Advantages I couldn't resist him - he's so gorgeous!
Disadvantages Being unfaithful to Charles
J is for JohannesI knew from the first moment that I saw Johannes that I was going to be unfaithful to my long-time companion of 20 years, Charles. It was just one of these things, you fall in love at first sight and damn the consequences...
It wasn't even as if our relationship was going through any problems - Charles and I had been together and completely faithful to one another ever since I'd started studying for A levels at school and he'd accompanied me all the way through university, post grad studies in Vienna, jobs in London, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. He'd travelled with me to America and I don't think either of us had ever dreamed that the relationship was going to come to such an abrupt and utterly unexpected end.Charles is a suave if rather common French guy, quite handsome in a good light, maybe a little ruddy in complexion and according to perceptive people who know about such things - one of the best examples of his "type". He often drew an appreciative glance from those who met him and I have to admit that Charles never once let me down when I needed him to be there for me. But Johannes, well, I could see immediately that Johannes was different: For a start, he was much older than Charles (I always did prefer older guys,) looking at him you could sense he'd seen a lot more of the world, been through more "life" experiences which had helped him mature into the handsome specimen he now was. He had an unmistakeably aristocratic air combined with a touch of mystery which made me wonder about his previous existence before our chance encounter that fateful day. Oh sure, he had a few battle scars to show from his obviously active past but nothing too noticeable to stop me gasping at his golden tanned beauty the first time I saw him lying on a bench naked in front of me.
I knew I had to have him, I had to take him home with me that night, no matter what it was going to cost...
It was not even as if I had been looking for a new violin. Quite the contrary in fact, as I'd always felt that Charles more than lived up to the expectations of those who heard him and I'd never really had any cause for complaint in the sound he produced for me, even if he did get a bit temperamental during dull, grey English autumn days when he'd sulk, longing for the sunny, warm humid days of summer which all violins just adore. However, I found myself in the fortunate position of having some money to invest and after a few weeks of being bamboozled, sedated and thoroughly confused by various "financial advisors" possessing all the subtlety of Fagan from Oliver Twist, I found myself chatting to a violinist friend who reminded me that good quality instruments can be expected to appreciate by about 10% in value each year. Suddenly, the idea of putting my money into something which was not only potentially financially sensible, but would also give me constant pleasure as a player, seemed a rather intriguing and attractive one.So I started to idly look at a few violin dealer websites, not really in a serious manner but more in the way that one window shops the ludicrously expensive clothes boutiques in Bond Street. We violinists get the same primal thrill from gazing at high definition photographs of violins as many males get from gazing at today's Page Three "Beauty" in the Sun: "Cor blimey look at the size of the f-holes on that one...!"
I had always dreamed of owning an 18th century Italian violin, ideally one from Cremona, the home town of such eminent and exorbitantly expensive makers such as Amati, Guarneri and Stradivarius, but realistically that was obviously way over my budget. But part of me deep inside still hankered after something special, something which did have a reputation on it. Eventually after a few weeks of occasional browsing and perusal of any number of websites both in Britain and abroad, I found myself looking at an "18th century Italian violin of unknown maker" being offered by one of London's newest and youngest violin dealers, who is fast making a big name for himself in a very elite bunch of traders. It looked an interesting instrument so on a hunch I emailed him and asked for more details...I waited in trepidation and you can imagine my disappointment when he came back with the sad news that this particular violin had been sold. But, he DID have some other very nice and even better violins in stock... In fact, I'd noticed one of them on the website, unusually for violin dealers he actually put his instruments for sale in price categories and this gorgeous, golden hued violin was in the price category above the one I'd decided on as my possible budget, it WAS beautiful though and a tentative email to the young dealer brought an immediate reply: "Now THAT is a stunning violin..." Temptation was growing.
