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Books are worth reading (well some certainly are)

Roger Hargrave

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Why should anyone bother ordering a book that British publishers are so far refusing to publish? Well the answer is; precisely because they are refusing to publish! David Schoenbaum who has for decades pestered me and many of my colleges has finally come out with a meaty and very tasty volume, called simply; 'The Violin' a social history of the worlds most versatile instrument'. And it is a cracker. I thought I was a clued up member of the trade until I read this exceptional volume. Although familiar with many of the events and stories he tackles, (I honestly cannot think of anything of import that he has missed), I have been surprised and delighted with the information that he has so painstakingly researched and managed to wheedle out of various colleges  And it is not dry. It is an extremely well written and very entertaining book. I found myself laughing out loud at some of his revelations. Nevertheless I imagine that I will be using this work as a reference book for years to come. 

His assessment of the development of the violin, the various schools that grew from the success of the early Italian prototypes, and the geopolitical and social effect upon these schools is probably the best that I have ever read. It is informative without being boring, it is amusing without being flippant. But from this excellent historical romp, he glides deftly from makers to dealers without so much as a ripple on the waters. And here again his insight is astounding. Something about this unassuming man (I have met him many times) invites trust and confidence. He has interviewed the famous and infamous, the lofty and the lowly, the noble and the ignoble and he has glean something from them all. He has chased and worried, half truths, rumor and innuendo, until he found the facts. And of course this is where he came up against the liable laws, especially in Britain. Lawyers don't like facts. Facts are messy. But if you read between the lines it is all there; the murky underworld that blights the trade in beautiful rare violins. Nevertheless in spite of the murders and the millions, Schoenbaum does not ignore the positive aspects of this remarkable instrument and the effect that it has had and continues to have on our world. This book may have some minor mistakes (I found none of significance) but I believe that this is as close to a masterpiece as it gets. Its more than 600 pages may appear daunting to some, but it is a book that you can open almost anywhere and read simply for pleasure. Mine is at the side of my bed where it has been since I received it in the US back in October. I can see me reading some passages for years to come. It is available on Amazon in the US I just checked. 


Even heavier is the new catalogue of; 'Musical Instruments in The Ashmolean'. Those of you that have read my work will know how dear this collection has been to me. It is where I first discovered the beauty of the Amati family and incidentally it is where I introduced John Dilworth my friend and one of the co-authors of this book to the Messiah Strad and the richness of this collection. This book could not be more different from Schoenbaum's work. It is a simple compilation of the instruments in this magnificent museum. Did I say simple? Wash my mouth out with soap and water! These days violin books are ten a penny, especially books with coffee table photos. However, like Schoenbaum's work this is as close to a masterpiece as it gets. This large volume is big in every sense of the word. The photography is magnificent and the more candid (than usual) views of archings and other details are highly informative. The written descriptions follow the uncomplicated pattern that we have all become used to from each of these authors. They are concise and they contain genuinely valuable information about the various stylistic features and the historical context of these instruments and bows. The book is also well bound, something that is often neglected with books that contain so many useful pictures. I have read it from cover to cover and I have probably learned more than is good for me about bows, viols, keyboards and even violins. I found only one minor mistake. The reference to Stainer's practice of laying a strip of parchment along the center joint, unfortunately misses the point that the Ashmolean Stainer has no center joint. But if that's it, then hats off to another raising of the bar. Whoever is next had better know their stuff.   

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Thanks Vathek, maybe I should write a book?

Well, if it's any indication of the attractiveness of your writing style, or reputation, I just bought this book based on your post and I'm not even 1/2 throught the IPCI book yet.  jeff  ps, would love to see what's in your head on my nightstand!  

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It is well worth reading, but if you are the average, unwashed American Phillistine, it will drive you crazy.  There is an excellent book within this book but it would take a good editor to flesh it out.  For the first 100 pages, there are few sentences with fewer than 20 commas.  It is very easy to lose the train of thought.  Then he goes into a mode of references to obscure European people, events, etc. that require that you read it sitting at your computer desk with Wikipedia open. Too much of it is like a Russian novel with names that require a database app to keep straight.  He surely can't have been trying to impress the likes of ol' Rog', I am not worthy of his teaching, and thus, a lot of his erudition is simply wasted on me.  I am over half way through it and finding myself more inclined to open my book of Sudoku puzzles rather than start the next chapter of this.  I do recognize that if you are in the upper stratosphere of the violin world, this book will be a delight.  I look forward to the knowledge and satisfaction I will gain by completing it, but it will be a task...........well, maybe my old timers disease, lexdisia, ADHD and general curmudgeonly disposition are taking over      :blink::D


Roger Hill

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Thank you Roger,


for taking the time to bring this book to our attention.  I have seen it mentioned, but would probably never have ordered it, considering it has the word "social" in its title.  Sounds scholarly.  As for commas,,,,Roger Hill,,,,I have been accused of using too many,, myself.

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I'm some pages into this and agree with Roger Hill to a great extent, I love linkman's images, and though it pains me to say so. I'm going to have to disagree with Maestro Hargrave. (Too many Roger's on this thread already, he'll have to put up with being called Maestro).

Well - the writing should be gripping. A fast pace piece of journalism I feel as if I am reading one of "those" columns in the New York Times, and perhaps I should. So on the face of it, read it. If you want to read something with the size and tempo of the last Harry Potter, and become more knowledgable about violins at the same time, you've won your game.

But..., and this is why Maestro Hargrave surprises me, I found the thing dangerously unscholarly. Schoenbaum simply takes the path of least resistance to create a narrative based on - on the face of it - a phenomenal array of knowledge. However I feel he is simply surveying and condensing literature that is already out there. That's fine, but what isn't fine is that it ends up giving a veneer of scholarly approval to all of the sources that he chooses to cite, and an implied scholarly judgement on those that he treats with more or less respect.

