Violin Maker Karl Dennis on Instruments with Emotional Impact

By Karl Dennis | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Of all the violins you’ve seen, which left the greatest impression on you as a violin maker?

Over the years, there have been a small number of instruments I’ve seen that stand out for their emotional impact. Often it is the visuals that first catch my attention: the beauty of the wood, the color of the varnish, the marks and wear left by history or, inversely, the few instruments almost untouched by time. It might be the weight in the hand that gives the impression of something buoyant and alive, ready to sing out. 


The violins that leave a lasting mark on my imagination are the those that, once they catch my eye, demand and reward closer scrutiny. The one that most embodies this for me, and undoubtedly many other makers, is the 1649 “Alard” by Nicolo Amati, housed at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. Part of the Hill family gift to the British nation in the years before World War II, it is a particularly well-documented violin. 

However, no photograph conveys the astonishing sculptural power of this instrument. 

It is dramatic, deeply carved, and meticulous in its detail. In some ways, it is an extreme violin—in the height of the arching, the length of the corners, and the width of the C bouts. But it is, from every view, harmonious and in perfect balance. Every curve of the outline and arching leads the eye as if the entire form were in motion. The craftsmanship is exquisite, and yet there are subtle marks of the tool and small asymmetries that reveal the master’s human touch. It is in every part better than it needs to be, and thereby exactly right.