This post originally appeared on the ‘fiddlefish.com’ blog. It’s here for archival purposes only.
Most players only assume there is one great violin maker — Antonio Stradivarius. For a long time, I was under this spell with only del Gesu Guarnerius as the sole exception. For me, it was Samuel Nemessanyi who wizened me up and made me acknowledge the talent which extends beyond the handful of official masters.
Nemessanyi, the “greatest” Hungarian luthier from the 19th century, was a master copyist whose craft was at the highest level. His work is quite fine and his violins quite scarce. His del Gesu copies, for instance, often are mistaken for original del Gesus, and in turn, Nemessanyi himself became widely copied in his time. Cheap Nemessanyi knockoffs flooded the market and, subsequently, there are hordes of violins bearing his label creating a market of knock-off knock-offs (two times removed).
I learned of this master maker via Tom Sparks from my History of Violin Making class at school. I was really intrigued right from the start about this Hungarian genius. He seemed to be a living contradiction. His life was so erratic; he burned the wick on both ends and was dead just into his 40s. But his excellence and dedication befell on his craft which yielded absolutely stunning violins and celli. I thought: “this is the maker for me.”
I had tracked down one of his fiddles, a del Gesu model, in Chicago while still attending school. It was priced rather low and it was snatched up quickly. I never got to see more than just a a picture of it online. In fact, until recently, photographs are all I had seen of Nemessanyi. They just don’t come to market that often. A call to Remenyi House in Toronto (several generations ago, Hihaly Remenyi was one of Nemessanyi’s apprentices) had proven fruitless. I was informed they are “impossible” to find, and the ones that are not fakes now fetch prices close to that of a fine J.B. Vuillaume. It was a subjective statement, but I did get the sense that perhaps I better look for another maker.
Some time passed and I lost the scent of the trail. Then, quite accidentally, I learned that Fred Oster, a fine instrument collector in Philadelphia, indeed had a Samuel Nemessanyi — though it was on hold for a possible buyer. Oster had a del Gesu model labeled 1879. I was to finally get a chance to see a Nemessanyi violin in person.
It was feather-light, and had a pretty varnish — amber in color — which reflected the light in a pleasant way. The back was a highly flamed single piece of maple which reminded me of the newest addition to my violin family — a fiddle from Jan Spidlen who copied del Geus’s “Plowden.” The wood had real character and it revealed why Nemessanyi would have been so obsessed with del Gesu’s work: there is much to desire. The scroll/neck was not original and one could actually tell that the varnish had something missing with it (though the wood-work was pretty excellent). I did wonder how much this gouged the price. After-all, this violin was priced pretty fair. Would it be triple the price if it not a composite?
I took a Hill bow from the table and began to play. It was truly something beyond words. The G string in the lower register had a direct connection with the cosmos: “whoa.” It had a high timbre, very solo-istic, but perhaps a little bit pince-nez than what I like. It was quite responsive, too. I was reminded of a Guissepe Rocca I played on while at school — also with remarkable response — which was from the same time period. I asked myself, why do old violins have this flawless, dry response, and thus ease of playability, while new violins have a soggy quality to them?
As usual, time stood still while going from piece to piece. When I paused to look at the fine crafting of the beautiful sound holes, I realized a whole hour had disapeared. The shop was about to close and my time with the Nemessanyi was over. Both pleased that I had this unique opportunity, yet wistful that it may never happen again, I headed out into Philadelphia’s Center City for a long walk to think about this special violin and its maker.