Secrets of a fiddle

Perhaps the old fiddle can teach the new mandolin a few tricks

No musical instrument evokes a sense of mystery like a fiddle does. (The difference between a fiddle and a violin? A violin is usually in tune.) For a guitar you can go to the nearest instrument shop to buy a Taylor or a Martin. For a bagpipe or a hurdy-gurdy you order one from a maker after shopping around at the Le Son Continu Festival. I recently bought a beautiful A-type mandolin from a maker in Breda, The Netherlands after trying it out at Gooikoorts. And all those instruments have proper brand labels on them that are protected by international law. You hardly find the kind of counterfeiting you see in the clothing industry.

Don’t believe the label

I have no idea, however, where my fiddle comes from, who made it, who played on it, or how old it is. I bought it from a fiddler in the Irish music scene in The Netherlands who had bought it on a flee market – or so he said – but I have no idea where that was or from whom he bought it. There is a small label inside saying “Anno 17 [blank] Carlo Bergonzi fece in Cremona”. Carlo Bergonzi was a world famous violin maker, famous for being the finest apprentice of the great Stradivarius. He is also famous for the numerous fake labels in violins with his name on them. So I’m not exactly inclined to take the label very seriously. Millions of violins were made in the region now known as Germany and the Czech Republic with such labels, apparently because they were modelled after Bergonzi’s design. So I guess my fiddle is one of those.

Wait – that wasn’t me

So how old is this fiddle then? I am no expert in this, and I know you should never trust the internet (at least that’s what I tell my students), but a little browsing here and there brings me to a range between 1870 and 1940. That is a long time. Still, it’s an intriguing idea that this fiddle of mine is probably at least 76 years old – older than both my parents. Who played it since? What did they play on it? Surely it was not all high-brow classical music, considering that it is not exactly a high-brow instrument. For folk music it’s perfect: it is fairly loud, especially with the steel strings I usually put on it. But recently I changed strings (I am looking for a somewhat warmer tone), and while doing so I noticed the wear marks on the fingerboard under the D string (see picture). Note how they go all the way up to the body of the fiddle. This is where you get when you play third position or higher. I never play third position, especially not on the D string, so I’m sure it wasn’t me! All music I play (Irish, Dutch, and French traditional music) is in first position. And I’m so bad at it I can’t even play vibrato, let alone higher positions! Playing in the second or third position is more common in gypsy music though, as well as in some east European traditions. So perhaps a gypsy fiddler earned his daily bread with it, or it was a classical violin player after all.

 

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