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Freaks of disordered thought

(Published in The Strad, October 2003)

Henley's dictionary is full of praise for the finest luthiers, but when he came across a bad craftsman, he didn't mince his words. Alan Coggins explores his remarkable work


Mention the word 'Henley' to anyone in the string world and the image that comes to mind will not be that of an accomplished English violinist, teacher and composer. Instead, one will invariably think of a thick, heavy book with the words 'Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers' printed on the spine. It is one of the most commonly found books on the shelves of violin makers, dealers and collectors throughout the world and has become a standard reference work, with entries for around 9,000 makers. And it is universally referred to as just 'Henley'.

William Henley was in fact a talented violinist who began touring at the age of twelve. He was billed as The Wonder Boy Paganini, not only due to his skill on the violin but also because he shared Paganini's birthday, exactly 100 years later. As a young man he studied in London with August Wilhemj and the two became very close, often performing together in Wilhemj's house.

Henley enjoyed a successful performing career and was eventually appointed professor of composition and principal of the violin at the Royal Academy in London. In addition to his many playing, composing and teaching commitments, he also managed to somehow find time for his other great endeavour - the compilation of a comprehensive list of violin and bow makers. Henley personally examined and tried as many of these instruments as possible and, judging by his success as a musician, it would appear that his opinions were well informed.

Collecting information of this nature obviously has no clear endpoint. Henley died in 1957 before he was able to finalise and publish his work, and the dictionary was produced from the author's notes by the dealer Cyril Woodcock. The book was eventually published about three years later in 1959-60, initially in five volumes and then later republished in 1973 in the familiar one-volume edition.

The circumstances of this posthumous publishing have resulted in one of the most obvious flaws in the book. It would seem that Woodcock wanted to include as many entries as possible. While many of these would have been written by Henley on the basis of his first-hand assessment of an instrument's physical and tonal qualities, there are other entries which describe instruments that Henley would probably never have seen, let alone played.

These entries are all too obviously written by the makers themselves, and therein lies the problem. Asking violin makers to assess their own work is like asking politicians if they are useful and effective members of parliament - you will almost certainly get an answer that is both long-winded and glowing. Take the entry for F.E. Davenport which reads in part:

Worked at New York, 1908-1914... Not a professional maker, but made some of the most interesting Italian models that have as yet fallen to the connoisseurs' pen to describe. Superb workmanship, to be esteemed almost as much as that of the almost deified progenitors of the Cremonese school. Attained astonishing tonal results - a healthy and strong tone without being absolutely new - that penetrating kind of clarity which will be raved over by its posterity.

Can we really believe that Henley had this opinion of an amateur violin maker working in the US? Not only did Woodcock include these grandiose entries (without attributing a source) but he also seemed unwilling even to edit them to a reasonable length. So we find that the entry for A.H. Merrill takes up one full page (more space than is given to either Grancino or Rogeri) and begins:

Born at Elgin (Illinois), 1853. French-English ancestry. Nineteen years passed, clustered with the ups and downs usual to human existence and growth until 1872. Attractions of violin music then led him to purchase a Hopf - one of those monstrosities with a tone "picked before it was ripe". Had six lessons from a teacher whose chief recommendation seems to have been that he frequently partook of "the cup that cheers but inebriates"...

- and so on and so on. As we wade through this entry we eventually learn that, Many of his instruments from time to time have been pitted against fabulously priced Cremonas, and they have passed through the ordeal in the most triumphant fashion. And we can only be suitably impressed by the claim that, ...up to the year 1924 had the wonderful record of repairing 10,000 instruments.

Fortunately these self-assessments are fairly easy to spot, in that they invariably share a common theme. Either the makers have created instruments with tone qualities similar to (and sometimes surpassing) the great Cremonese masters, or they have rediscovered the 'lost Cremonese varnish' - in fact, many seem to have achieved both. Incidentally, these claims are hardly new. Zacharias Fischer of Bavaria apparently discovered ...a new method by which, so he claimed, instruments could be made to equal those of Stradivari and Stainer. This process was only the often tried and futile oven-heating of the wood with the subsequent mixture of injurious chemicals.

And that was in 1786, just 50 years after Stradivari's death. Self-written entries may not always have the desired effect. George Nicoll of New Zealand succeeds only in thoroughly confusing the reader. He believed he could:

...furnish the nucleus around which standard work on scientific violin construction will ultimately be planned. Made a study of Euclid's harmonic laws, dealing only with two dimensions, length and breadth, and takes little notice of depth. By taking too much of this depth modern mathematicians have been side-tracked from the origin of 'life' - in other words, 'matter plus vibration'. Designed his violins on this Pole and Polar law of relativity, and the result has been the production of a 'pure Italian tone'.

Once one learns to recognise the dubious entries, the real enjoyment of the dictionary comes in reading the descriptions which are written by Henley himself. His writing displays a charming combination of educated appraisal, humour and, where he felt necessary, scathing criticism. He has a particular talent for the concise, cutting phrase and can convey a clear picture without wasting too many words on an unworthy recipient. For example, he tells us that Joseph Steiner (1), 'Worked at Mittenwald, 1792. Attained notoriety for absolute mediocrity. Corrupted in form, valueless in tone.'

And then adds, for good measure: An illiterate individual who sometimes wrote "Mittenbald" on the label. Henley had no time for cheap, mass-produced instruments and his descriptions of these are particularly virulent. Take his assessment of violins sold under the Heureux label: The name, which means "pleasing" or "prepossessing" is very inappropriate and the seller's audacity is as great as the maker's talent is small. Wooden masks without vitality; significant physiognomical poverty. Thin and small tone, altogether too shabby to be associated with a good bow.

