Tuesday, May 3, 2016

An American Woman in the City of Violins

Carleen Hutchins measuring the thickness of a violin plate, ca. 1960. Images courtesy of Hutchins estate.

by Quincy Whitney
author of American Luthier: Carleen Hutchins—the Art & Science of the Violin

Cremona, Italy, October 1997. Standing in Piazza Lodi, I felt a ­mixture of excitement and frustration at the realization that my husband Eli and I had clearly reached a dead-end. We had veered off the beaten path of an itinerary we had planned for an anniversary trip to Italy in order to take in the City of Violins, at the suggestion of Carleen Hutchins, whom I had met just a month before. We were now evidently quite lost.

I met Carleen because of a stranger sitting next to me at the New Hampshire Humanities Council annual dinner who, upon hearing that I was a Boston Globe arts reporter covering New Hampshire, said I should contact a violinmaker who summered up on Lake Winnipesaukee. Nevertheless, when I took up her lead, the most significant interview I ever conducted was almost the fish that got away. When I phoned Hutchins to ask for an interview, she turned me down flat. In fourteen years, I had never come across an artist, educator, historian, or scholar who did not want free publicity. I soon discovered that Carleen Hutchins seldom did the predictable thing. Taken aback by her refusal, I hung on the phone, contemplating my next move. Suddenly, Hutchins blurted out: “What’s your angle?” No one had ever asked me about “my angle” before. With no time for a clever comeback, the first thing that came to mind was the truth—I told her I was fascinated by stories where science and art overlap. Bingo. The door opened. “That’s exactly what I do,” Hutchins said. “When do we talk?”

Two weeks after my feature appeared in the Globe in August 1997, Hutchins phoned to ask if I would consider writing her biography. Tired of weekly deadlines and intrigued by the idea of a larger project, I still wondered if everything she had told me could possibly be true, as her story seemed too remarkable to be real. Just a month later in October 1997, a serendipitous trip to Italy cast away all doubt. When Hutchins found out that my husband and I were going to Italy, she asked if we would mind visiting Cremona, “City of Violins” and the birthplace of Antonio Stradivari, as she was bent on tracking down an old friend who had moved his workshop—Maestro Francesco Bissolotti. “Bisso,” as Carleen called him, was one of two master luthiers who in 1937 had founded the city’s prestigious violinmaking school in honor of the two hundredth anniversary of Stradivari’s death. Hutchins wanted to send him Research Papers in Violin Acoustics 1975–1993, the definitive collection she had just finished editing.

Now here we stood in Piazza Lodi. After hiking up the stairs to Bisso’s abandoned workshop, which held no clue as to a forwarding address, we had reached an impasse. As we sat in our rental car, ready to pull away, two students crossed the piazza, one carrying what looked to be a violin case. I approached the student who had stopped at a pay phone on the edge of the piazza, and in my struggling Italian, I said, “Bissolotti.”

“Bisso?” he said suddenly in broken English as he hung up the phone. “We have never met Maestro Bissolotti, but we have come to Cremona today to buy a viola!” The four of us meandered down a cobblestone street as if feeling our way in the dark, until two Japanese gentlemen appeared out of nowhere, asking, “Bisso?” We followed them to an archway leading to a small courtyard, through an open wrought iron gate, into a smaller courtyard, where we found ourselves pulling the knocker on an old door covered with peeling green paint.

We were ushered into the outer room of the workshop of “Bisso,” a short man with a mustache and winning smile, who immediately began speaking Italian to the student bent on purchasing a viola. Bisso knew not a word of English, but when I presented a letter signed by Hutchins, his face lit up. He motioned for one of his apprentices, Lorenzo Cassi, to accompany us on a tour of the Palazzo Comunale. When I asked Lorenzo if he knew of Hutchins, he replied: “I have never met her, but we have read every paper she has ever written!”
Carleen Hutchins, ca. 1990.

To find the Collezione Civica in the Palazzo Comunale, one need only look for the tall bell tower in the heart of Cremona. Inside the galleries, glass display cases house the earliest known violin, made in 1566 by Andrea Amati—the undisputed father of the violin—along with a 1615 viola made by Amati’s son Girolamo, a 1689 Giuseppe Guarneri violin, and a 1715 Stradivarius violin. On the day we visited, in the corridor just outside the violin galleries, we passed From Tree to Violin, a month-long exhibition created by the violinmaking school. Had we visited two weeks later, we would have missed it. The very last exhibit panel was devoted to Carleen Maley Hutchins.

Here in the City of Violins, keeping company with the most celebrated names in the violin world—all of them Italian men—was a living American female violinmaker, a woman who had taught herself acoustics by carving violins. I was immediately intrigued. Why had I never heard of this female luthier who had asked me to tell her story? In the midst of our conversations, Hutchins would get phone calls from luthiers in Australia or China, physicists and museum curators in England and Scotland, a dendro­chronologist in Paris, a luthier in Belgium, members of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in Russia, a conductor in California, a faculty member at Juilliard. It became clear Hutchins had developed an international community around violin acoustics and she had created a new family of violins—yet she seemed to be a hidden treasure.

The preceding is excerpted from the introduction in American Luthier.

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