Creating a Social History of 'The Essential Instrument'

Article excerpt


New book details the rich tradition of violin makers, dealers, and players

"Violin history has been written, for the most part, by dealers," author and journalist David Schoenbaum says. "While there has been academic art history since the middle of the 19th century, there really hasn't been an equivalent with violin history. At least until recently, the reason there was any history at all is that the dealers were interested in the history of the collectibles they were trying to sell."

It occurred to Schoenbaum, who is a lifelong amateur violinist, that the story of the violin's place as an icon of Western civilization might be worthy of a professional historian. So, the retired history professor from the University of Iowa, who has written such books as Hitler's Social Revolution (Norton, 1997) and The United States and the State of Israel (Oxford University Press, 1993), channeled his professional experience as a social historian into his amateur passion for violin playing.

The result is The Violin: A Social History of the World's Most Versatile Instrument (Norton, 2012). In the book, which is available in hardcover this month, Schoenbaum has written a dense and deeply researched history comprehensively covering the making, the dealing, the playing, and the fantasy world of the violin as an icon in movies and novels.

What is it about the violin that makes it so special?

"The violin is a pillar of Western music," he says, during a phone interview from his home in the Washington D.C. suburbs. "Along with the piano, it's the essential instrument."

Unraveling the instrument's tale and treating it with the rigor of a professional historian revealed some of the rarely discussed issues that vex the violin trade, such as the fact that no matter how well intentioned, until now, the instrument's history has mostly been written by the dealers. "You can study art history without being an artist," Schoenbaum says, "but the violin makers and dealers have also been the authenticators, which is an inevitable conflict of interest."

This potential conflict - and the continuing rise of the value of vintage instruments and bows - offers an opportunity for independent, objective experts to create and occupy a niche that hasn't existed. …