As it happened I'd arranged to meet up with some friends in London for a BBC Proms concert, so I came to the conclusion that there was surely no harm in just going to the dealer's shop and trying out a few violins, no harm at all. Of course not, I was "Just Looking". An appointment was made and a fortnight later I found myself in an exclusive Mayfair street carrying Charles up the stairs in his case to the shop. The dealer was of course expecting me and opened the heavily fortified security door. I walked into a large and light studio, with a gorgeous Georgian fireplace and huge mirror at one end, violin posters on the wall, at the other, a glass fronted cabinet containing dozens of violins, all hanging from hooks like burnished brown wooden honey smoked hams in an old fashioned butcher's shop. The dealer had chosen a dozen violins as possibilities for me to try and placed them on the window ledge. It was hard not to visibly drool when facing so many instruments, all there just for my personal delectation!I opened my own case (trying to avoid gazing at Charles, after all, I was potentially about to be unfaithful to him,) took out my bow, rosined it and was drawn irresistibly to the golden violin I had admired so often on the website. It looked as good in the flesh as it did in the photos and when I put it under my chin I was astounded at the power yet pureness of the tone and the incredible colour of the sounds it produced. Very impressive, but I had another 11 to try. The dealer told me brief details about each instrument, one a Gagliano from Italy (but way above my budget so despite sounding great, away it went back into its cage to await a wealthier fiddler,) another was by a Hungarian and only completed a month previously, it had a big growly tone full of oomph, but I didn't fall in love with it, somehow it seemed more like a boy-racer trying very hard to impress in his new Porsche and you never know what they might grow into in a few years, do you? Other candidates were from France; England; more Italians and dated from 1780s to mid 20th century.
The dealer discreetly retired to another room to leave me to try out all of these admittedly very nice violins. I felt a little self conscious at playing in front of someone I didn't know, especially as when you pick up an unfamiliar violin it does take a bit of time to get used to the sound it produces, so the bow stroke you might normally use with your own violin, can often produce a nasty screech on a different instrument. I tried to reduce the dozen instruments gradually to a final favoured few, whilst they were all high quality fiddles, some didn't really "speak" to me, and others simply sounded rather ordinary or too similar to my current love Charles.But analysing what I wanted from the violin helped me to whittle down the numbers pretty quickly and after an hour of playing I knew that there was only one instrument that I had fallen in love with and that was the golden beauty I'd first admired on the website a few weeks previously. I beckoned to the dealer and told him that I'd fallen in love. Somehow, he didn't seem surprised, he said that it was certainly a fantastic violin from a great maker with a reputation...
So it was time to talk business. I asked him the price, he told me. It was a bit above what I had been thinking of spending but I have to admit that by that point I was beyond saving. I knew it was a beautiful violin, it sounded great and under my chin I could feel there was a lot more to discover from the instrument with time. My mind was made up. But of course when one is going to spend that amount of money for what one hopes is a long partnership, one has to be absolutely sure it is the right match, so the dealer asked if I would like to take the violin home on trial for a week or two to get to know him a bit better. That sounded sensible, he disappeared to fetch a cheap foam case and after giving him my address and phone number (much is done on trust in the violin business,) I left his shop carrying not only Charles, but Johannes too.Johannes' "father" and creator was Johannes Theodorus Cuypers (1724-1808), he was born/made in den Haag, Holland in 1784. I knew he was a "Johannes" from the moment I first saw him, he has that air of a rather elderly, aristocratic foreign gentleman - one can imagine him walking down a street politely raising his hat to everyone he meets - and I felt that the name suited him absolutely perfectly (by the way most violinists name their instruments, some are female, some male...!) Cuypers is widely regarded as one of the best Dutch makers and has often been described as the "Dutch Stradivarius". His instruments have a very distinctive style and are renowned for their pure yet strong tone.
I have to say that I felt a little ill at ease to be walking down the street with such a valuable instrument in what seemed rather a flimsy case. Suddenly every loitering hoodie became a potential mugger and every bump against the case from the marauding tourists in Oxford Circus felt like a physical attack on my person! After all, Johannes wasn't mine yet, he was just on trial.When I got back to my hotel I immediately took Johannes out his case and started playing him. Once I knew that no one was listening to me, I could be a little more uninhibited in my playing and it was apparent straight away that this was an absolutely fantastic instrument. Not only does he have a great tone but there is also a wonderful array of over and undertones - one can actually feel him vibrating with joy when one plays certain notes bang in tune.
