Fiddles in the Family
Text and Photos: Fradley Garner
Tis God gives skill,
But not without men's hands:
He could not make
Antonio Stradivari's violins
(Marian Evans Cross)
Antonius Stradiuarius Cremonenus Faciebat Anno 1722 declares the label from the murky depths of my dear old violin. And peering through the sound hole at the Italian master's latinized name 40-odd years ago, I was ready to believe it. All I knew then was that the fiddle came from the attic of old family friends in New Jersey, who gave it to me when I was growing up in Newark.
Mads Hjorth, a young violinmaker in Copenhagen, admits to puncturing the romantic dreams of apprentices bent on becoming Stradivari's successor at his shop. Mads might not have burst the bubble for me a few summers ago, when I brought the instrument to Emil Hjorth & Sønner for repairs, if I hadn't asked him to look through the f-hole at the “Stradiuarius” label inside.
Mads glanced and smiled. He had already looked at the violin. “Two or three people come in here every day with a ‘Strad’ to show us,” he said. “I'd say this one was made in Germany. About, oh, 70 years ago.” Stradivari lived in Cremona, Italy, where he made his last violin and died at age 93 in 1737.
This April, Arne Hjorth turns 70 and steps out after 55 years at the luthier's bench. (He's taking it home with him.) His son Mads, 32, takes control of what he says is the world's oldest house of bowed instrument makers “which has gone from father to son so long.” Only one more general family enterprise, W.E. Hill & Sons of Buckinghamshire, England, is older.
The Danish dynasty traces its roots to the year of the French Revolution, 1789, when Mads’ great-great-great grandfather, Andreas Hansen Hjorth, moved to Copenhagen from his native Haderslev near the German border, in South Jutland. “He came to the Country with a heavy Pine TraveI Chest, now in Arne Hjorth's Possession,” wrote literary historian Jacob Paludan, “and he looked in high Measure as if he had come to stay.”
In short order this “Finisher of Stringed Instruments” became sole supplier to the Royal Opera Orchestra. Later he could add the coveted “Purveyor to the Royal Court” to his sign. Today there’s no violin-playing Danish royalty to purvey to, but bowed instruments created by this man's heirs are played in all the major orchestras of Denmark and in some of the great symphony orchestras of the world.
The owner of a real 1730 Stradivari has called the violin “that rare mixture, the synthesis of emotion and intellect, of passion and science.” No other instrument enjoys such universal appeal. Poets limn its charms. Scientists probe its every part, trying to explain its secrets and improve it. Collectors hoard it like a rare painting. Investors buy it to sell. Thieves steal and keep it. Musicians treat it with more tender loving care than many do their own children. In the hands of a concert virtuoso and many a street fiddler, a violin can spin a heady spell.
This child of Italy was conceived, some believe, by one parent during the Italian Renaissance, and it has changed hardly at all down the centuries. Was Andrea Amati (c. 1510-1580) the papa? Like Andreas Hjorth, he sparked a family calling. Amati also generated the Cremona genus of violinmakers that reached peak blossom in the velvety, mellow creations of Stradivari—Nicolo Amati's pupil and the Rafael of his art—and of Giuseppe Guarneri, eminent son of yet another dynasty, during the next century and a half. Craftsmen elsewhere followed the Cremonese prototypes; a few, especially in France and the Tyrol, distinguished themselves before the demand for violins outran the supply and the makers began to work faster.
Born in 1752, when Stradivari's own sons were producing fine instruments, Andreas Hjorth was influenced by the Mittenwald School in South Germany, harking back to the high center curvature and narrow margins of Nicolo Amati's graceful designs. The Dane, whose last name means “crown stag,” may have learned his craft on the road in Germany. When he opened shop in Copenhagen in those days of smelly streets and no house numbers, Hjorth’s sign marked his premises, first in Academigade (now Fredericiagade) and later in seven successive locations in the center of the rampart-and-moat-protected fortress capital.
