Lev’s Violin by Helena Attlee

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The author was so taken with the violin in a Klezmer band playing in a small Welsh town that she spoke to Greg, the violin player after the performance. To explain its seductive depth and unsettling power, he described its “mongrel history.” ‘I’ve been told it was made in Italy at the beginning of the eighteenth century,’ he said, ‘but it came here from Russia. Everybody calls it Lev’s violin, after the guy who owned it before me.’ He invited her to look at it and she said it was “so weathered and streamlined that it looked like something you might find on the tideline of a beach, a bit of driftwood perhaps, a water-worn pebble or the sleek remains of some sea creature.” This set Helena Attlee off on a journey that absorbed four years of her life. In one of her meetings with Greg, he told her that before he owned it, during a time that Lev was loaning it to him, he took it to a Cremona-trained violin-maker to be valued. After a cursory glance, the dealer pronounced it worthless. Even after acknowledging it had a beautiful voice, he maintained it was absolutely worthless.

She writes about Cremona, Italy where the Amati, Guarneri, and Stradivarius families made the best of the best. Then we visit the forests of Alpine spruce in the Dolomites that produced wood for the bellies of the instruments and learn how the trees were harvested and brought down the mountains. Lev’s violin was described as a “church violin” and Attlee write about the growing role of violins in church worship since the mid-sixteenth century, then about their importance at the Medici Court in Florence in the eighteenth century, and how they came to be sold all over Europe. She describes a man named Tarisio who “packed six old Cremona violins into a sack in 1827, slung it over his shoulder and strode off towards Paris.”

As part of investigating the popular music that violins play, Attlee visited the Occitan valleys in Italy. It was in this section that I learned that the region Languedoc that was a department of France (back when I was in high school studying French) is part of Occitan which includes part of northwestern Italy. She met a man named Gianpiero Boschero who had been learning the traditional dance tunes from those valleys beginning in 1971 and had sparked the interest of young people in the music. That story echoes the resurgence of interest during the same time of “old time music and dance” in this country.

Having heard from Lev that he had bought the violin from a Roma in Russia, she explored Roma music, including visiting Santino Spinelli, a Roma academic and an accordion player. Here’s a Youtube link to his band, the Alexian Group. She learned from Lev that he had not assumed the violin was from Cremona, and that it was purchased at a market in Rostov. He played it in that city for about a decade, then emigrated, first to America, then to Scotland where he met Greg. They both played in the Scottish Opera orchestra. Eventually the violin became harder to keep in good repair.

One of the people Attlee came to know was Peter Ratcliff, a violin restorer who began to develop and use statistical data using tree ring growth data to identify the wood in a violin. ¬†With Greg’s permission she hired him to conduct a dendrochronology test on the violin. That report showed the belly of the violin was made from the wood of two trees felled in the mid-nineteenth century in Saxony. A well-known musician who had become a violin dealer recognized that it was made in a small German town that called itself the Cremona of Germany and had exported violins all over the world, including to Russia.

This was a fun meandering journey and I thank Mary Susan for sending me off on it.

Helena Attlee, Lev’s Violin, Pegasus Books, 2021, 224 pages (I read the kindle version). Not available in the public library.

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