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.