King of the Violin,” who thrilled audiences with his exuberant performances at the turn of the 20th century.
The copy of the Guarneri of 1740 that František Špidlen (1867–1916), the family patriarch, built for Ysaÿe remains in the Špidlen’s private collection.
František fell into the craft as a boy growing up in the Krkonoše (Giant) Mountains of Bohemia. It was an unplanned entry to the trade—as most boys in his village became bakers—and he went on to restore and make violins in Kiev, then Moscow, the citadel of royal Russia. There, at age 30, František became violin maker at the Moscow Imperial Conservatory, where Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky had earlier taught harmony and theory.
Catering to the upper reaches of Russian aristocracy, lavish and appreciative patrons of the musical arts, František is captured in a black-and-white portrait with his lovely family—a confident young man in his prime. But this was the waning era of tsarist rule, portending years of unrest, protests, and assassinations leading to the 1917 Russian Revolution. The monarchy was removed and replaced with a Communist Soviet Socialist state. After World War II, the Soviets held sway over the Špidlens and all who lived in Central Europe.
František left Russia for health reasons before the 1917 Revolution broke out. He set up a workshop in Prague, where the Špidlen family remained, established their name, and built hundreds of instruments. There is, after František, Otakar František Špidlen (1896–1958); Přemysl Otakar Špidlen (1920–2010); Jan Špidlen (1967); and František Špidlen (1996)—the youngest Špidlen, named for his great-great grandfather.
The decade that the first František spent in Russia, where he produced upward of 400 violins, “were the most enriching years of his life,” says great-grandson Jan Špidlen on our Zoom call, where we were joined by František, the fifth-generation Špidlen luthier. “I did realize there was a responsibility growing up in [an accomplished] family,” says Jan. “I could feel it. But for me, it was always an advantage. It’s not a burden.”
Generation Two: Otakar Špidlen, the Businessman
Otakar F. Špidlen (1896–1958), the elder František’s son and the second in the line, officially established the family lutherie business and planted firm roots in Prague by enjoying the benefits of being free. The formation of the First Czechoslovak Republic following World War I in 1918—Otakar’s time—is remembered as “the most favorable period ever for Czech business and businessmen,” according to a family history. It didn’t last long, but during the years leading up to World War II, Otakar took advantage of less troublesome political times by building up clientele and the family brand. Sociable and outgoing, he built violins for the notable musicians of his time, such as Josef Suk, student and son-in-law of Antonín Dvořák, and later for Soviet classical violinist and conductor David Oistrakh.
In 1936, he made a violin for the president of the new Czech Republic, T.G. Masaryk, and a local artist painted the state emblem and the president’s initials on the bottom of the instrument that is today part of the Prague Music Conservatory collection. The models for the roughly 150 instruments he built were always by Stradivari and Guarneri.
“My father lived for the business,” said Přemysl Otakar Špidlen, Otakar’s son, in a family history. “He loved standing behind the counter, and he loved the way it kept him in continual contact with people from the world of music.”
Generation Three: Přemysl Otakar Špidlen, the Artist
Of growing up, Přemysl Otakar Špidlen (1920–2010) wrote of his family, “It wasn’t just [the] family, but the omnipresence of violins, the music created by all those original people who belonged to us—for me that was an everyday inspiration with a taste of a kind of mystery that I never experienced anywhere else… ”
Přemysl made his first violin at age 17, was a champion skier on the Czech national team, and, shortly after taking over the family business, was forced to shut it down. The Soviet coup d’état of 1948 kept Moscow’s thumb on the Czech people for another 40 years, with a short interval of hope in 1968, a democratic uprising known as the “Prague Spring.” It lasted six months.
Still, with only a workshop and no retail entryway, Přemysl made upward of 250 violins, violas, and cellos that found homes with players like Yehudi Menuhin and the acclaimed Czech chamber ensemble the Smetana Quartet. He was able to ply his craft because Soviet Communism made a distinction between artists and workers. Přemysl, a violin maker, was deemed to be the former, so he was able to continue working, in, as son Jan describes it, “a dark room in the back of the house.”
His instruments inspired lofty praise. Upon hearing one, a French string connoisseur exclaimed, “It is the rediscovery of Stradivari!” Přemysl was fascinated by the Cremonese maker, most particularly with his varnish. That was his quest as a luthier—to break open the alchemy. He spent much of his time mixing chemicals and testing blends; he even consulted with an American physicist.
“He did thousands of tests. It was his great passion, and he never tired of it. He was close, very close,” says Jan. “It was just nice to sit next to him.”
Generations Four & Five: Jan Baptista and František Špidlen, the future
After school in Prague, Jan studied at the International Violin Making School in Mittenwald, Germany, and worked for a year as a restorer at J & A Beare, the renowned international violin dealer. While he had lived under Communist rule before he left Prague, when he returned he was witness to the Velvet Revolution of 1989. What had started as a pro-democracy demonstration evolved into a bloodless revolt that ended the rule of the Czech Communist Party.
The Velvet Revolution was a brilliant light in the body politic of the Cold War, putting Václav Havel—a poet, playwright, and human-rights activist—into the presidency. Three years later, the Czechoslovak Republic was peacefully split into the independent countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Through all the late-20th-century political turmoil, Jan and his father, until his death in 2020, continued to produce the family’s violins. Jan has won the awards that set luthiers apart, notably first and second prize, in one shot, at the Triennale Competition in Cremona, Italy.
In 2005, during a creative brainstorming summit on the future of the violin, Jan teamed up with Czech violinist Pavel Šporcl to create their version of the future. Jan provided the instrument, and Pavel chose the color: blue. Visually, their Blue Violin is a bold creation, the color captivating. As Jan notes, it is difficult to improve upon something as near perfect as a violin. For the Blue Violin, he made minor adjustments to the basic profile, shortening the corners, making narrower ribs and slightly bigger f-holes. There is a titanium screw inside the nose of the neck to offset “malformations caused by time or climate change.”
Jan enjoys the attention the Blue Violin garners but knows it is just one of many steps ahead. “If you’re an athlete, and you achieve a gold medal in the Olympics, you’ve done it. But with violin making, you are never finished,” he says.
For František, generation five, it is just beginning, and he’s on it. “I’ve finished my studies in England and New York. I’m trying to build my reputation. Already in my mind, I am my own person,” says František. “I’m making violins under my own name.”