And sometimes his entries are so damning that we have to wonder whether he had a more personal dislike of the maker. His opinion of William Beale's work is quite malicious: Freaks of lost and disordered thought. Outline, scroll and sound-holes precipitated into abominable ugliness. Plain wood, disastrous varnish, frightfully hollow tone.

An entry that was clearly not written by the maker. Occasionally Henley lets his guard down slightly and allows some more radical opinions to creep into his entries. With Adam Friedrich Grimm he expresses a thought that may have passed through the mind of many a violin repairer over the years:

Workmanship altogether wretched. Often without purfling. Impoverished tonal quality worth about one guinea. The thud of a hammer would not (to some of us) sound unmusical if employed in the demolition of such absurdities.

It is only on very rare occasions, as in the case of M.E. Lantez, that his patience and humour seem to desert him completely and he becomes quite blunt: Many of his instruments have a tone that might give the sensitive player protracted indigestion. Cheap affairs only appreciated by ninnies.

Many of Henley's entries provide instructive reading for would-be innovators. He describes numerous examples of experimental 'improvements' in the design and form of the instrument and treats them all with the complete disdain of a traditionalist. Indeed, judging by the limited number that have found permanent favour, his opinions were justified. His assessments range from restrained politeness - as for Regina Geigenbau, who:

Conceived the false notion that the upper and lower ribs were tone checking, therefore omitted them. Breast and back plates so arched as to be joined together at the sides, waist ribs remaining as in the ordinary violin. Sound emission quite different from that of a normally constructed instrument. Violins of strange contour indeed, scarcely worth the consideration of serious players..

- to complete contempt, as in the case of John J. Hawkins, who remains forever damned by this entry:

Patented a new form violin, London, 1800. Had no sides or back, but only a strong rib running beneath the belly, on which was set a sound-post pressed up on the belly by means of a spring. Mere loudness of tone was not impaired by this fanatical procedure, but beautiful sonority was totally lost. Reported that he destroyed a genuine Stradivarius in applying his utterly absurd innovations.

However, at least one of these experimenters may well have been on the right track. John Frederick Grosjean had an idea that looks, in retrospect, as if it might have been an early attempt at a mineral-ground layer: 'Did not make violins but was one of the numerous cranks seeking to improve tone of stringed instruments. Patented, in 1837, his notion of coating the surface of violins with glue and powdered glass. Subsequent opinion has allowed this preposterous innovation to have full sway only in its proper province - that of oblivion.'

Collecting and recording information of this sort can be tedious. Occasionally, though, some small anecdote comes along to brighten the researcher's heart, and Henley delights in including a good story where possible, even though it may not exactly be relevant to the violin maker's work. So we are given a wonderful picture of the eccentric Joseph Merlin:

Worked in London, 1770-1783. Achieved celebrity by playing a violin of his own make on wheel skates at one of Mrs. Cornerlys' Masquerades at Carlisle House, Soho Square, and impelled himself against a mirror valued at £500, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely.

And the tragic tale of Thomas Calow: Said to be an irresponsible person with a tendency towards intemperance, but did some magnificent repair work when he chose. Committed suicide by hanging himself with a double-bass string, 1905, when only 37 years of age.

Of course no book about violin makers would be complete without the 'supernatural revelation' story, such as for the Revalo violins made by Heinrich Ohlhaver, who:

...stated that "at a spiritualistic seance, the ghost of Stradivari appeared to him, and revealed his secret", and thenceforth its transmission into modern violins was as "easy as the egg of Colombus".

Or perhaps Ralph E. Fishburn, a coal miner who managed to combine both the supernatural and the experimental approaches:

Ardent spiritualist who claimed with apparent sincerity, that he had Stradivari visions of two violins in one, while under the control of a medium. Though having no previous constructive knowledge he managed to build an instrument within the subsequent three months, and gave it the name of 'viola-violin'. Outline certainly the result of dreamy phantasms rather than of the sensible materialism.

Despite the numerous entertaining examples of critical and irreverent entries in the book, there can be no doubt of Henley's intentions when he considers the work of a maker to be masterly. His lyrical writing style is again applied, but the restriction of brevity is no longer necessary and he is able to give free reign to his thoughts. Such is the case for Giovanni Francesco Pressenda:

A profound worker, a man of vast compass of thought relating to his art, thoroughly imbued with the artistry of the Cremona and French schools, and able to master, to mould, to impregnate the diversified characteristics into his violins. He had that universality which marks the highest order, eschewed mere pedantry, and felt too well the pride of creation to restrict himself entirely to the rules of any one predecessor.

He continues in this vein for over a page and at one point is moved to declare that, We hope we shall not be charged with exaggerated bombast when asserting that the Pressendas will be the violins of Italy in generations to come.

The inclusion of many of the more spirited opinions is probably the most fortunate legacy of Woodcock's posthumous publishing of Henley's writings. We can only wonder at how many of these entries might have been modified or edited out, had Henley been alive to oversee the final drafts of his dictionary. Yet their presence gives life and interest to a book that many people would expect to be about as exciting as a telephone directory. There is no doubt that the Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers is an impressive achievement. There is no other book about violin makers like it and, given the nature of today's litigious society, there probably never will be again.

The Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers can be obtained from: Amati Publishing Ltd, 1 Northfields, Speldhurst, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN3 OPL, UK Tel: +44 1892 870319


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