By Cliff Hall | From the July-August 2022 issue of Strings magazine
“It has a nicely carved scroll and strong flame in the maple,” said Frank Saam, Jr., emerging from the back room of his workshop in Magnolia, New Jersey, to share the verdict on the old “trade violin” I had brought him to set up. “But the top—it’s quite thick.”
Saam, son of a 1950s “Fabulous” Philadelphia Orchestra member and a graduate of Cremona’s International School of Violin Making, was right. The violin was one of the millions of trade violins that flowed from Germany to the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Though this had some of the hallmarks of a fine violin, it had seen its fair share of questionable work over the years. And there was one major problem with it: the top had been carved like a tank.
“Old instruments were usually left thick to make them more durable for shipping and rough student use. There is a vast number of commercial instruments that were left thick to save labor costs or were made by factory workers that may not have known any better, or didn’t have time,” says Jacob Mehlhouse, luthier and owner of Tulsa Strings Violin Shop in Oklahoma. “But when [the thickness] is more than standard graduations… it is to make the body stronger, which is not ideal for tone.”
In the case of my violin, Carl Fischer declared in unearthed advertisements that this Concert Master model had a “tone of unusual resonance and power and fully meet[s] the requirements of the most exacting players.” In reality, however, that wasn’t the case. With an anemic carve, this violin lacked a strong low end and overall volume. Clearly, something needed to be done.
I was faced with a choice: do I leave it as is, or do I take a risk and go through the process of re-graduation?
Re-graduation (also known as re-voicing or improving) is when a violin is opened; the top, back, and sides are thinned (usually not by more than a millimeter); and the bass bar is replaced to make the instrument more responsive. The procedure has a history going back over four centuries, but it is still regarded with skepticism among many luthiers, as countless instruments have been altered negatively using this technique.
It was around 1877 when Antonio Stradivari’s 1690 “Medici” viola was opened up at its then (and still current) Florentine home, Istituto Cherubini. It was discovered that there was a patch where the belly was too thin. A contemporary luthier could have been blamed for trying to re-voice this instrument to fit current standards, but for the note “Correto da me Antonio Stradivari,” written by the master himself.
The practice became a well-advertised part of the trade by the end of the 19th century, as represented by the professional practices of violin dealers like August Gemünder (1814–95). Like many luthiers, Gemünder became a violin maker after watching his father’s technique and then taking over his shop. Having emigrated from Germany to Massachusetts in 1846, he opened a store in Boston and then New York, with a specialty in copying old Italian masters. He saw the efficiency of taking someone else’s work and re-graduating the insides, versus building a violin from scratch, and entered the business of selling these “improved” imported violins.
However, he also understood how quickly the process could go awry. “I can safely say that thousands of fine instruments have been permanently ruined by inexperienced repairmen who, in an effort to ‘regulate’ tone, have scraped away wood here, or added a little in the shape of a ‘patch’ there,” cautioned Gemünder in the November 1916 issue of The Musical Messenger (published posthumously).
Although there were legions of repairmen who endeavored to turn $10 Montgomery Ward fiddles into great-sounding instruments, one example of such an amateur was George Hartvigsen of La Grande, Oregon. Born in 1882 to Norwegian immigrants, he registered himself as a building contractor for almost all of his professional career. In the early 1930s, Hartvigsen decided to apply his carpentry skills to instruments. Ever the boastful businessman, Hartvigsen frequently ran resurrectionist-like ads in the La Grande Observer,in which he claimed, “Dead violins brought to life. Live ones put on their toes. Factory fiddles rendered playable. Actual revoicing, expert adjusting.”
Whilst the quality of Hartvigsen’s work has been lost to time, his example makes clear that particular expertise and actual lutherie training did not always back up such claims.
Gemünder’s warning turned out to be well-founded, with some luthiers taking re-graduation too far, oftentimes with dire consequences. “Re-creating a thick instrument greatly opens the resonance of the instrument and, in the early part of the 20th century, it became commonplace to re-graduate instruments to improve sound—even ones that did not require it, resulting in weakening the integrity of the instrument,” said Saam. “So over time it would result in the curvature of the top collapsing or soundpost cracks. [It is] a big mistake that happens when you make the top and back plates tuned by having varying thicknesses in different areas of the plates.”
As a result of so many instruments thinned to the point of structural failure, re-graduation became the electric third rail of modern violin lutherie. Although the practice had a healthy market in the United States from the 1890s until World War II, there was a precipitous drop off in the 1950s and was considered by some a lost art by the beginning of the 1960s.
It is still industry standard that historical instruments should be left alone, but re-graduating trade instruments has never actually ceased and has recently started to find more acceptance. As woods used in the trade, like ebony, become increasingly endangered, and websites like shopgoodwill.com regularly offer early-20th-century trade instruments for comparatively nominal prices, re-graduation has seen a resurgence.
“Commercially made violins are perfect for a full re-grad. They are usually thicker and allow for more alterations, since there is more wood to work with,” says Mehlhouse, who occasionally re-voices older trade violins. “I very rarely see older factory-made instruments that are thin.”
In a 1992 interview with the Chicago Tribune, the late violin expert Robert Bein (of Bein & Fushi) told reporter Ron Grossman that his firm “would never alter a classic violin, and, indeed, does very few re-graduations on any caliber instrument. But in principle, [he sees] nothing wrong in re-graduating a second-rate violin so it plays better.”
Finding the exact point where sonic brilliance meets structural integrity has often proved elusive. But if the original structure of an instrument is to be changed, its financial life must also be considered.
“The retail sales of re-graduated instruments are almost impossible to measure because pretty much everything has had some degree of adjustment. Since most of the highest prices are for old instruments, that doesn’t seem to have hurt their prices particularly,” says Pennsylvania-based stringed instrument appraiser Philip J. Kass: “It has never been something that was widely advertised, just simply done in-house for what was regarded as acoustical necessity.”
Bein also echoed this idea when he wondered, “if re-graduation inevitably ruins a violin, then why do collectors and performers line up to bid millions of dollars when a Stradivari goes on sale, regardless of whether it has been altered?”
So, the question of what to do with my Concert Master remains difficult to resolve: do I have it re-graduated by a qualified luthier and possibly improve its tonal beauty but also possibly reduce the resale price?
Some key considerations lie in Roy Ehrhardt’s 1977 book Violin Identification and Price Guide. “Tone may not be as important in the value of a violin as it should be, and there is a simple explanation for this. I would say that tone is at least second and maybe third in the choosing of a violin,” wrote Ehrhardt. “Beauty and eye appeal will come first, condition second, and if the player likes the look of the violin and the condition is good, he will figure out how to obtain a satisfactory tone.”
If I decide to do it, Saam also recommends paying extra attention to the setup of a re-voiced instrument. “If a talented luthier completes the thinning procedure well, good positioning of a new soundpost is essential,” he said.
In the end, a player must keep realistic tonal and financial expectations when commissioning a luthier to re-graduate a fiddle. “There is a lot you can change with re-grads, but the overall personality of the instrument remains. Especially older violins. You can’t turn a Jackson Guldan into a Bergonzi no matter how much you might change the graduations,” says Mehlhouse. “But it might be the best-sounding one of its kind after you’re done.”
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Violin or Viola series from Strings magazine gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.