Just a few...

(These points are illustrative of wider trends. I'm not pedantically catching him out on three or four disagreeable statements)

What on earth is relevant with respect to the late nineteenth-century that John Dilworth calls the collection at the V&A "the stuff"... ? Irritating flimflam. No worse than that - if you cite an authority every line, it sounds like you have the same authority as the authorities, even if you don't. Who cares if you quote in or out of context - if you keep a quote down to just two words, who can possibly tell?

On page 28 Brian Harvey's "The Violin in the British Isles" is described as an "exemplary" text... about the only work to receive any kind of objective criticism - anyone care to comment? (oh, and the co-author of the "standard text" on violin fraud - I didn't know that there were others to choose from. Clearly a competitive industry)

Page 32 is mostly devoted to a symposium about the decorations of the quartet of Strads in the Smithsonian... blah blah blah, has he pointed out that half the quartet weren't decorated by Stradivari - the cello painted by Jacques Francais in 1981? MInor lapse, I'm sure.

Page 36, so Guidantus - the naughty boy - made tobacco boxes in 1716 and there is something metaphorical about this and the origin of violin making steeped, apparently, in box-making. No attempt to qualify if we are talking about an 18th century cigarette packet, or something of the same luxury value, as a tea-caddy. It's an altogether flippant remark, seeming to set a social agenda that is spurious and untested.

Page 39 that there are more or less plausible (I smell he doesn't know) arguments against Moens' claims that all Andrea Amati violins are forgeries, and throughout the surrounding pages giving constant reference to Moens as a respected authority. Well, if this is a definitive social history, perhaps its the duty of the historian to balance these competing claims and make an ethical judgement as to which side he is going to be on, instead of conflating and confusing the issue by sitting on the fence...

I clearly could go on.

As a historiography of the violin in the twentieth-century the book has some merits (a survey of the way people thought about the subject), and perhaps as an ethnography of the states of mind of people with a vested interest in the subject. But the book is supposed to be a social history written by a professor of history at a highly regarded university - which it isn't. So far it muddies the waters with flagrant unobjectivity based probably on someone who doesn't really have a grounding in the subject, and is frightened of sticking their neck out. The problem is that this projects a completely unrealistic sense of history.

Horace Petherick, Ed. Heron-Allen, H.R. Haweis, even Walter H. Mason and even Henley are more objective and accurate than this - because crucially, we don't expect them to be right because they were unapologetically amateur, and didn't claim the legitimacy of academic status. I don't even mind that Stewart Pollens devotes an entire appendix of his latest book to why he thinks the Messiah is a fake. At least he is standing up for something that he believes in and has the guts to take a position. There are more shades of grey to this than in any recent best seller of the same size!!

It may seem, in a climate that involves the imprisonment of Dietmar Machold and a whole host of ugly and uncomfortable sagas in the recent history of our field that this is shining a welcome and timely light on the unpallatable underbelly of the trade and its characters. But I think its not, its promoting murk and suspicion by tarring the entire trade with sensationalism and rumour. God help the poor musician who believes all of this!

Ahem - rant over.

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I'm pleased others have picked up on the Schoenbaum book. I thought the book was just made for a lot of folk who visit here.

Probably the value of the volume is fair and square in the middle between the views expressed here.

Thanks for that nice survey, Roger, and critique, Ben.


It was mentioned on Fingerboard early December and I know a couple of others who have enjoyed it.


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  • 1 month later...

I ordered the book based on Roger's glowing appraisal.  He's right on every point.  


The richness of the violin's world and history is present in every word.  I love the humor that starts with this beautiful little sample:


Schoenbaum, talking of his teachers writes:


"In taste, style, and temperament, Muenzer, Reuter, and Kolisch were from different planets.  But all three were Central Europeans, serious professionals, heirs to a great tradition, far from home in every sense, and reduced directly or indirectly to teaching me."  pp xii

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Page 32 is mostly devoted to a symposium about the decorations of the quartet of Strads in the Smithsonian... blah blah blah, has he pointed out that half the quartet weren't decorated by Stradivari - the cello painted by Jacques Francais in 1981? MInor lapse, I'm sure.

Sorry, I don't understand. Has somebody PAINTED a Strad cello in '81 ?
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My page 32 has nothing to do with any discussion of Francais, Smithsonian, or decorated Strads.  ???


I have a vague memory that someone wanted a Strad decorated to match the other instruments in a quartet of Strads.  I think I remember who, but I'll leave names out, since it is only a memory.  Maybe someone can give more information.

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Sorry, I don't understand. Has somebody PAINTED a Strad cello in '81 ?

Per a presentation given by staff of the Smithsonian at the VSA conference in 1999:

The cello in the quartet was not decorated by Stradivari.  Axelrod couldn't get a Strad decorated cello to complete his quartet.  (I believe there's only one authentic one out there.) So he took an existing non-decorated Strad cello, the Marylebone, and had decals -- not paint -- cover the ribs.  The pattern on the decals is the same vine-like pattern that covers the ribs of the violins.


How reversable the decals are, I don't know, but pulling off decals is probably easier than removing paint, I'm guessing.


The cello, by the way, is a cut down one, if that relieves anybody's anxieties. (It probably shouldn't)


Here's Cozio.com's info on the cello: http://www.cozio.com/Instrument.aspx?id=1432.


Check out Charles Beare's comments on what Betts did with the varnish.


PS: In the hands of the "right" owner who has enough money,  even the the Messiah Strad, I bet, could get a nice, shiny French polishing.

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