The Soul of a Fiddle
By Stewart Hendrickson

            I was recently given an old fiddle by a friend. This was his mother's violin, but it had a sad and traumatic history. His mother was not always sane and used the instrument to punish and put fear into her children. It was painful for my friend to even talk about this, and he wanted to be free of it, but also give it to someone who might love it and bring new life back into it.

            The violin was German made (labeled HOPF, but was not) at about the turn of the last century. Not a fine instrument but reasonably well made, it was purchased for his mother by her parents around 1920 in eastern Washington. She later used it to play in a Pentecostal Church orchestra (yes, there was such a thing!). My friend told me there was much violence at home, and the violin showed the effects. The neck had been broken at one time, pinned and repaired, as had also the peg box. The top had two bad cracks. One was well repaired, but the other was open and needed repair. The pegs did not fit well and the tail piece had broken off.

            I took the instrument to my luthier, who told me it was well worth restoring, particularly since I had gotten it for free. And the previous repairs were well done. When I told him of its sordid history he replied that he'd been credited with casting out demons from instruments, and would do his best with this. He also talked with the maker of my own violin, who lives in the Ozarks and presumably is a religious person, who said he would pray over the instrument and its restoration.

            To repair the crack, the top had to be removed. A few other minor cracks were repaired and the open seams sealed. With new pegs refitted in the peg box, new strings, a new bridge, tailpiece and sound post, and the finish polished, it looked quite handsome. When I drew my bow across the strings I knew it was worth it. Not the most beautiful or mellow sound, but it spoke well with a somewhat bright tone.

            I told my friend that I would keep the fiddle for now, and at some later time would give it to a deserving player who would love and take good care of it. In the meantime I would try to play it every day in order to get music back into the wood (it hadn't been played for many years). I also wanted to put good loving spirits into it to replace the demons that hopefully had been cast out.

            Now, I am not a religious or superstitious person, but I feel that an instrument such as this violin does have a soul (whatever that is). It has a history that reflects the music and feeling that has been put into it. It also reflects the craft and art of its maker. Each person who possesses it (does not own it, but is only a 'caretaker') can contribute in a good or bad way to its life. After all, violins can 'live' for hundreds of years, while their 'caretakers' live for only a fraction of that time. And violins need to be played, and not stuck away in a closet or under someone's bed.

            And then there's the love put into a handmade instrument by its maker, which speaks to an appreciative player and makes it more than simply a musical instrument.

While my hands are steady, while my eyes are good,
I will carve the music of the wind into the wood.

            Here’s a song by the English songwriter Tom Bliss. All he really knows about his old fiddle is that it was made in southern Germany or Austria in the 1930s, it has 'Paris' stamped on the bridge, and it was bought for him by his father in London in the 1960s. The rest is pure invention.

THE VIOLIN (Tom Bliss)

I was built in a back street in Salzburg,
In a dusty and candle-lit room,
By hands that understood music,
And timber and varnish and glue.
With a lifetime of skill in his fingers,
He stroked the first notes from my strings,
And my voice sallied out in the darkness,
And my soul first unfolded its wings.

And I was dancing, I was singing,
But my story is locked in my soul.
I can laugh to your tune, Cry for the moon,
But my silence sings loudest of all,
My silence sings loudest of all.

The star on the door told the story,
And he knew that the blackshirts would call.
When they dragged him away to the station
They snaffled me down off the wall.
Yes I played for their parties in Paris,
Where the jackboots kept time to the beat.
It was polkas and waltzes and mazurkas,
As all Europe lay bruised at their feet.

When the Allies rolled down into Paris,
The band made a run for the east.
But with a gun in the hands that had loved me,
My trooper fired back till the last.
Then a lad from the Kentucky mountains
Nicked his wallet, his watch and then me,
And the bluegrass was burning for Danville
In the barracks and down the NAAFI.

And with the peace I was back on the market,
Well, he'd a perfectly good fiddle at home.
I changed hands for two crates of Marlboro
And all over Europe did roam.
Then one rainy November in London,
With three silver balls,
A man noticed the price on my label
'You'll do for my lad' he said.

            Here’s what some friends have said: “I also believe that some instruments have souls. I can’t deny this fact as I've had several instruments that clearly had souls. And here's where words grow weak. What are we talking about when we talk about the soul of an instrument? Are we talking about it's sound, it's warmth, it's depth, it's feeling, it's brightness, it's clarity, it's responsiveness? We're really talking about ALL of those things, and more.”

            “I’ve been playing my dad's fiddle which I inherited. It is an incredible instrument built from a hand-picked log from an old log cabin in Colorado, by the fellow who taught my dad to fiddle, and it has an old German bow. I believe it is still imbued with my dad's talent and ability. Perhaps a part of his musical soul remained in its wood, for when I picked it up the very first time, it was as if I had never stopped practicing so many years ago. What I played sounded great. Whenever I pick it up to play I feel a strong connection with my dad and my playing shows it. Maybe its the better bow, maybe it's just a better fiddle, and maybe it is its soul and some of my dad. Whatever it is, it is beautiful.”

            An instrument needs to be played to keep its tone. The saddest thing is a violin lying unplayed in a museum. There’s a phenomenon of unused instruments 'going to sleep' reported in the violin literature. The crystalline resins in the wood may solidify and need to be broken down by playing, and the varnish may stiffen through lack of use.

            As I have played my ‘new old violin’ now for several months, I have noticed a definite change. The tone has mellowed out and the harshness has disappeared. It’s quite amazing. It had to be reminded that it’s a musical instrument again and not just a piece of wood. It’s becoming more like an old friend.


Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus – University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar;