Article The American Violin: From Jefferson to Jazz

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The American Violin: From Jefferson to Jazz
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Image: Stradivari violin
Shown here is a popular maple-backed Stradivari model violin. - Michael Zirkle Photography

By Denise Gallo

When thinking about the history and development of the violin, the names of great Italian makers such as Andrea Amati (1515-1580), Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Andrea Guarneri (1626-1698) come to mind. Yet, the role that Americans played in the violin's history is also significant.

This theme was highlighted in "The American Violin: From Jefferson to Jazz," a symposium and exhibition recently held at the Library and sponsored by the Library's Music Division together with the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers.

Beginning with Thomas Jefferson, who was a devoted violinist, the program traced the unique string traditions represented in American popular music, particularly jazz. During workshops and lectures, plus four concerts and a two-week exhibit of rare instruments and music manuscripts, instrument players and makers met one another and the public in casual and scholarly dialogue about the vital role the violin has played in American cultural life.

The cornerstone of the program was a three-day symposium, held April 6-8, marking the 25th anniversary of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. Susan Vita, acting chief of the Library's Music Division, opened the symposium by welcoming nearly 200 foundation members and other guests. She thanked the symposium organizers, who included John Montgomery, a governor of the federation; Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, the Music Division's instrument curator; members of the federation's board; and some Smithsonian Institution staff members.

"For these few days, we come together to celebrate violin- and bow-making," said Vita.

Presentations, concerts, lectures, exhibitions and impromptu performances marked the symposium on the violin in America, held in April. - Michael Zirkle Photography

In presenting a brief history of the Music Division and its collections, Vita mentioned the Library's Cremonese Collection of five Stradivari creations--three violins (1699, 1700 and 1704), a viola (1727) and a cello (1697), all of which Gertrude Clarke Whittall gave to the Library in 1935; a violin made by Nicolò Amati in 1654; and Fritz Kreisler's violin made by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù in 1733. Featured in the exhibit, all were models that helped modern North American makers replicate the masterpieces of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Also on display from the Library's collections was a set of five bows from the workshop of François Tourte, also a gift of Whittall.

"These instruments are much more than museum pieces," Vita said, explaining that the instruments are played regularly according to Mrs. Whittall's bequest, which helps support the world-renowned concert series held at the Library. She also noted that the modern-day instruments made by the makers attending the symposium help to keep alive the music housed in the Library's collections.

The symposium's keynote speaker was David Schoenbaum, professor of history at the University of Iowa and author of a soon-to-be-published social history of the violin. Schoenbaum stressed the importance the violin played in the cultural history of the United States, noting that between the mid-19th and early-20th centuries, no fewer than 3,500 American makers crafted string instruments and refined their art of violin-making. Unlike European makers, however, American luthiers have not been given equivalent respect, he told the audience. Yet, he said, today's violin as crafted in American workshops is the best it has ever been.

   Playing a violin   speaker at the symposium   playing the violin

Other speakers included violin researcher Chris Reuning, who elaborated on the various schools of American violin-making, and Joel Smirnoff, first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, who discussed the influences of jazz on classical music. The term "art music" was not clear to the general audience of the 20th century, he said. The paradox in playing jazz violin, he noted, was the necessary mixture of virtuosic technique and sheer spontaneity

In a lecture titled "Swinging on a String," Larry Appelbaum linked the violin to America's unique jazz culture. Appelbaum, supervisor of the Library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division's recording lab and a jazz specialist, spoke specifically about jazz violinists, combining history with anecdotes and illustrating his points with audio and video clips. He began with a film clip from "The King of Jazz" (1930), featuring violinist Joe Venuti in a hair-raising duet with guitarist Eddie Lang. Appelbaum pointed out Venuti's strong sense of rhythm and impish sense of humor, which he contrasted with the classically trained, immaculate left-hand technique of Eddie South, the so-called "dark angel of the violin."

