Sep 102016

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.”

Lady Blunt Stradivarius

Lady Blunt Stradivarius

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 (0r 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.”



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.