Andreas’ heirs were more prone to stay put. After the 82-year-old patriarch died in 1834, string players have brought their precious charges to only four addresses—since 1964 to the canal front corner of Ny Vestergade and Frederiksholms Kanal, across the street from the National Museum. Arne Hjorth finds the secluded layout with a small warehouse across the cobblestone courtyard “roomier and quieter than what we had on Strøget,” the pedestrian mall where the shop had done business since 1853.
If Andreas were to walk into the workshop today, he would not feel out of his world. The violins and violas in various states of repair on benches and walls and the cellos standing on the floor look the way the whole string family has looked for three centuries. The frames and a good many of the tools hung neatly on the walls haven't changed that much either, though great-great-grandson Arne (“Senior” they call him and he indentifies himself this way on the phone) has said that nowadays “all the finest measuring tools we have in Copenhagen are made in Norway.”
Andreas might be pleased to see one of his own creations with the initials AHH branded inside. No removable maker’s labels for him or his tribe! He'd want to examine some prime Hjorth instruments from the later 19th and 20th centuries, too. Andreas may have known that his son Johannes built more business than violins. Grandson Emil, however, had it in his fingers and won the firm he named after himself international fame for his violins’ rare, sweet tone. But the memory of Emil's sons Otto and Knud, who died in 1950 and 1952, burns brightest in the hearts of old clients. The brothers’ creations reflect the French influence, again looking back to the elegant curvilinear models of Guarneri and Stradivari.
Stradivari, they say, could build a violin in a week. Two or three weeks is more like it today, although the larger viola takes longer, and the cello twice as long. A string bass is such a big unprofitable job that the firm has made only two in the last 126 years. But there’s no lack of wood out in the warehouse. “We still have wood from 1850,” says Mads, adding that earlier generations “all have bought wood” mainly in Germany and Switzerland: curly maple for the violin's back, sides and scroll; resonant pine for the “table” or top plate.
The only tree that's good for bowmaking, an art unto itself, is the phernambuko. The tree grows in Brazil. Blocks of it are curing on the shelves. Fritz Holmberg, a former cabinetmaker and relative newcomer to the firm, has a back-room bench of his own where he repairs and rehairs bows all day. “Fiberglass may come one day,” says the bearded artisan, “but not as a replacement for good wood—only as a substitute in the cheaper bows.”
Once made, the so-called “white” instrument has to dry awhile before varnishing. Violins built in the fifties are still hanging in the back of the shop. That's far more time than usually allowed for mellowing. The coats of varnish it gets and the climate the finished product dries in can make the difference between a fine fiddle and a masterwork. Stradivari's radiant creations are a flaming red-brown today. They seem to change color as the light plays over them. Still emulating the methods of the l8th-century Cremonese, many modern luthiers mix and apply their varnishes with the care of classical painters. Some do it in a warm, dry climate, gradually exposing the instrument to light and not rushing the process. Senior recalls his father Knud hanging freshly varnished violins on lines to dry in a netted cage in his own backyard near Copenhagen.
Andreas might want to know that since 1914, when records have been preserved, his heirs have fashioned some 500 instruments. But while hundreds have been repaired and restored in recent years, not one has been built by a Hjorth since 1969. The sad fact of the matter is that it does not pay, fast enough anyway. There are too many interruptions. There is too much repair work, which does pay. There are existing instruments and bows and accessories by many makers to trade, which pays best of all. And in the highest taxed country in the world, the cost of running a business behind Christiansborg Palace and paying a staff of seven means business or else.
Senior has traveled often around Scandinavia and elsewhere, buying stringed instruments, including Hjorth violins. Too often, especially in France, he’s found other labels glued over the Hjorth brand. Violinmaking, like all forms of art, has always been plagued by fakers and thieves. For as Senior has noted, “The really good instruments never decline in value. They just grow more and more precious with time.”