Appelbaum also featured the work of two pioneering African-American jazz violinists--the highly expressive Stuff Smith and Duke Ellington's violinist Ray Nance. A riveting film clip of Nance with Ellington's Orchestra during a 1963 performance on Swedish television showed the seamless blend of high art with lighthearted entertainment. Another clip featured John Blake Jr. playing horn-like solos on his violin with pianist McCoy Tyner. Perhaps most fascinating was a clip featuring Mark Feldman, whose dazzling violin solo on Roberto Rodriguez's record "El Danzon de Moises" combined Cuban clave rhythms with Jewish klezmer and John Coltrane's "sheets of sound."

Appelbaum treated the audience to some jazz violin lore, such as the fact that New York Philharmonic violinist Harry Lookofsky became the first to figure out how to successfully play be-bop on the violin (as well as on the rarely heard tenor violin) and that Detroit-born fiddler Regina Carter became the first jazz musician to record a performance on the "Cannone," Nicolò Paganini's own violin, made by Guarneri.

In conjunction with the symposium, an exhibition of more than 30 stringed instruments was on view in the Northwest Pavilion of the Library's Jefferson Building. A collaboration between the Music Division and the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, the display aimed to increase public awareness of contemporary violin- and bow-making by illustrating their origin and history in traditions passed from European craftsmen to American artisans, who now are among the crafts' greatest practitioners.

Exhibition highlights included, in addition to the Library's rare instruments, Thomas Jefferson's 1751 annotated copy of Francesco Geminiani's "The Art of Playing on the Violin" and a 1759 John Antes violin, considered the oldest extant American-made violin. Other featured instruments were the 1924 Carl Becker violin (Chicago); Simone Sacconi's 1936 violin (New York); and William Moennig's 1945 viola (Philadelphia), made for the legendary violist William Primrose. The exhibition also included the fine works of American bow makers Edward Tubbs, Frank Kovanda and Frank Callier.

A special program, "Players Meet Makers," was held for four hours on April 8 in the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building. (See story on page 110.) This casual event allowed members of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers to meet and interact with more than 4,000 visitors, many of them young musicians.

Turtle Island String Quartet

In addition to the symposium and exhibition, four concerts, which were all part of the Library's 80th anniversary concert season, paid special tribute to the violin and to the Library's own instruments. In an opening April 6 program, the Turtle Island String Quartet played arrangements of jazz great John Coltrane, featuring his classic "A Love Supreme."

On April 7 the Juilliard String Quartet performed Schubert's Quartet in A minor ("Rosamunde"), Beethoven's Opus 131 in C-sharp minor and the Washington premiere of contemporary Argentine composer Alejandro Viñao's "Loss and Silence."

Elmar Oliveira, the sole American to win the Gold Medal at the Tchaikovsky International Competition and the first violinist to garner the coveted Avery Fisher Prize, performed at the third program on April 8. Accompanied by pianist Robert Koenig, Oliveira treated the audience to sonatas by Aaron Copland and John Corigliano, variations and capriccio by Norman Dello Joio, and Jascha Heifetz's arrangement of "Three Preludes for Violin and Piano" by George Gershwin. In keeping with the spirit of the conference, Oliveira announced that he would play his entire program with American violins and American bows. Using a different violin and bow for each of the four segments of the program, he described the differences of each for the audience.

Marking the close of the exhibition on April 20, the final concert featured fiddle player Jay Ungar and guitarist Molly Mason, whose work was heard by millions as the theme of Ken Burns' PBS documentary "The Civil War." Together, Ungar and Mason performed medleys of traditional fiddle tunes and sentimental ballads from the traditions that formed the basis of American folk and country music.

Denise Gallo is acting assistant head of Reader Services in the Library's Music Division.

Caption for the image (above right): Members of the Turtle Island String Quartet entertain a rapt Coolidge Auditorium audience while playing instruments from the Library's collections. - Michael Zirkle Photography

Originally published in the Library of Congress Information Bulletin, May 2006 - Vol. 65, No. 5.