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Art of Business: MusicMaker's Maker

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MUSICMAKER'S MAKER

How exactly did the Berkshires come to be blessed with a full-service stringed instrument shop? Not every town has one, after all. So we asked Francis Morris of Francis Morris Violins about his journey and his craft.

So how did you grow up to be a violin maker, anyway?

I'd wanted to be a cellist. I was studying with the Curtis String Quartet and someone came to the Putney School in Vermont with a harpsichord he'd built from a kit. I heard the words in my head: This is what I've always wanted to do, make something beautiful with my hands and music. I studied at Marlboro College for 18 months, and a professor told me, "Build something that you actually play."

I read a book on how to make your own Stradivari, and went for it. I heard about a state-run school in Mittenwald, Germany and wrote them; when I heard back they said, "You need to learn German and we'll have a place for you in 18 months." Somebody said, they think you're so far away you'll never show, so my wife and I just went there with the instrument I'd just finished. They told me it was nice but I still had to wait nine months, so we toured Europe.

And it was worth the wait?

It was all free, so was health care—they pay higher taxes, but they definitely get value. It was three and a half years of intensely technical training, and when I left there I had a career. I worked in Switzerland for 10 years and then in LA; then we were offered a free 1740s house in Great Barrington. People just started coming in, and pretty soon we needed an Albany office.

Would Stradivari recognize your technique today?

Much of it. I've studied the late-17th-century Cremonese drawing and building techniques—how the proportions lead to this beautiful flow, how all the dimensions are derived from and depend upon each other. Some of the techniques, informed by CT imaging and dendrochronology, are brand-new—but the essence is still that symmetry that affects the sound like a great cathedral does. There's nothing more satisfying than getting wood to sing. For that moment of perfection and beauty, it's like God has arrived—everything comes alive. And when a player likes it, that's where we get our bliss. Francismorrisviolins.com

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