Mads might astound his ancestor, as he recently did this amateur, with the information that a good fiddle picked up for $50 about 50 years ago could command $5,000-$6,000 today. A nice $10 bow then might go for $3,000. Last year, the Ex. Hubermann Stradivari was auctioned in London for £159,500. By comparison, a good average violin at the Hjorth shop these days costs about $400. That kind of money plays better for most beginners. Connoisseurs may find an Antonius Gragnani violin from 1774, a Francois Lupot from 1778, and other rare old instruments.
Father and son agree, however, that the age of a violin or another stringed instrument, even if it’s centuries old, doesn't really matter. What's important, they insist, is that it be well built and played on. “It’s as if the small particles in its material really swing into place in time,” Senior has explained. And the craftsmen of Italy, France, Germany and England, where most single-maker violins originate today, would likely agree.
Look for an exasperated headshake from the followers of Carleen Maley Hutchins, an acoustics researcher and central force among violinmakers in the United States. In a landmark article in Scientific American, Mrs. Hutchins accused Stradivari's and Guarneri's successors of forming “a cult that has been plagued with more peculiar notions and pseudo science than even medicine.” Members of her Catgut Acoustical Society include physicists, engineers, chemists and musicians. They’re certain that science can pinpoint every nuance of a Strad’s or any other instrument's performance, and light the way to building even better ones. One member, Richard E. Menzel of Livingston, New Jersey, has an acoustics laboratory in his violin workshop. “I doubt if it does an instrument any good to play on it,” the former director of operations for Lockheed told me last summer.
Mrs. Hutchins defines the violin as “a set of strings mounted on a wooden box containing an almost closed air space.” To a European violinmaker, this is like calling sculpture “art you can walk around.” Arne Hjorth has pointed out that making a violin is very different from building a piece of furniture. A fine instrument, he says, must be made by one person, uninterrupted. And fashioned from the inside out. “One starts, so to speak, with the tone, and then builds it into an expensive shell.” Too many distractions and the maker ends up with an entirely different instrument than the one he had in mind. “It's like writing a letter. If you are interrupted, you lose the thread.”
Such talk, like references to “the mysterious inner life” of the great violins, falls like sour notes on empirical scientific ears. And the technological approach just amuses and saddens the old-world violinmakers. “You cannot measure beauty,” Senior told me with a knowing smile, adding that the scientific tools of his craft go all the way back to Galileo, who profoundly influenced the masters of Cremona a century later. But there can never be a formula for instrument making, he insists. No factory fiddle ever will match a one-maker masterwork. “The alpha and omega in this trade,” the Dane has said elsewhere, “is a feel for materials. And concentration!” His son, who learned the trade in the workshops of old-school French masters for three years and under his father for another two, is of the same mind. “The feeling for materials lies in the fingers,” says Mads. Every 10 fingers are unique and “no two pieces of wood are alike.”
On one point the two schools agree: If more young people don't go into violinmaking, future generations may have nothing left to argue about. The Hjorth shop no longer accepts first-year apprentices. Some places abroad still do, and there are a few schools for luthiers in southern Europe, but their enrollments are tightly limited.
Now that he's turning the business over to his son, Arne Hjorth plans to take home and varnish the 20 or so new “white” instruments hanging in the shop. “I've mixed a lacquer I think is right,” he told me. “It contains propelis, which is like bee's wax. Will it hold its color? I think so.”
Will the Hjorth dynasty survive into the 21st century? Senior is less sure about that. For one long-range reason, his only son has two young daughters but no son of his own to hand the business on to. Youth is on his side. There is also the example of Europe's oldest monarchy. In Denmark, the King's daughter seems to have matters very well in hand.
Fradley Garner, a frequent contributor to Scanorama, plays first violin in The Hamlet Strings in Denmark.
SCANORAMA, inflight magazine of Scandinavian Airlines System, April-May 1980.