Mystery Violin Identified

by Matthew Raley

I've been writing about my evaluation this summer of a violin loaned to me by a friend (here, here, and here). My original low expectations were surpassed as I played it, especially after I put on better strings. But I have been bothered by two things. Who was the maker, Lee Nelms? And could the sound of the violin be significantly improved?

My googling of Nelms, you'll recall, turned up zero. So I drove the violin up to John Harrison, noted luthier in Redding, on the chance that he had at least heard of Nelms. He had indeed.

Harrison told me that Nelms was a maker in Klamath Falls, OR, mainly known among fiddlers (like my friend's uncle, the violin's original owner). Nelms died, Harrison thought, sometime around 1988. Harrison stepped past a dozen violins and violas to a bookshelf, covered with a layer of sawdust, and pulled out a reference work on American makers. Nelms was listed, the bio reporting that he started in 1978 and had made 16 violins by 1986, the date of publication. Two instruments a year. Harrison himself had met Nelms numerous times at conventions and had seen several of his violins.

This particular violin, made in 1979, was one of the better Nelms instruments Harrison had seen. But "it has issues." As a point of workmanship, Harrison noted that the scroll was commercial, not hand-carved. Worse, the tail-piece was too long for the size of the violin, which plays havoc with the main issue: the sound post. Harrison agreed that a more powerful tone could be coaxed out of this violin with a better-fitting post. But proper placement depended on getting a well-proportioned tailpiece.

It would take some investment to improve the violin, but it could be done.

I left pondering the fact that a man I never knew reached across 30 years, down several hundred miles from Klamath Falls, and gained my respect by making a violin. The internet can't find him, but the members of his guild can. As Harrison said to me with satisfaction, "His violins are still being played." Nelms won't be a legend, but his craft has staying power. Not bad at all.

Playing the Nelms Violin

by Matthew Raley For several weeks, I've been switching between my violin and one loaned to me by a friend who wants me to evaluate it.

You'll recall that I had low expectations of this violin until I saw it in the case and played on it a little. Its tone was even, responsive, and capable of different colors even with poor strings.

So I put on an old set of my own strings (Evah Pirazzi, "stark") and started testing the violin across a range of pieces. I played several Rode caprices, and the better strings made an immediate difference. The violin was resonant, spoke brightly, and barked accents at my command. Double-stops and chords, in which the bow is pulled across several strings quickly, were clear.

I got similar results in the Novácek Perpetuum Mobile. As I played through a couple of Beethoven sonatas I found an additional virtue. The violin was capable of real sweetness when I played lyrical passages. This was confirmed when I read through the 1st violin part to the Brahms clarinet quintet.

But I was always bothered when I would begin playing this violin. It would sound nasal, brash. One evening recently, I started with the 2nd movement of the Brahms quintet, and was able to isolate some of the pitches that squawked the worst. But after ten minutes or so, when I went back to those pitches, the squawk was gone.

Conclusion? This violin is grumpy right out of the case. It needs to warm up.

There are other qualities I wonder about. So I'm going to Redding violin maker John Harrison soon to see if he can find any information about Lee Nelms, and if the sound-post might need adjusting. I'm not one to waste a good excuse to go to Harrison's shop.

Evaluating a Violin

by Matthew Raley So, a guy asks me to play a violin he inherited. I can't find any information about the maker, Lee Nelms, but because the instrument exceeds my low expectations I am intrigued. I want to find out how good this violin is. My problem is that I really don't know how to evaluate one.

Okay, I know how to play. I know what I like. But there's an art to examining a violin that I just don't possess.

For one thing, I have never played a great violin. It's one thing to hear Itzhak Perlman play a Stradivarius in a hall; playing one yourself is something else entirely.

You have the sound immediately under your ear. The surface noise of the bow pulling across the string--or the absence of it--as well as the subtler overtones are all right there. Further, you gain rich tactile information from the way your vibrato warms the tone, the effect of bow pressure and speed, and the vibrations of the violin itself in your hand, shoulder, and head.

