Long ago and far away, my mom decided that I was going to be a violinist.
I have no idea where she got this notion. But she had it and she was going to make sure it came to pass. Determined, she was. Here at the right is the instrument in question. To see this photos and the others in this post fullsize, please just click on them.
How old are we when we start 2nd grade? Eight or so? That's how old I was when this outrageous resolve overtook my mom. I was already a big kid, too big and too clumsy to ever develop the deft touch required for such a sensitive instrument.
In fact, one of the men on the ranch where I was raised, watching me one day loading hay bales, told me, "Damn, boy, you're big enough to eat them bales!"
But never mind; violin lessons were on, provided by a very patient old gent called Mr. Carl Gordon. My mom drove me into Palmdale, the closest civilized outpost to the ranch, so that Mr. Gordon could assess any progress he found and invoke his mantra, "Jon, you must practice harder!"
I started with a 3/4-size instrument but quickly it became clear that I required a full-size fiddle. So my folks put out the word. It developed that an elderly woman who lived in Juniper Hills, to the south of the ranch, had one she wanted to sell.
I continued to practice (if I paused at all during my hour-long practice sessions, my mom would sing, from where ever she was in the house, "I can't heeaaar yooouu....) and take lessons from Mr. Gordon (I still have a thick notebook of music and exercises he had me working on) through the end of the 8th grade, at which time I was packed off to boarding school.
Once there, my folks met with music teacher Fred Lorenz, who to this day remains a dear friend, to ask about continuing my violin lessons. He told them he did not play strings, but he did play brass.
"Fine," my mom said, "this kid is now a brass player."
After Laura and I moved into this house 31 years ago, my folks hauled the thing out of an old closet, where they'd kept it stashed in its case with its bow, and gave it to me again.
Yep, my folks were pretty damned cool.
It's remained not just an object of beauty and musical potential, but also one of curiosity, for two reasons. First, the sticker inside the left-side f-hole says, "Nicolaus Amatus fecit in Cremona." Holy cow! Does this mean that it's an actual Amati?
A quick visit to Thomas Metzler Violin, an incredible place not far from here that contains all kinds and all sizes of wooden riches, confirmed that this violin is a pretty good one that was built in a factory in Germany sometime during the 19th century. It bears the label it does, the luthier at Metzler's told me, because it was patterned after one of Amati's instruments. He also told me that if it had been built in Italy, it would be very valuable. But it wasn't, so it isn't.
Anyway, it seems that the old luthiers all built their instruments a bit differently, with different dimensions, different construction techniques, and different arches to the tops and back, all in the hope of finding the perfect tone. So the label identifies this fiddle as something built to an Amati pattern.
But it also bears a label of a different kind, and this is the second thing that interests me. That label says, "M.J. Fritsch, 1895, July 8." It is engraved in beautifully formed capital letters into the flamed maple side of the upper-left bout. And if you don't click on any of the other photos here to enlarge them to fullsize, please do click on this one. You will see the engraved identification I'm writing about.
Who is M.J. Fritsch? Was it the woman from whom I obtained this instrument? Was it perhaps her husband or brother? Why did he or she mark this instrument? Did he/she obtain it on July 8, 1895? Or did that date mark a special occasion?
There's just no way to know.
In any event, now, more than 115 years after M.J. Fritsch took pen-knife to maple, this old fiddle is still as solid as can be and, in the right hands — any hands but mine — it still sounds really fine, with a brilliant, warm soprano voice that is as smooth and expressive as fine wine.
From time to time I'm tempted to take it down to Metzler's to see if they can sell it for me; I always can use the cash. But no. I've had my brilliant old S.S. Stewart banjo, built in the mid-1880s and probably a survivor of the San Francisco Earthquake, for 56 years, and I'm proud to have hung onto it for that huge amount of time. But I've owned this violin for an even longer stretch. So I'll hang onto it, too. Some things just become part of one's life.
I'm 72 now and slowly but inexorably approaching my expiration date. I have no idea what will happen to my fiddle, or for that matter, my old Stewart, when that inevitability occurs. That will be Laura's problem. I hope she can find a deserving and talented student who can put that "not-an-Amati" to good use.
These days my violin is played only when someone like my pal Kicenski, another boarding-school survivor/refugee and a pretty good fiddler, visits and is lubed by a glass or two of chardonnay. The rest of the time it sits in mantel-top repose, held in position by strong earthquake putty, merely looking beautiful. And that is a fine and wonderful thing for it to do.