The Violin Master
Among violinmakers, the preeminent competition is the Stradivari Triennale, an international event held every three years in Cremona, Italy, birthplace of the instrument and its most famous creator, Antonio Stradivari. In its 40 years, only one American violin has ever won the contest. It was made by a man named David Gusset, in 1985. At the time, American fiddles were widely seen as inferior to their European counterparts. Gusset, then a lean 34-year-old with a shock of red hair, changed that when he shipped a violin off to Italy only two days after he’d finished varnishing it in his San Francisco workshop.
The world of violinmaking is small and crowded and, unless you have some reason to intersect with it, obscure. “Unless Antonio Stradivari had a good social media presence,” says Joan Balter, the luthier of the Aspen Music Festival, “we would not really know who he was today.” Gusset does not have a good social media presence. He works in a 19th-century carriage house in Eugene, Oregon, owns a 1985 Toyota Tercel, cooks on a 1930s stove, purchased a cellphone only two years ago, and has a reputation for being standoffish.
When I recently pulled up to Gusset’s house, he was parking his Tercel, which had an old wooden trailer hitched to its back. Later, he was planning to pick up some cedar shingles to rebuild the carriage house’s roof. “I like things that are handmade by people who have an artistic vision,” he told me. “That doesn’t exist as much in the U.S. anymore.” He is still lean, but his hair is now mostly gone. His hands are muscled, the sort of hands you might associate with a shipbuilder or stonemason rather than the maker of a delicate and precise instrument, and his fingernails hold deep lines of dirt.
He led me back to his studio. Violins hung off racks, wood shavings covered the floor, and gouges and planes lay on tables. In one corner stood a box that resembled a refrigerator — an ultraviolet light box used to tan instruments. Beethoven piano concertos were playing. An apprentice looked up briefly before turning back to smooth the neck of a violin with a hand tool.
Three of Gusset’s in-progress fiddles were propped up on a worktable. One was what’s known as a “bench copy” — in this case, a replica of a Stradivarius. Gusset had spent time with an original Strad, drawing it on large sheets of paper in minute detail, and was now creating a duplicate for a concertmaster of a major American symphony. Everything about it mirrored the original, down to the nicks in the varnish and the bear-claw-like pattern on the instrument’s top.
Gusset makes only about four violins a year, which sell for between $25,000 and $35,000 — a standard price range for a violin built by a master. Name recognition matters in the ultracompetitive world of violin soloists and concertmasters. That Gusset has a gold medal from the Triennale as well as three from the Violin Society of America allows him to charge a premium. “If I make a violin, I can sell it,” he told me. “I don’t feel pressure to do other things.”
Among violinmakers and musicians, you hear a similar refrain: Gusset’s instruments exhibit an obsessive level of craftsmanship and sound old. That’s a high compliment in his world. Violinmakers are a conservative bunch, and Gusset hews to the past more strictly than most. He’s of the mind that the instrument’s architecture was perfected in 17th- and 18th-century Cremona. “I think it’s more important to preserve the finest of the past,” he said.
It’s difficult to think of a field that’s more resistant to being hacked than Gusset’s. History has been cruel to makers who have baked their wood, built tiny higher-octave violins, or tried wildly shaped bass bars. The most universally accepted adjustments of the past century have been a slight tilting of the neck angle and the elevation of the fingerboard by approximately a millimeter. These days, some makers are using computerized routers to automatically carve the tops and backs of instruments. Gusset calls this “making the same instrument over and over again.” He prefers hand gouges and planes, which guarantee that each instrument has its own life. “Every part of the instrument should be vibrating,” he said. I didn’t bother to ask him what he thinks of French engineers producing violins with a 3-D printer.
I showed Gusset one of my violins, which was made fairly recently by an American luthier and cost a fraction of what his go for. His appraisal was frank. “It could be a mandolin,” he told me. “It’s just a lump. There’s no structure to the architecture. It’s bulgy.” He then reached to the rafters and handed me an instrument. “That’s a Vuillaume,” he said — meaning a violin by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, the great 19th-century French maker. Instruments are deeply personal. Some fit certain musicians’ styles, and some don’t. I played the Vuillaume tentatively. It was so bright and loud I had trouble working my way around it. Nerves may have been a factor. Vuillaumes can cost a quarter of a million dollars.
Only two of Gusset’s finished violins were in the studio. The first, built in 1993, was loosely modeled off one of Stradivari’s violin forms. I could work my way around it. It was easy to play, with a big sound that changed up and down the fingerboard. The lines on the instrument were beautiful, the varnish warm, the timbre rich.
Gusset’s second violin was a copy of an instrument by Santo Serafino, an 18th-century Venetian maker. Gusset built this one in 1980. I don’t know how to play Beethoven, so I played a couple of fiddle tunes, then Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues.” This one felt right. A bowed note hung in the air, bounced around the room, then changed and hung around some more. It sounded alive. It sounded old.