The Violin Maker of Cremona

MARY PICKFORD’S starring role in The Violin Maker of Cremona comes at a time in the development of the silent movies where film producers were finding their feet, and the American love-affair with rare Italian violins was just beginning.

We often blame the economic collapse of Europe following the first World War as the moment that the American market for fine violins emerged. To a point there is truth in this, as European financial desperation contrasted with the the burgeoning American economy of the interwar years. Even America’s great depression of the 1930s was a relatively short-term crisis especially for America’s wealthy, by comparison to Europe’s post-war financial strain, and the overall sustaining wealth of the American market drew fine instruments in ever greater numbers towards its shores. However violin-mania in America was rooted far further back. It is even alleged that the city of Pittsburgh was founded on land that was swapped in exchange for a Jacob Stainer violin back in the early 1800s.


“The most wonderful price ever paid, taken at it’s present value, was given for a Steiner violins – 1,500 acres of land, on which a large part of the city of Pittsburgh now stands, were exchanged for one in the early part of this century.” From The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science and Art. (New York, May 1872.) 

OleBullLater, the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull made his American debut in 1843, touring with a fabulous collection of rare and exquisite violins. His repeated tours to the country eventually led to his establishment of an ill-fated colony of New Norway on 11,000 acres of land he acquired in Pennsylvania in 1852 (the capital was named Oleana). Aged sixty in 1868, he married the 20 year old Sarah Chapman Thorp of Madison, Wisconsin before returning to Norway in the 1870s. If any single influence can be identified in the development of violin mania in the United States, the responsibility would seem to be his.

From the other end of the cultural spectrum (and somewhat paradoxically), the establishment of Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1886 played an enormous role in broadening the collective consciousness in America for fine violins and other objects of European culture that had previously appeared distant and unobtainable. The enormous mail order operation grew out of industrialised European and American manufacture, and for violins it drew upon the mass-production german musical instrument making from the town of Markneukirchen in Saxony. The trade with America was so vast in scale, that although the population was only 6,652 in 1890, from 1893 until America joined the First World War there was a United States Consulate established there to facilitate export of musical instruments. The sense of variety offered by German factory fiddles, made to endless classical designs, and identified by imitation labels of the great Cremonese makers of the past, provided endless potential for mail order companies to create a mystique about the violin. Within a generation the names of Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati became familiar across violin-playing America.

King del Gesu
Royal de Forest Hawley’s 1737 “King” Giuseppe del Gesu, as illustrated in George Hart’s History of the Violin.

Following in the footsteps of Ole Bull, an agricultural machine supplier from Hartford in Connecticut ended up becoming a significant influence on the American market. The unlikely name of this figure was Royal de Forest Hawley, whose journeys to Europe brought him in contact with George Hart who supplied the majority of his enormous collection of fine violins. Hawley had intended to publish a history of the violin and his collection had been hand picked to provide an encyclopaedic spectrum of classical violin making. His death in 1893 allowed the Chicago firm of Lyon & Healy to acquire the entire collection, plus the manuscript which they published in 1904 as The Hawley Collection of Violins: With a History of Their Makers and a Brief Review of the Evolution and Decline. Whatever Hawley’s ambitions may have been, for Lyon & Healy, their acquisition of the collection and launch of the book established their reputation as America’s eminent dealer at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, Stradivari violins were rare in the United States. Hawley’s own collection contained the 1722 Earl and the 1723 Healy, both made outside of the Golden period. The crown-jewel of the collection was the 1737 King Joseph Guarneri del Gesu and Cremonatone copies of this violin (Lyon & Healy model G.1125) appear from this period celebrating the greatest violin in America.

On one hand the phenomenon of rare Italian violins was heavily entrenched in the American musical psyche. On the other, an awareness of the rarity of these instruments underlines how few had made their permanent home outside of Europe. Even in the 1930s Stradivari’s work was so rare in the United States that there was serious concern that they would not be heard unless examples were secured for the nation through it’s cultural institutions. Mrs Annie Bolton Matthews Bryant donated the 1694 Francesca and the 1711 Antonius to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for that purpose in 1933, and two years later the Library of Congress received it’s quartet from Mrs Gertrude Clark Whittall (ironically with the changing agendas of cultural institutions, these are now amongst the least played Stradivaris in the world).

million dollar partners
Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffiths, the million dollar partners. 

