Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - Fiddles and the Fiddle-Trade

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No man who is not a fiddler can be fully aware of the virtues that reside in a fiddle. To the majority of mankind, the thing is but a vibratory machine of thin wood, furnished with tightened strings of catgut for the production of musical sounds ; and the non-fiddling portion of the community are apt to entertain a derogatory notion both of fiddles and fiddlers, as though there were something unaccordant with the dignity of human nature in the production of melody by shaking the elbow and twiddling the fingers. Not that they by any means object to the result produced, or refuse to listen to the harmonious combination of sounds which horsehair and resin elicit, or refrain at all times from responding to the invitation of the music by tripping through the mazes of the delightful dance but they wouldn't be seen to operate themselves ; they could not submit to be themselves the fiddlers. A small section of society - a dismal, dolorous, and drab-hearted community - go still further. With them, the terms "to play the fiddle" and "to play the fool" are synonymous ; the notes of a fiddle-string sound irreligiously in their ears, and they look upon fiddlers as persons in highly equivocal, not to say dangerous position. But the truth is, these people don't know what a fiddle is. I do, and I have therefore the advantage of them.
    I am the owner of a Straduarius which cost me nearly 200, and is worth more than double the money. I have insured it in the "Equitable" for the sum it cost - I couldn't rest in my bed till I had done so. How it came [-289-] into my possession - what risks I ran - what sacrifices I made to get it - what danger I was in of losing it for ever : these are particulars which I may record at some future time. At present, I am about to say something of fiddles and the fiddle-trade in general, for the benefit of the world at large and my brother-amateurs (I am not a professional musician) in particular.
    All the world - at least all the musical world - knows that the finest fiddles which the art of man has ever achieved, were made by the Cremonese masters 200 and odd years ago. What all the world does not know so well is the fact, that though these masters, Amati, Straduarius, and the rest, made but comparatively few instruments, these have been somehow so miraculously multiplied since their death, that at the present moment, when, according to the ordinary course of things, they ought almost to have vanished from the earth, they abound in such prodigious numbers, that there is not a dealer in one of the great cities of Europe who has not always one or two specimens at least upon hand to dispose of. I am of opinion that this is owing, not so much to the merit of the Cremona fiddles, transcendently excellent as most of them are, as it is to the existence of a class of men of whom the reader knows but little or nothing. It is with the great fiddle-makers as with the Raphaels, Titians, Correggios, and Rembrandts, in another art their works are so tremendously in request among the connoisseurs, that they have to be manufactured anew to meet the demand. It is the credulity and ignorance of the collectors which have instigated the forgeries in both cases.
    As your connoisseur in art is never a painter, though he knows the constituents of megilp, and can daub a bolster-looking cloud ; so your connoisseur in fiddles is never a performer, unless the ability to rasp a quadrille or a polka is to entitle him to that designation. But the collector of fiddles, it is probable, derives as much pleasure from his [-290-] accumulations as his brother of the studios. He gloats over the torso of an old instrument, and feels the same raptures on contemplating the graceful swell of the "belly," as my lord-connoisseur does in the presence of an antique marble or a Venus of Titian. And as there are rival connoisseurs in art who bid and buy franticly against one another so are there rivals in the fiddle-mania who do precisely the same thing. One consequence of this is, that fiddle-dealing is a snug money-making profession, the more pretentious branch of which is monopolised in London by a few old stagers, but which is carried on profitably in all the large towns. There is, for instance, Old Borax, whom those who want him know whereabouts to look for - within the shadow of St. Martin's Church.
    Borax makes but little demonstration of his wealth in the dingy hole that serves him for a shop, where a double-bass, a couple of violoncellos, a tenor or two hanging on the walls, and half-a-dozen fiddles, lying among a random collection of bows, bridges, coils of catgut, packets of purified resin, and tangled horsehair in skeins, serve for the insignia of his profession. But Borax never does business in his shop, which is a dusty desert from one week's end to another. His warehouse is a private sanctum on the first floor, where you will find him in his easy-chair reading the morning-paper, if he does not happen to be engaged with a client. Go to him for a fiddle, or early him a fiddle for his opinion, and you will hardly fail to acknowledge that you stand in the presence of a first-rate judge. The truth is, that fiddles of all nations, disguised and sophisticated as they may be to deceive common observers, are naked and self-confessed in his hands. Dust, dirt, varnish, and bees-wax are thrown away upon him ; he knows the work of every man, of note or of no note, whether English, French, Dutch, German, Spaniard, or Italian, who ever sent a fiddle into the market, for the last 200 years ; and he will tell you who is the fabricator of [-291-] your treasure, and the rank he holds in the fiddle-making world, with the utmost readiness and urbanity - on payment of his fee of one guinea.
