News item, September 2016:
In June 2011 Tarisio Auction House conducted the sale of the most well-preserved Stradivari in private circulation, setting a world record of $15.9 million in the process… Confronted by the tragic events of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear crisis, The Nippon Music Foundation made an extraordinary offer to assist in the recovery efforts of their native Japan. The Foundation pledged the entire proceeds of the sale to their Northeastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund. Tarisio was the only house considered for such an important and unique sale.
Few people have played this precious instrument, which Wikipedia calls “one of the two best-preserved Stradivarius violins in existence. It has survived, like the ‘Messiah’ Strad, in near-original condition since it has resided mostly in the hands of collectors and seen little use.”
Except that I, a very mediocre violinist, was one of its users. The Lady Blunt was named for an early owner, Lady Anne Blunt, who had an exceptional pedigree herself. She was the daughter of Ada Lovelace, considered the world’s first computer programmer, and granddaughter of the poet Byron.
In the 1970s I was working as an editor and reporter at Lerner Newspapers, a chain of Chicago and suburban community newspapers. I was doing a feature story on some of the pre-eminent local instrument makers and repairers, and called on Carl Becker Jr.
Becker lived on the north side of the city, and when I climbed up the stairs to his second-floor studio he greeted me with a violin he said he had been working on for two years.
“Here, try it,” he said, handing me the instrument. “It’s a Stradivarius. I just finished it today and I want to hear how it sounds.”
I must have told him, when I set up the interview, that I played. Just not very well. I started violin at the advanced age of 19, when, having just dropped out of the University of Illinois, I spent some of my newly freed-up time refurbishing an old, beat-up family fiddle and finding a teacher. He was a gracious old gentleman named Sam Arron with whom I came to have a strong connection, like a second father. As joyous as our lessons were, and as proud as Sam was of my progress, I still wasn’t very good.
Of course I hadn’t told Becker this. And I didn’t have to tell him I was nervous. Playing a Strad was the holy grail of any violinist, professional or amateur.
“Two years, such a long time. How come?” I asked anxiously.
He explained it wasn’t played much, and therefore needed a lot of work. He also said that because of its great value, extraordinary care was needed to recondition it. Becker had a great reputation as a maker and luthier (the fancy term for repairman), which explained why he was chosen to do the restoration work. He said every day, when he approached his work desk, and when he picked up, moved and handled the instrument, he made sure there was nothing in the way or on the floor that might cause him to trip and cause irreparable damage to the priceless violin.
He handed me a bow and I placed the instrument under my chin and sawed away on a few scales and several dozen measures of student pieces I had learned to play — old saws like Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile.
It sounded fantastic — crisp and clear, with a ringing, crystalline tone. I recall thinking, as I played high up on the bottom string, that it sounded as good in that awkward position as on the lower, friendlier positions. Fantastic! I handed it back to Becker and he seemed happy.
I wrote up the story (see “Carl Becker: Master Violin Maker” on this site) and later recalled the occasion with considerable pride. After all, not many amateurs (or even professionals) get to play a Stradivarius!
If only I knew. Several years ago, while shopping for a new instrument, I stopped by the Becker shop, now run by the late Mr. Becker’s son, Paul. I recounted the episode of the Strad his father restored. “Oh yeah,” he said casually, “that was the Lady Blunt.”