By Cliff Hall | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
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Way up in the Northwoods of Wisconsin on the shores of Pickerel Lake is a small cadre of cabins on about 14 acres of bucolic land. Named “Fiddle Sticks,” this compact compound was the birthplace of some of the most valuable American violins ever built. But the output of those violins depended entirely upon how the fish ran.
“If the fish are biting good, the violin making may result in eight to ten or a dozen finished pieces. If the fish are few, we bring home to Chicago 15 to 18 violins.” These were the words of Carl G. Becker (1887–1975) in a 1954 interview with the Chicago Tribune. A decade earlier, he described this routine to Piano and Radio Magazine in more detail. “Well, I spend a pretty good day working, knock off about 3:30, then do a little trout fishing,” said Becker. “That’s my favorite recreation, and Pickerel Lake’s as good as they come for it.”
Though seemingly unimportant in the Becker family’s violin making legacy, the calm and peace of this lake were actually essential to it. Though Carl G. and his son, Carl F. Becker (1919–2013), spent most of their time at the repair benches of William Lewis and Son in Chicago, a leading Chicago violin dealer, from the first of May until September, the two left the instrument restoration world behind to rejuvenate their own creative spirits in the seclusion of the Wisconsin wilderness.
“Repair gives the opportunity to meet with many musicians and help them with their musical journey… but making requires a different mindset,” says Carl F.’s daughter (who is also a luthier) Jennifer Becker. “You have to be in a quiet state of mind, focused but relaxed. Turmoil around you does not work to create something beautiful; interruptions make it very hard to keep the work flowing, so you really have to focus when you are making in order to achieve any progress.”
Carl F.’s son Paul also recognizes why this separation was necessary. “Repair work and restoration work are always at odds with making. If you do more restoration work, you make fewer instruments. Sometimes it is an economic decision, such as during a depression or the pandemic. These are times you just can’t make violins,” says Paul.
The Becker family musical journey started in 1864 in Chicago with the work of upholsterer/violinist turned luthier Herman Macklett (1834–84). In his book Known Violin Makers, John Fairfield called Macklett “a pioneer American violin maker of outstanding ability.” His daughter Adeline married Carl J. Becker (1858–1921), a German-born violinist who was a pupil of Joseph Joachim, and they had a son they named Carl G. Becker. Known as much for his instruction as his playing, Carl J. taught his son Carl G. Becker how to play the violin, but it was during one of their trips to see his luthier, William Lane, that Carl G.’s passion for instrument making was sparked.
“My grandfather was immersed in music, and he played the cello himself. He did talk to me when I was younger about walking Wabash Avenue and looking at all the fine instruments in the windows of the music stores, and he fell in love with violins. He started working at age 14,” says Paul. “This is the true beginning of the Becker line of instruments.”
Carl G. worked with John Hornsteiner until 1924, when one of Chicago’s biggest firms came knocking. “He accepted an invitation from William Lewis & Son to become master luthier and instrument appraiser, with the understanding that they would allow him to spend summers up in northern Wisconsin to make instruments,” writes Paul Becker on his website. “And to fish.”
The work on his bench at Lewis & Son did not go unnoticed.
“Having the ambition common to all novitiates, [Becker] produced [his] first instrument in 1904 and accomplished a pronounced cleverness in conception as well as a thorough mastery of manipulation… Every detail is perfectly synchronized,” praised William Henley in his 1959 book Universal Dictionary of Violin & Bow Makers, “thus foreshadowing a fame which has since become universal in America.”
Though he garnered a strong reputation as an expert repairer and restorer, it was the soft varnish of his own making that the family built its name on. “Soft varnish is the only way to produce the high-quality tone that Beckers are known for. The care it takes to not scratch the varnish is worth the difference in tone. Soft varnish will naturally wear off with use so yearly checkups and polishing are recommended,” says Jennifer. “Soft varnish also takes a long time to dry, so it slows down the process of making. Long term, an extra few months is worth the wait.”
But the best was yet to come.
In 1937, shortly after graduating from high school, Carl G.’s son, Carl F., embarked on an apprenticeship journey with William Lewis & Son. Under his father’s watchful eye, Carl dedicated himself to the art of restoration, swiftly earning his own impeccable reputation in the field. One of his most prestigious assignments was the meticulous restoration of the renowned “Lady Blunt,” a 1721 Stradivari violin cherished by numerous musicians as one of the world’s finest.
“This man is the greatest repairman and maker of violins who ever lived. I may have been all right in my day, but I never had the patience to spend the time that he does. I did my work well, but I did it fast,” Carl G. told the Chicago Tribune toward the end of his life.