    Borax is the pink of politeness, though a bit of a martinet after an ancient and punctilious model. If you go to select a fiddle from his stock, you may escape a lecture of a quarter of an hour by calling it a fiddle, and not a violin, which is a word he detests, and is apt to excite his wrath. He is never in a hurry to sell, and will by no means allow you to conclude a bargain until he has put you in complete possession of the virtues and the failings, if it have any, of the instrument for which you are to pay a round sum. As all his fiddles lie packed in sarcophagi, like mummies in an Egyptian catacomb, your choice is not perplexed by any embarras de richesses ; you see but one masterpiece at a time, and Borax will take care that you do see that, and know all about it, before he shows you another. First unlocking the case he draws the instrument tenderly from its bed, grasps it in the true critical style with the fingers and thumbs of both hands a little above the bridge, turning the scroll towards you. Now and then he twangs, with the thumb of his left hand, the third or fourth string, by way of emphasis to the observations which he feels bound to make - instinctively avoiding, however, that part of the strings subject to the action of the bow. Giving you the name of the maker, he proceeds to enlighten you on the peculiar characteristics of his work ; then he will dilate upon the remarkable features of the specimen he holds in his bench - its build, its model, the closeness and regularity of the grain of the wood of which the belly was fashioned ; the neatness, or, wanting that, the original style of the purfleing - the exquisite mottling of the back, which is wrought, he tells you, "by the cunning hand of nature in the primal growth of the tree" - twang. Then he will break out into placid exclamations of delight upon the gracefulness of the swell - twang - [-292-] and the noble rise in the centre - twang - and make you pass your hand over it to convince yourself: after which, he carefully wipes it down with a silk handkerchief. This process superinduces another favourite theme of eulogium - namely, the unparalleled hue and tone (of colour) imparted by the old Italian varnish - a hue he is sure to inform you, which it is impossible to imitate by any modern nostrums - twang. Then he reverts to the subject of a fiddle's indispensables and fittings discourses learnedly on the carving of scrolls, and the absurd substitution, by some of the German makers, of lions' heads in lieu of them hinting, by the way, that said makers are asses, and that their instruments bray when they should speak - twang. Then, touching briefly on the pegs, which he prefers unornamented, he will hang lingeringly upon the neck, pronounce authoritatively upon the right degree of elevation of the finger-board, and the effects of its due adjustment upon the vibration of the whole body-harmonic, and, consequently, upon the tone. Then, jumping over the bridge, he will animadvert on the tail-piece after which, entering at the S-holes - not without a fervent encomium upon their graceful drawing and neatness of cut - twang - he will introduce you to the arcanum mysterii, the interior of the marvcllous fabric - point out to you, as plainly as though you were gifted with clairvoyance, the position and adaptation of the various linings, the bearings of the bass-bar, that essential adjunct to quality of tone - twang - and the proper position of the sound-post. Lastly, he will show you, by means of a small hand-mirror throwing a gleam of light into its entrails, the identical autograph of the immortal maker - Albati, Guinarius, or Amati, as it may happen - with the date printed in the lean old type, and now scarcely visible through the dust of a couple of centuries, "Amati, Cremonae Fecit 1645," followed by a manuscript signature in faded ink, which you must take for granted.
    [-293-] Borax has but one price and if you do not choose to pay it, you must do without the article. The old fellow is a true believer, and is accounted the first judge in Europe ; fiddles travel to him from all parts of the continent for his opinion, bringing their fees with them and for every instrument he sells, it is likely he pronounces judgment upon a hundred. It is rumoured that the greatest master-pieces in being are in his possession.