John Harrison, a maker in Redding, CA, once told me that he had made a violin decades ago for a Chico State professor. While he was trying the new instrument, Harrison was closeted with the professor's Strad, examining, measuring, and above all playing. It's experience like Harrison's, repeated many times, that I would consider reliable.

To play a truly great instrument is to learn why the sound in the hall is so powerful. Never having had the experience, I feel that my standards are unreliable. I did once play a selection of contemporary Italian violins, each worth a fair amount of money. I didn't like any of them. Part of me says that my coolness can't be right, that my thirty-five years of playing instruments in the yuck-to-good range has messed up my taste.

I also don't really know what I'm looking for in terms of craft. An orchestra colleague of mine, Abraham Becker, once looked over my instrument from various angles, and said, "That is a well-made violin." Since Abraham is vastly experienced, playing everything from classical to Broadway to tangos from his native Argentina, I was gratified to hear his judgment. But I have no idea why he said it so confidently.

I can spot an atrocious varnish, or other obvious failings. An awful violin passed into my hands only two weeks ago, on which the varnish obscured all the grain of the wood, the purfling around the edges of the top and back was painted rather than inlaid, and the strings were unevenly spaced.

But the finer points of excellent craft I only pick up informally.

Still, The Nelms violin has piqued my curiosity. So here's what I'm looking at.

The Nelms impressed me in the case as a beautiful piece of work. I love the color of the varnish, and the grain of the split back.

Here is my own violin:

You can see it's a different model from the Nelms, slightly narrower and longer. You can also see the wear of its two-century history, like the spot where the varnish has worn away on the back by the neck. (The left hand often rests there.) The wood itself has many qualities that I prize, like the unusual grain, and the single-piece back on which the grain is slanted.

I have owned it since high school, when I bought it from my teacher. It hung in his shop for years, and I used to stop in just to play it.

In my next post, I'll compare the sound of these two instruments, and see if I can't diagnose the things that bother me about the Nelms.

Mystery Violin

by Matthew Raley In 1989, the first year I was a student at Willamette University, the oldest building on campus, Waller Hall, had just been renovated. While workers were demolishing the interior, they had made quite a discovery under the floorboards of the attic.

Wrapped in newspapers from the 1920s was a violin.

The instrument was appraised as 18th century Italian (the label said 1789, but that's far from decisive), maker undetermined, worth about $10,000. To those used to guitar prices, that may be a jaw-dropping sum, but in the violin world, such a value is more like an entry fee. The violin was restored to beautiful condition, and advertised all over the country in an effort to find anyone who could lay a plausible claim.

No one did.

It's a terrific violin mystery. Was it stolen? Why was there no record of an investigation? Who would've abandoned such an instrument?

Even better for me, since I was a violin major, I played it for four years. It had a dark, rich tone that carried well in a hall, though it was not loud. It was an easy-playing instrument, responsive and reliable. Most of all, it had character. There were all sorts of colors available to me depending upon bow-speed and pressure.

A few weeks ago, I got another mystery violin.

A local guy had been telling me for years that he had a violin he wanted me to play. One learns to have very low expectations of these things, though I'm always curious.

At last, he brought the violin over and left it for me. What I lifted out of the case was a quite lovely piece of workmanship. Red-brown, dark varnish, a two-piece back with dramatic grain. But the sound?

Well, the strings were really poor. The tone was bright, which to my ear often signals a cheapo, in certain places it sounded a bit nasal. Yet . . .

The tone was even across all the strings, and all the way up the fingerboard. Once the sound was established, the violin was capable of blossoming, or becoming louder and more resonant. There were some sweet overtones that promised more character. And it was quite responsive.

The guy had told me the story. His uncle had bought the violin from an American maker for a few thousand dollars, and the maker had won awards.

I looked at the label. "Lee Nelms, 1979." Google turned up exactly nothing, which just made me more curious. Even if it isn't a del Gesu, this instrument isn't the work of a novice either. He must have other violins out there.

So I'm going to put in some time this summer to find out about this violin, and deepen my own education about violin-making. Check back for updates.