“Alongside him, I’m a butcher.”
This family affair continued its path when Jennifer became curious. “I have always wanted to make things, but I got a taste for carving when I was eight. My dad gave me a knife and gouge, and I used them to carve birds and fish. When I was ten, I announced my plans to make a violin. My dad was so surprised—out popped ‘No! You’re too young, and you’re a girl!’” says Jennifer. “So I made one out of scraps from their garbage box. My grandfather was impressed and said, ‘So what if she’s a girl?’ and encouraged me to try my hand at making.”
In addition to crafting instruments, Jennifer has played cello since her youth and continues to play in a community orchestra. “I started playing the cello the same year I started making,” she says. “My dad and grandfather both played instruments too. It does help to understand what you’re making.”
At the age of 14, Paul C. Becker joined his father and grandfather in the craft. Collaborating with his grandfather, Paul successfully built his inaugural violin. “It was during summers at Pickerel that I learned how to make a violin. I was first taught to make my own form and make a violin from scratch, by hand, without using any power tools. While I watched dad use power tools to rough out instruments, I have to admit I was fascinated with that process,” says Paul. “Dad would say it doesn’t matter what takes the wood out, it’s the result that does.”
For a short period, Paul ventured beyond Carl Becker and Son, Ltd., initiating his own woodworking enterprise, which specialized in crafting bespoke furniture. However, he ultimately realized that his true passion lay in the art of violin making, and he has since gained the trust of violinists worldwide.
“Many people don’t realize that there are different things that luthiers do—making violins, restoring violins, and tonal adjustments—and a luthier who’s wonderful in one area might not be who you want to see for another. Paul’s father was legendary at being able to slightly tweak the bridge and soundpost and make a good violin sound even better, and he taught Paul all his secrets. I’ve trusted Paul with my 1742 ‘ex-Bazzini, ex-Soldat’ Guarneri del Gesù for more than 20 years,” says violinist Rachel Barton Pine. “My concert touring constantly brings me from one climate to another. For example, this summer I was in the low humidity of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and then in the high humidity of Brazil shortly thereafter. This causes the violin’s wood to expand and contract, and its voice can suffer. Paul always knows how to bring things back to perfect condition, and I couldn’t be more grateful for his incredible skills!”
One change Paul has initiated is the use of modern woodworking machinery, though he is not the first Becker to employ this approach. “I incorporate as much machinery as I can, but nothing is entirely finished by machine, and you still have to be able to feel your work in order for it to express your passion. There are many violin makers that incorporate the use of a CNC in their work and many that don’t. I use a CNC for roughing [but] not finishing,” says Paul. “My grandfather used a duplicating machine to rough out tops and backs. My father used patterns and machines to rough out instruments. They all required finishing by hand.”
Carl F. Becker fulfilled his father’s wish to work as long as Antonio Stradivari did, as he continued to make instruments until his death in 2013 at the age of 93. Although he was unable to finish them all, this happenstance has afforded a unique opportunity for the family.
“I am currently finishing a cello with Jenny that was started by my father, myself, and Jenny,” says Paul. “It is unique to have all three of our hands involved. The three of us are also collaborating on two violas. Dad did most of the work of designing and making a viola that would produce a great sound. And so we also have these two instruments we all worked on, which fills me with pride, because they’re really quite perfect.”
Upon his passing, the family also inherited a collection of fractional-size instruments that had been completely redone by apprentices to provide the best quality sound for students. They inspired the emergence of a new branch of the family business.
“The family started the Becker Family Foundation in November 2018 to encourage students in their pursuit of a stringed-instrument education. This original collection was and is continuing to be used by small ensembles in the Southeast,” says Paul and Jennifer’s sister (and Carl F.’s daughter) Marilyn Becker, founding member and treasurer of the foundation. “Our purpose is to help remove those barriers preventing our young students’ earnest development. The foundation cannot do everything for the student, but we can help.”
Pine has seen the impact the foundation has made as well. “It’s very exciting that Paul and his siblings are now running their own Becker Family Foundation, which is making an important difference in the lives of many deserving young musicians,” she says.
While so much has changed in the nearly 120 years that the Becker family has been making violins in the United States, one constant that has remained is Fiddle Sticks. Though the rural enclave is no longer a place for making instruments (as Paul is based in Chicago and Jennifer in Saint Paul), they continue to use it as a family retreat.
“My children and my grandchild still go up there to fish during the summer. I personally like to spend my time up at the cabin chopping wood and building fires,” says Jennifer. “Being in the forest, surrounded by wood in its rawest form, is an incredibly healing, peaceful, and inspiring experience for me.”