    A dealer of a different stamp is Michael Schnapps, well known in the trade, and the profession too, as a ravenous fiddle-ogre, who buys and sells everything that bears the fiddle shape, from a double-double bass to a dancing master's pocketable kit. His house is one vast warehouse, with fiddles on the walls, fiddles on the staircases, and fiddles hanging like stalactites from the ceilings. To him the tyros resort when they first begin to scrape ; he will set them up for ten shillings, and swop them up afterwards, step by step, to ten or twenty guineas, and to ten times that amount if they are rich enough and green enough to continue the experiment. Schnapps imports fiddles in the rough, under the designation of toys, most of which are the productions of his peasant-countrymen bordering on the Black Forest; and with these he supplies the English provinces and the London toy and stationers' shops. He is, further, a master of the fiddle-making craft himself, and so consummate an adept in repairing, that nothing short of consuming fire can defeat his art. When Pinker, of Norwich, had his Cremona smashed all to atoms in a railway collision, Schnapps rushed clown to the scene of the accident, bought the lot of splintered fragments for a couple of pounds, and in a fortnight had restored the magnificent Straduarius to its original integrity, and cleared 150 guineas by its sale. But Schnapps is a humbug at bottom - an everlasting copyist and manufacturer of dead masters, Italian, German, and English. He has sold more Amatis in his time than Amati himself ever made. He [-291-] knows the secret of the old varnish he has hidden stores of old wood-planks of cherry-tree and mountain-ash centuries old, and worm-eaten sounding boards of defunct harpsichords, and reserves of the close-grained pine hoarded for ages. He has a miniature printing-press, and a fount of the lean-faced, long-forgotten type, and a stock of the old ribbed paper, torn from the fly-leaves of antique folios ; and, of course, he has always on hand a collection of the most wonderful instruments at the most wonderful prices, for the professional man or the connoisseur.
    "You vant to py a pfeedel," says Schnapps. " I sall sell you de pest - dat ish, de pest for de mowny. Vat you sall gif for him?"
    "Well, I can go as far as ten guineas,'' says the customer.
    "Ten kinnis is goot for von goot pfeedel; bote besser is tventy, tirty, feefty kinnis, or von hunder, look you; bote ten kinnis is goot - you sall see.''
    Schnapps is all simplicity and candour in his dealings. The probability is, however, that his ten-guinea fiddle would be fairly purchased at five, and that you might have been treated to the same article had you named thirty or forty guineas instead of ten.
    I once asked Schnapps if he knew wherein lay the excellence of the old Italian instruments. 
    "Mein Gott!" said he, "if I don't, who do teifil does?"
    Then he went on to inform me, that it did not lie in any peculiarity in the model, though there was something in that ; nor in the wood of the back, though there was something in that ; nor in the fine and regular grain of the pine which formed the belly, though there was something in that ; nor in the position of the grain, running precisely parallel with the strings, though there was something in that nor in the sides, nor in the finger-board, nor in the linings, nor in the bridge, nor in the strings, nor in the waist, though there was something in all of them [-295-] nor yet in the putting together, though there was much in that.
    "Where does it lie, then, Mr. Schnapps ?"
    "Ah, der henker! hang if I know.''
    "Has age much to do with it, think you?''
    "Not moshe. Dere is pad pfeedels two hunder years ole as vell as goot vons: and dere is goot pfeedels of pad models, vitch is made ferv pad, and pad pfeedels of de fery pest models, and peautiful made as you sall vish to see.''
    This is the sum-total of the information to be got out of Schnapps on that mysterious subject. On other matters he can pronounce with greater exactness. He knows every Cremona in private or professional hands in the whole kingdom; and where the owner bought it, if he did buy it, and what he gave for it; or from whom he inherited it, if it came to him as an heir-loom. Of those of them which have passed through his hands, he has got facsimiles taken in plaster, which serve as exemplars for his own manufactures. Upon the death of the owner of one of these rarities, Schnapps takes care to learn particulars; and if the effects of the deceased come under the hammer, he starts off to the sale, however distant, where, unless some of his metropolitan rivals in trade have likewise caught the scent, he has the bidding all his own way, and carries off the prize.
    Fiddle-making, as a branch of industry, is not a very remunerative employment, and those who follow it in London are but few, and are growing fewer. The whole number hardly amounts to half a score; and though there are not wanting among them men who can manufacture excellent instruments, yet the staple of their productions is a kind of regulation article, which does not command a high price, and serves, for the most part, to supply the demands of the counties and the colonies. The best English instruments, however, deserve a better character than they bear. Some of the old provincial makers, needy men, who perform the [-296-] entire work with their own hands, have produced fiddles almost rivalling the old Cremonas in tone, and excelling them in workmanship ; and I have seen some few specimens of this class realise by auction fifteen times the amount paid for their manufacture. The inundation of German fiddles, which may be bought new for a few shillings, has swamped the English makers of cheap instruments, of which there are by this time five times as many in the market as there is any occasion for. Hence it is that fiddles meet us everywhere ; they cumber the toy-shop they house with the furniture dealer ; they swarm by thousands in the pawnbroker's stores, and block out the light from his windows ; they hang on the tobacconist's walls ; they are raffled at public-houses ; and they form an item in every auctioneer's catalogue.
    Meanwhile, the multiplication of rubbish only enhances the value of the gold ; and a fiddle worthy of an applaudling verdict from old Borax is more difficult of acquisition than ever. So I shall keep my Cremona.