The Violin Hunter


Silverman tells the tale of Luigi Tarisio, a legendary figure in the history of the violin, credited by some as being the savior of the violins of Cremona. Written in 1957 after years of meticulous research, the story feels fresh and alive over 50 years later and is a must read for violin and instrument enthusiasts.This book belongs in the realm of Historical Fiction, but many of the facts are easily verified.

Any student of the violin and its sister instruments knows the names of the makers from Cremona who first designed and built the instruments we now know as violins, violas and cellos – Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati, Bergonzi and many others. What many may not realize is that by the late 1700’s the violins by the Cremonese makers had fallen out of favor in Italy and were judged obsolete next to the “modern” instruments of the time. The Old Masters were all long dead, leaving behind no heirs to their knowledge and precious little in the way of documentation. No one wanted to buy violins by what we now call the Masters and so they were stored (often in deplorable conditions) or donated to monasteries or other institutions for eventual disposal to raise funds. There were a number of collectors who valued the instruments and kept them safe, if out of the public eye, but it seemed that the Golden Age of the Violin was over.

Enter Tarisio. His life’s mission was to find these Cremonese instruments and put them into the hands of people who appreciated and would play them. Those people resided in Paris, and so he set off on foot with a sack containing 10 violins made by the Masters slung over his back.

Upon arriving in Paris, Tarisio sought out the shop of a noted violin dealer called M. Aldric. It was through this dealer that Tarisio was to meet a violin maker, dealer and historian who would become an important figure for the rest of his life, one Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. The two would become a team of sorts, Tarisio finding the Cremonese instruments and Vuillaume repairing and selling them, while also making a good number of copies, but that is another story.

I won’t give away¬† more of the plot, but simply say that without the mission of Luigi Tarisio most of the Cremonese masterpieces being played and exhibited (and yes, even locked away in private collections) today would have been lost to history.

Here is a link to some of the instruments attributed to Tarisio.

Lets Talk About Books!

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Before the kit arrived I purchased a couple of books –

Henry Strobel’s Violin Making Step by Step

and Bruse Ossman’s Violin Making, an Illustrated Guide for the Beginner.

Strobel’s books are recommended all over the ‘net by professional and amateur builders alike. He has quite a library of publications and a very good reputation online. There is an extra set of plans in the center of the soft-bound book to remove and use as a pattern. The instructions are clear and technical and he explains why he builds instruments the way he does in easily understandable terms. He uses a lot of specialized tools, many of which he made himself. He talks about tuning the plates, varnishing and set up of the finished violin. He refers often to a couple of his other books which should probably be on my library shelf as well. There are many pictures and the whole process is laid out logically and clearly.

Kathy Matsushita is probably the most well-known person to build a violin using only the Ossman book, and she ended up with a nice instrument. Bruce has a more casual approach to fiddle building, believing that anyone with basic woodworking skills can build a playable instrument using his methods. His approach is a bit unconventional as far as I can see, and he recommends fewer specialized tools. His writing style is approachable and not as technical as Strobel’s, but it’s plain to see that some nuances are missed in the desire to get the thing built.

Since I’m starting with a kit, I’ll be using relevant information from both books to finish my fiddle construction and will comment on what methods work best for me in this situation as the build progresses.

Beginning Books for Grown-ups

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I purchased two books to get me started –

“Old-Time Fiddle for the Complete Ignoramus!” by Wayne Erbsen and “Fiddle Primer” by Jim Tolles. Both are excellent books for starting out as an adult. Both include a CD so you can hear what the notes should sound like and how the songs should be played.

Erbsen has a unique method of teaching music notation that deserves a mention – each song is written in his form of tab which is a bit different from others I’ve seen online – over the note bar, instead of a finger position, he writes in the actual name of the note, A, B, C#, etc. On a staff below the tab are the same notes written out in musical notation:

A handy diagram at the top of the page shows where the notes can be found on the fingerboard of the fiddle. Before you know it, you will be reading regular musical notation – you just can’t help but absorb it by osmosis.

Many online resources show fiddle tab like this:

The finger position is shown above the note bar, not the name of the note. This is very convenient if you don’t read music at all and just want to start playing.
I took many years of band in school, so I (used to be able to) read the treble clef. This should be a piece of cake, right? Well, flute is not fiddle (not by a long shot!) and it has not proved as easy as I thought it would be. Finding the notes on the fingerboard, even with a diagram, is not easy when trying to keep the bow parallel to the bridge and use the right amount of pressure and etc. etc. etc.

Both books have many helpful diagrams and tips to make getting started as easy as possible if you don’t have a violin teacher near at hand.

The Tolles book is geared more towards students who have teachers, IMO, and the first songs are what you would typically learn if you were a child – Mary Had a Little Lamb, Twinkle, etc. while Erbsen starts you out with Ida Red as the first tune.

Both books seem to start from the same place and make the same progressions, just in different languages, and I recommend both if you’re an adult beginner trying to sort out where to start with learning the violin.

One thing that may be bothersome is that both books have a stapled binding that won’t allow the book to lay flat. I took both books to a copy place and had a spiral binding put in so that I could flip it open all the way or fold it over to show just the page I am working on at the moment.

I’ll add to this post as I get farther along with both books.