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Randall The Restorer

Non-European Lutherie in the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries

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The following may be useful to students of history and those identifying lesser known instruments by maker or region of manufacture (This is written for a wide audience of varying age-level and experience)

The violin world is highly Eurocentric; sometimes unreasonably so. This view can interfere with achieving the goals of makers, players, collectors and scholars.

Over the last 45 years I have seen, heard, and handled many well made, very old string instruments in major North American museums. Most of those violins, violas, and cellos were made by unknown amateurs and forgotten professionals in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec; New England, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, Tennessee and the Virginias.  Some were made for playing folk music. Some were made to play Bach. Some played both.

The quality of colonial workmanship by colonial-born craftspeople must never be discounted. The aforementioned colonial regions had sophisticated industries and music cultures in place long before Stradivari saw his first tree.

Provenance plays a huge role in identifying any object. Some subject instruments have a long history of being located in Europe or the UK. However the home address of the actual instrument is irrelevant to identification - people and things move both ways across oceans for all sorts of reasons.

Furthermore, knowing the specific wood species used in construction is no guarantee of an instrument's origin. Lumber exportation aside, we have had Acer platanaoides and Picea abies growing wild in North America for centuries - we call them Norway Maple and Norway Spruce.  Plus, the growing conditions of trees (terroir) in the Appalachian Mountains, and the Canadian Shield is very close to that of the Alps, the Dolomites, and the Carpathian Mountains (as per topographical and weather maps). 

I can only comment on the history of North American lutherie because I live Canada and have travelled throughout the eastern USA. However, it is most likely that my observations also apply to regions in the Southern Latitudes.

To conclude, many European violin scholars, makers and players hold to a Eurocentric view of the instrument, whether looking at the past, the present, or the future.  They would be wise to broaden their geographical horizons.

Sincerely,

Randy O'Malley , proud offspring of immigrant Irish and Ukrainian peasants

Lakeview, Ontario, CANADA

 

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"The aforementioned colonial regions had sophisticated industries and music cultures in place long before Stradivari saw his first tree."

Gosh! I'd love to hear about what sophisticated industries and music cultures there were in North America in the 17th century. Please enlighten us. Based on what I was taught, any settlers during the 1600's were pretty much doing subsistence farming, maybe a little local lumber, trapping, etc..

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Some Americans were making violins early in the 19th century, but most of them were very poor musical instruments even if the craftsmanship used to make some of them was good. Often all these "makers" had to work with was a drawing or picture.

It wasn't until the late 19th and early 20th century when European musicians began to tour America, bringing with them their fine Italian violins, that American makers began to see what fine violins actually looked like inside and out, and then they could copy them. Plus, there was an influx of European makers immigrating to America and setting up shops here.

So violins made in America did not really start to get "good" until this period, and now they are some of the very best in the world.

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So only an American actually born in America counts ?

George Gemunder 1st moved to New York in 1847 and his violins are pretty decent.  But he was a German  with American citizenship  and not a true American.

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In principle I agree that the view on violin making and its history is mostly focused on Europe .Until the 1980s even in Eurooe the view was pretty much limited to a  few countries and amongst European countries Italy is without question the most researched country for violin making history.

From the mid 80s new reference works focusing on out-of-the-radar countries like Spain , Hungary, Scotland, Sweden etc were published. But still, there are white spots on the map. {I would be very much interested in a book a polish or Rumanian or Bulgarian makers.)  

So not only Northern America is out of focus but certainly many more countries. I shouldn't forget to mention the land I am living in: Japanese violin making is out of focus too.

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As far as I know, the first really-good US violins were made by immigrants who were trained in Europe.  Gemunder, for instance. Prior to that, US made violins pretty much fell into the "folk art" category. Not that there might be some exceptions I don't know about.

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1 hour ago, jacobsaunders said:

Who for instance?

For instance, according to The American Violin (you have bought your copy by now, right?), the earliest known surviving New England violin was made by Simeon Snow in 1779. You can read more about early 19th century violin making here :  THE HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE, WORKING METHODS AND INSTRUMENTS OF IRA JOHNSON WHITE AND ASA WARREN WHITE

42 minutes ago, David Burgess said:

the first really-good US violins

I guess it depends on your definition of "first" and the dates. There were some American makers making good violins contemporaneously with the immigrant makers from Europe.

I am sure that some here would argue what the definition of "good" is, too, but that is the eternal argument.

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I would hate to disturb the chip on anybody’s shoulder, but the title of this thread says 17th, 18th, & 19th centuries. I think one may split the American violin makers of this time into 3 groups:

1. Self taught amateurs (including Irish and Ukrainian peasants), who range from ghastly to not bad.

2. Immigrants, who had already trained as violin makers in their home country. This becomes apparent about mid 19th. Century, when the craft of violin making was gradually becoming industrialised in Europe

3. Businessmen, who bought instruments in Europe (most often Markneukirchen) and inserted their own (American) label.

Were one to be fastidious, there will be some individuals who fit into more than one of these categories. I see no benefit of inventing a phoney 17th or 18th century Amarican violin making tradition.

 

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12 minutes ago, jacobsaunders said:

when I click on this link, I get a blank page. Don't suppose that means anything?

Access denied.

8 minutes ago, David Burgess said:

LOL, fair enough. ;)

Propaganda war.

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14 minutes ago, jacobsaunders said:

I would hate to disturb the chip on anybody’s shoulder, but the title of this thread says 17th, 18th, & 19th centuries. I think one may split the American violin makers of this time into 3 groups:

1. Self taught amateurs (including Irish and Ukrainian peasants), who range from ghastly to not bad.

2. Immigrants, who had already trained as violin makers in their home country. This becomes apparent about mid 19th. Century, when the craft of violin making was gradually becoming industrialised in Europe

3. Businessmen, who bought instruments in Europe (most often Markneukirchen) and inserted their own (American) label.

Were one to be fastidious, there will be some individuals who fit into more than one of these categories. I see no benefit of inventing a phoney 17th or 18th violin making tradition.

 

Violins are a European thing for sure. Many modern American Makers whose families  came here centuries ago often point to the European traditions in their own making. 

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