Back in November of last year I started a thread here on MN about a rather worn violin that I, with a lot of help from some professional restorers, rescued from a box next to front door of the "School for Strings" in Port Huron, Michigan where I take lessons. The label identifies the instrument as made by Ladislas(v) Kaplan, New York circa 1902.
Well, let's say that a "spirited" discussion ensued on MN about the origins of this instrument. Since nothing was going to be resolved in an on line discussion I decided to take it upon myself to do some additional research and discover what I could about the instrument and its maker. At the time I mentioned this in the post and asked if participants were interested in occasional updates on my progress and I received enough yes votes to do that so here is the first one.
Amusingly, as part of that discussion@Jeffrey Holmescommented in a follow up post entry that I was likely to find some zigs and zags along the way and not surprisingly, I have already have hit a number of them. You were absolutely right on Jeffrey, there is no straight line between here and there and I'm still not done yet. Still, I have learned a lot so far and so I decided to share some of that with whoever is interested.
First let me say that I decided early on that I needed to organize my findings in some useful way before I got too far into this. At the same time I was also very surprised in my early research that, given his many and varied contributions to the music industry, Mr. Ladislav Kaplan does not have a Wikipedia entry. That gave me a place to start, write the Wikipedia entry for him.
Zag #1 was that right off I got a real lesson in the history of violin strings. Kaplan Musical Strings, now a division of D'Addrio, is still a going concern. And Kaplan rosin is also still a thing. Kaplan's invention of a commercial string winding machine maybe as early as 1906 certainly commercialized by 1922 was instrumental, along with others doing similar work in Europe, in the whole world switching from pure "gut" strings to metal or metal wound gut strings. And yes I know that there are still people playing gut strings. If you are interested in the history of strings there is a great summary in the October 2013 issue of The Strad. The fact that both the strings and rosin are still in production makes Internet search on anything "Kaplan" challenging at best. Sadly, while much smarter about the history of strings, it did not help me with the violin.
I still have outstanding queries going and more leg work to do on the violin front but I'm making real progress there too. What I have verified with help from some very good professional violinists is that it is indeed a way better than average instrument. Well above my pay grade as a player. I just wish I could make it sound like they did. And yes that's on me. Interestingly, I just picked up an Alfred Knoll 305 bow and the two in combination have a particularly nice tone. Also, IT IS NOT, REPEAT NOT, BUILT ON BACK!!!
Interim findings summarized: Short of finding an order/receipt for some Markie white bodies in Mr. Kaplan's hand dated 1900ish it is very likely that Kaplan in fact made the instrument in question and in fact all of the instruments attributed to him. He was not supporting himself selling violins and thus had no real incentive to resell imported instruments. Not yet at 100% but realistically we may never got to that point. The string business was supporting him even very early on and he was making violins as a side hustle in a personal "quest" to improve on the Italian masters using "scientific" methods. With my early instrument at least, he did not succeed although I found references to no less than Jascha Heifetz playing a Kaplan made violin early in his career. Count me skeptical because of the sources, but intrigued on that one.
I also use the word quest deliberately. There are articles in trade publications back to the 1920's describing what he was up to and patents for the tools he invented to help him along the way. Then there is this quote from an article about him in 1946, "Kaplan started to play at six years old and at twelve played first violin in a small orchestra "on a $4.00 violin, getting only squeaks and scratches out of it.” "So,” he said, "I determined to be a violin maker to make a better violin for myself.” After many experiments he developed a process which would give him a good instrument and has since made more than seventy-five violins." ("Handicrafts of New England" 1946, Harper & Brothers, New York)
So let me leave you with some more of the findings in the form of an article Kaplan wrote for the 1941 edition of "Who's Who in Music" about making violins. This is before he retired from the string company to just play and build violins full time. See the attached PDF. It could have been written by many of you today and yet some of what he says, particularly about tonewoods, is still heresy.
As always, if anybody has any additional information they would like to share please do so here publicly or with me privately by message. This is an ongoing project for me.
Stay tuned. When I'm done with the proposed Wikipedia article I'll post that along with all of the references. I also have a whole separate post I'm developing about taking interior pictures of violins without spending a fortune. It could take some time though. I still have some violin shops and actual libraries to visit. Thanks for taking the time to read this far. If you have you will probably enjoy the article.
"A perusal of practically all the books available for violin makers inevitably leads to the conclusion that those who had knowledge of how to make a good fiddle made fiddles, and those who knew nothing about it wrote books — more foolishness, if not outright charlatanism, has been written about the violin than perhaps any other branch of work." L. Kaplan 1941
Kaplan - Violin Making 1941.pdf