Ifshin Violins

by Richard Ward

If you ask most string musicians what kind of instrument they would really like to have, almost all would tell you that they would like to have an Italian violin, viola, or cello (preferably at least 200 years old). Most musicians believe that the old Italian violins have a special quality of sound that other instruments just don't have. There is a perception that an Italian violin has that special something that gives the musician that extra edge and confidence.

Many years ago, violin shops always seemed to have a good supply of old Italian violins at relatively reasonable prices. Even Strads and Guarneris were affordable if you were a concert artist. Today, everything has changed. There are many more advanced students and professional musicians who need a fine instrument, but there is a finite supply of Old (and modern) Italian instruments. The result is obvious - prices are constantly going up and only the wealthiest of players and collectors can afford them.

Because of this situation, many musicians are looking at fine French violins, violas, and cellos. Most violin enthusiasts have heard of some of the more famous French makers such as Vuillaume, Lupot, and Chanot. The great violinist Fritz Kreisler, who owned a large collection of fine instruments and could choose to play on any violin, quite often used a J. B. Vuillaume for his recordings and concerts. It is also known that the great Paganini presented his only student, Sivori with a Vuillaume, which he used for his concerts.

Besides Vuillaume, there were other great Parisian makers like Lupot, and members of the Gand, Bernardel, and Chanot families. Besides the famous makers from the important cities, there were scores of other makers, often unknown, working for major dealers (including Vuillaume) whose names never appear on the label. Often, they would supply several dealers with instruments. Most of them worked in Mirecourt, a town about 100 miles from Paris. It was the center of French violin making for almost 200 years and almost all French makers were born and trained (and usually married) there. Many of these makers prefer to stay there rather than face the stress and expense of Paris life. Their instruments share some very special qualities, such as exact, clean workmanship, use of beautiful materials, and a big beautiful tone. William Henley in his famous "Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers" describes their instruments thusly: "Let those who have been weakly or unwarily prejudiced against French instruments have the goodness to bear in mind that these instruments are not simply beautifil to look at, but are beautiful to play on".