Aug 252014

Lerner Newspapers, 1976

This was the second of a three-part article profiling instrument makers in the Chicago area. The other two were violin maker Franz Kinberg and lute maker Richard Brune. I only found this part of the article when I visited the shop of Carl Becker & Son in the spring of 2014, when Carl Junior’s son, Paul, produced a copy for me.

Carl Becker says it’s all in the varnish. This maker of violins, violas and cellos takes great pains to get the lines and thicknesses of the wood precisely correlated to great old Guarneri and Stradivari models, but says it’s the secret formula of the varnish hat ultimately makes the difference.

“The varnish is a family matter,” says Becker, with a proud, sly smile. Applying the mysterious product takes two years. “A slow-drying varnish is very important to the tone,” he explains. “We never force the drying. An instrument has to sit for a year to season before we put the strings on.”

Becker’s whole business is a family matter. The official name is Carl Becker & Son, but the second floor operation at 1416 Belmont is now actually Carl Becker & Daughter. The senior Carl Becker died last summer, leaving “young” Carl and his daughter Jenny in charge.

Jenny has been working full time in the shop for four years, and has her eighth violin ready to glue together, after 120 hours of work on it. And 17-year-old Paul Becker is also beginning his move into the world of instrument making. “He shows talent,” says his father.

But almost everybody in the Becker family has shown that talent, and, as the current patriarch points out, “It’s enough to make you believe in heredity.” Becker’s great-grandfather, Herman Macklett, turned from upholstery to violin-making, and became quite well-known in the Chicago area before his death in 1884. Becker’s own grandmother specialized in rehiring bows, and his grandfather was an accomplished, German-trained violinist.

Becker’s father, THE Carl Becker in Carl Becker & Son, wasn’t born until 1887, but something in the genes had equipped him to follow the family example. And the present Carl Becker started making parts when he was 16. Except for a brief dream of becoming an airline pilot, he never has wavered from the instrument maker’s course.

The business now includes a good deal of restoring and repair work, appraising and some buying and selling. Restoration can be nerve-racking. One day last month, the Beckers had half a Stradivarius violin in one room and the other half in another room. Delicate repair work was under way, and father and daughter handled the priceless pieces gingerly.

The Beckers’ main interests, however, rest with making their own instruments, which range from $3,000 for a violin to $5,500 for a cello. The newest instrument to leave the Becker shop, a viola, was the 757th made by the last three generations. The family hasn’t been able to keep track of all its products, though Jenny is devoting a good deal of time to relocating Becker instruments, and getting them properly catalogued.

Some Beckers are easily found right here in Chicago, however. Margaret Evans, a cellist with the Chicago Symphony, has a Becker cello, and Adrian Da Prato plays a Becker violin.

There are eight Becker instruments in the Milwaukee Symphony, and others in the Cincinnati, Cleveland and Boston orchestras.

The current backlog of orders means that anyone who orders a new Becker violin, viola or cello in 1976 will have to cool his heels until at least 1980 or 1981. By then, there may even be a new Becker in the business that has gone, so far, through five generations.

Post-script: The Stradivarius violin mentioned above, though I didn’t know it until Paul told me in 2014, was the “Lady Blunt,” world-famous for being one of the few Strads that have hardly ever been played, and therefore, in almost totally mint condition. But I didn’t know that at the time, and when Carl Becker informed me, when I showed up to interview him, that he had just finished working on this instrument after two years, I asked if I could try it. “Sure,” he said. Thus I was (and am) one of the few people ever to play this precious instrument. It was auctioned in 2011 for $15.9 million, the most expensive instrument ever sold. The previous auction record for any instrument was $3.6 million for the “Molitor” Strad.