Monthly Archives: November 2019

Carl Frederick Becker: the dean of American violin making

The 17th and 18th centuries produced the Stradivariuses. But the 20th and 21st centuries had Chicago violinist Carl Fredrick Becker.

The Chicago Fine Arts Building, a jewel of the City of Wind a few steps from the Symphonic Center and home to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is home to Carl Becker & Son. The company now employs a fifth generation in the Becker family, which produces excellent violins, violas and cello.

But perhaps the best known among the Becker family is Carl Frederick Becker (1919-2013), who was the second generation of the family to become a violinist. His father, Carl G. Becker, was also a violinist (and also made cellos) in the employment of William Lewis & Son in Chicago. But while the two worked together for more than 20 years (1948-1968), they did not open their own store under the name of the Becker family until 1968, just seven years before Elder Becker died. Together, they made more than 500 instruments.

Although Carl Becker Jr. only manufactured 13 instruments by himself, he was recognized among violinists and string instruments for his ability to repair and restore violins. He is credited with having restored the Stradivarius “Lady Blunt”, using a method of applying light pressure and some water at room temperature in a small dimple in the center of the violin.

Becker influenced several notable modern violinists who trained with him before his death in 2013, including Peter Beare, Charles Rufino, Samuel Zygmuntowicz and Eric Benning.

“He made these little mini brass bars that would exert a very slight pressure on the dent, pushing it out. I would moisten it very slightly with water and apply the slightest pressure,” says Charles Rufino, a New York luthier who spoke to The Violinist after Becker’s death in 2013. “He didn’t have to warm it up or do anything destructive or threatening. He worked like that all the time.”

During his 76-year career, Becker developed a sense of the relationship between the human musician and the “live” instrument. Ruffino noted that “Carl’s whole focus was: make it sound great and make it comfortable for the musician,” he says. “There is a great deal of arcane knowledge that makes an instrument comfortable.”

Becker’s great nephew, violinist Eric Benning, described his training with Becker as marked with a quality of accuracy. “One day I tried to assure him by saying: ‘I will be careful.’ Carl stopped me and said,” I don’t want you to be careful. I want you to be sure. “There is a world of difference between the two,” Benning said. “It was a vital perspective to share at that time. I’m always attentive to differentiation.”

Another principle of Becker’s approach was to treat the repair of a violin as an engineering project. He dominated the distribution of tension by manipulating the pressure of the strings, changing the angles of the neck, altering specific points on the fretboard and adjusting the sound post and the bridge.

The line of musicians and instrument makers of the Becker family goes back to Carl Jr.’s grandparents, who lost their first violin shop in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Today, the children and grandchildren of Carl Becker Jr. work in the Fine Arts Building. Store, some as luthiers, others in the aspects of business administration of the company.

Bow Making Port Townsend: The Mirecourt of the United States

Violins, violas and cellos receive all the attention. They are the main instruments of the orchestra; they are played by the most recognized string musicians (rare exception: Yo-Yo Ma and his cello). When he sees a violinist traveling at an airport, the shape of the box reveals the nature of the content, but that form says nothing about the accompanying bow. An arc for all string instruments is commonly considered an appendix, a support player at best.

But that is for the unconscious, not trained, not a musician. Consumed violinists, alive and missing, such as Joshua Bell, Lindsey Stirling, Fritz Kreisler, Giuseppe Tartini, Antonio Vivaldi, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Hilary Hahn and Leila Josefowicz, know that the bow is as essential as the instrument itself. That’s why the bow makers of Port Townsend, Washington, are so important among contemporary musicians and music lovers. But not only looking for violin bows.

Those bow makers include Kanestrom Bows, a store run by Norwegian native Ole Kanestrom, preceded by Charles Espey and Paul Martin Siefried. A promising young man is Cody Kowalski, who was an apprentice to Espey and has already won international medals for his crafts. Siefried learned his trade in his native Los Angeles, but moved to Port Townsend in 1991, attracted by the natural environment of the coast.

The arches are made of increasingly rare pernambuco, which comes from trees that grow only in the coastal forests of Brazil. The laws of the economy tell us that the rarer a supply of something, the higher the price (assuming that thing is of valuable utility, which is certainly an arc) But those same laws suggest that if something reaches a price high, it will attract other manufacturers that will increase the offer and lower the price.

It is not likely that a price drop will occur in the short term. These are not easy to make, they cannot be manufactured of such quality with machines, and the dedication to this craft, as seen in the archers of Port Townsend (what is called bow makers, the counterpart of the violin makers, which they are called luthiers).

That job begins with a conversation between archetier and the violinist (also cellos, viola and viola da gamba). This is because an arc is very personal, and where an arc can work with the style and art of one player, it may not be for another; an arc that can be handled through a bright glow might be less capable of producing the expected sound in a low-register sound passage. The important characteristics are balance, sensation and weight. The ropes, made of mane, also matter, but they will be replaced many times during the long life of the bow.

So why Port Townsend? The archers and violinists in Mirecourt settled in the city of northeastern France as early as 1629, partly due to the guild system of master craftsmen and their apprentices. Port Townsend also has its experts, Kanestrom, Espey, Siefried and Kowalski, which attract both customers and apprentices. In a global supply system of pernambuco, ebony and silver (for the arch frog) and mane, the location is less important than the presence of master teachers.

Port Townsend is also an enclave of artists, which undoubtedly contributes to its place in the elaboration of this essential part of the string instruments. After all, isn’t it the end result of artisan work, good music, a better archer?