In the early days of the silent screen, film producers were grappling with to find subject matter that would provide them with commercial success. Tensions existed between the concept of a new art form, and an increasing realisation of the attraction of the cinema for the mass market. In 1909 when David W. Griffith produced The Violin Maker, the format of slap-stick silent movies that would propel the likes of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin to world-iconic status was almost unimagined. Instead film companies sought to build their artistic legitimacy within already established traditions. Cinematography grew out of the realism that existed amongst the literary and artistic movements that followed the pre-Raphaelites in painting, and responded to the challenge to visual art that had been established by the birth of photography in the middle of the nineteenth-century. The same choices to involve subjects that related to real life were referential to the emerging American literature, which took Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irvine as it’s founding fathers. This wasn’t simply the pretensions of dramatists and movie moguls to be compared alongside the literary, artistic and dramatic icons of their day, but it allowed early film to combine short dramatic adventure for a culturally aspirational society as a source of enrichment.

D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer in 1920

David W. Griffith’s output in the early years was extraordinary. As a failed playwright, he began his acting career with Edison Studios in 1907 after they rejected one of his manuscripts, and in the following year joined the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. By chance, Biograph’s main director, Wallace McCutcheon fell ill, and his son proved an unsuccessful successor, providing Griffith with the chance for success. Following The Adventures of Dollie. The film was a ‘lemon’, nevertheless he progressed to direct forty-eight further short films in 1908, more than 170 in 1909 and a total of 532 films before the end of his career in 1931. With the realisation that sound and film went together, it seems that an exploration of the violins potential was strong in the ideology of Biograph, and Griffith produced three films between 1909 and 1910 in which the violin featured prominently in the title. The Message of the Violin in 1910 is lost, and given it’s rather slushy title that may be no loss to history. The Voice of the Violin produced in 1909 is a contemporary story of romance and anarchy, making light of the threats offered by the new radical ideas of Communism that existed within much of the new immigrant population of the United States.

Le Luthier de Crémone, a rival 1909 adaptation of Coppées play by the Pathé brothers (now lost)

Griffith’s 1909 The Violin Maker of Cremona is most important to film buffs because it starred Mary Pickford in her debut role as an actress playing Giannina. For charting the history of the violin market in America it is interesting that the concept of Cremonese violins – however tangentially dealt with – was considered significant enough to have commercial potential as the pretext for an otherwise undistinguished silent film. From a violinistic point of view, however there may have been much more to this film than meets the eye. At first glance the film is an acknowledged adaptation of François Coppée’s 1876 French comedy, Le Luthier de Cremone. The original play was written in verse and as a result had a sustaining literary value beyond the stage performance. Although his critics published numerous parodies of this style, describing his work as ‘chatty comfortable rhymes’, damning them with faint praise as ‘the delight of the enlightened bourgeois of the day’, nevertheless they were widely disseminated and translated into English, Hungarian and German by the 1890s. In 1894 the play formed the basis of an opera by the Hungarian violinist Jeno Hubay, and in 1909 the theme attracted not only Griffith’s adaptation, but a (lost) French interpretation by the Pathé brothers.

Jeno Hubay’s A cremonai hegedūs performed by Franz von Vecsey (click to listen)

Returning to Griffith’s silent film, the choreography is strongly operatic, relying at all times on a small and highly theatrical cast and set at a time when other silent films were trying to be much more naturalistic, taking advantage of the camera’s ability to bring outside environments into the movie theatre, suggesting that it was Hubay’s opera rather than Coppée’s rhyming text that provided the inspiration for the silent film. The Intermezzo to Hubay’s opera in two parts, A cremonai hegedūs lasting approximately 2 minutes was a widely published and performed part of the virtuoso repertoire of the early 20th century (download the music from IMSLP here).

Here’s the silent film… enjoy!

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