It is like upgrading from a Mini Cooper to a Porsche. You realise that you have a huge engine to play with , the capability of your car/violin are increased ten- or twenty-fold. Putting down the pedal in a Porsche gets an especially strong response, and the same happens with a really great violin, the sound just takes off and you can do a whole lot more with it musically.Of course over the next 2 weeks I was playing Johannes constantly, comparing him to Charles, taking him to my violin professor for an opinion (I think he was green with envy,) and generally trying to get to know this violin as much as I could. I have to admit that even after a few days, I just knew that I was going to be writing the cheque for that very large sum of money, but that I would definitely have no regrets. Which is exactly how it all turned out in the end; I returned to London with the cheque and finally Johannes was mine, first stop phoning up my musical instrument insurer to add him to my policy!
Looking at him as he sits on my leather armchair at this moment, waiting for me to pick him up and do some work on my solo Bach, I can never fail to be stunned by his beautiful golden varnish. It has different nuances under different lights and really emphasises the beauty of the wood. Over the years Johannes has been in the wars (one of the great attractions of an old violin - their bodies really do tell a story,) he has had some very skilled repairs, perhaps done 100 or 150 years ago, he has suffered a little bout of woodworm many years back, and of course, the bumps and grazes of life affect violins just as they do people.Often when I pick him up to play him, I wonder about his history: Who played him? Where was he played? What music has he played in the past? Did he take part in many concerts? When one considers that he is a very old gentleman of 224 years, he has lived through such events as the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, World Wars I and II, the fall of the Berlin Wall... what stories could he tell us if he was able to speak in our language as well as that of music?
Many violinists swear that their violins have some kind of residual "memory" of the music they have played before. I'd always regarded this as a rather sentimental bit of hogwash, but after buying Johannes, I am not so sure. Sometimes when I play a piece, it seems to come so naturally and so easly, that I find myself wondering if he has played it before many years previously and somehow the organic cells of the wood from which he is made can absorb something of that music - to be unlocked when a new owner picks him up and plays it again... Hocus-pocus perhaps, but the biggest revelation when acquiring a violin like this is how easy certain music becomes. Because of the quality of the instrument, it responds very quickly to the slightest request and so a bow-stroke which would have needed lots of energy on Charles, can produce twice as much response on Johannes for half as much effort.It will probably take me about a couple of years before Johannes has been fully played in back to his full potential. He had not been played for a while before I got him and had to be fully restored before he could be offered for sale, so for that reason, even though the sound I get from him at the moment is absolutely amazing, it is only a fraction of what will eventually be there when his sound is totally opened up after lots of constant playing. I think one of the things which I loved most about Johannes when I first tried him was the amazing sonority of his G-string, the lowest string on the violin, even up high on that string it really sings, and as I play him more and more the power increases accordingly, it is very exciting to be able to use such a great violin and get to know him over the months.
As for Charles, well he is still around, I keep him for sentimental reasons, plus for any gig which is a bit too precarious (outside, kids around etc) for the valuable Johannes. Charles gets played every month or so to keep him in shape and I imagine he is rather resigned to being a "second fiddle" from now on, though he'll always mean a lot to me. But I have to say that I have absolutely no regrets about buying Johannes. He is a great investment, a fine example by a maker that is in huge demand in places such as the USA and Far East and I feel that as a possession he brings much more pleasure and joy than an equivalent purchase of a top of the range BMW would have done - and at least violins don't need road tax or guzzle gas, though he does go in for his MOT every year to have the luthier check him over for any loose seams or other potential problems. But so far - touch wood - he has been very well behaved and not given me any problems at all!Violins do have a soul, so to find a new soul mate is always a precious thing. I feel very fortunate to have Johannes and look forward to playing him for many, many years to come.
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