by Jane Lenel
Sometimes violins are made of plywood by machine — similar to fake necklace jewels masquerading as the real thing. For string instruments, this construction method, using manmade “wood,” avoids the thousands of dollars charged for handmade instruments using honest trees.
Burritt Miller, local violin maker and restorer of rare violins, clearly doesn’t subscribe to this practice. He, like all fine craftsmen, uses only his hands and properly aged, beautifully veined spruce and maple. Nor at the end does he slick up his instruments with any-old shiny finish, but uses specially composed varnish that allows the string sound to vibrate through the pores of the wood. He, like the famous old boys in 18th century Cremona, still an Italian center of violin makers, spends his days measuring, gouging and scraping his instrument bellies, backs and ribs to minute millimeter dimensions, and he taps, tests, and adjusts for sound. He also carves beautiful scrolls, from which some specialists can identify the maker of a violin.
Miller, 73, grew up in Bronxville, N.Y., went to various boarding schools and graduated from Cornwell Academy in Great Barrington, Conn. (no longer in existence). Before the Vietnam War, he was conscripted as a conscientious objector and was assigned to Europe for two years. There he remained for three more years doing various jobs while considering what his future career would be. Realizing that he was unsuited for jobs involving such school subjects as math, spelling and foreign languages, he decided on violin making and enrolled in the Cremona Scuola Internazionale di Liuteria, and received a diploma in 1971.
During his stay there, the school had only five students, and he was able to work directly from master maker Stradivari’s own instrument drawings and plans, which the school possessed.
About making his instruments, Miller said, “It makes a tremendous difference if you start with a good model. I stick generally with Strad models because the craftsmanship in others is often rough, and I don’t like to work ‘down.’ For example, the del Gesu workmanship was crude — though his instruments sounded good — because his clientele was mainly pickup musicians. Stradivari, however, was a prestige maker and had an aristocratic clientele — counts, dukes, court musicians, the Medici and the royal family of Spain.” An added point was that makers often had apprentices, while Stradivari had only his sons Francesco, Omobono and Nicolo working with him.
From Cremona, having found his talent, Miller returned to the U.S and joined the highly reputed violin makers, restorers and repairers at William Moennig & Son in Philadelphia. In business for 100 years (closed in 2009), it was one of the oldest and most prominent string instrument shops in the country, and was frequented by such famous violinists as Itzhak Perlman, Fritz Kreisler and Isaac Stern, as well as members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, for care of their instruments.
Miller, who has a son from a former marriage, stayed there for about 30 years until leaving to start his own shop in his house on North 33rd Street. About the change, he said, “I liked working on my own because I could offer personal attention to the players’ individual needs rather than working backstage with little contact with the people in whose instruments I was so personally involved.”
Now retired from the violin-making mainstream and living in Cathedral Village in upper Roxborough, he continues his work and counts among his recent prized accomplishments a reproduction of a viola da gamba — similar to a large violin (viol) held between the legs, and “gamba” (like a cello) — dating from 1611 and made by the brothers Antonius and Hieronymus Amati, sons of the noted luthier (maker of stringed instruments) of the time, Andreas Amati.
“The original is now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England,” said Miller, who plays on his own viola da gamba occasionally at Cathedral Village.
“Restoration, or returning an instrument to its original condition, is another story,” Miller said. “Almost every instrument from the classical period has been opened, and it often means undoing the work of the guys before you. Sometimes you find outstanding craftsmanship; sometimes you find a catastrophe … the most distressing is an instrument that has been ‘improved’ (horrible word) and often signed with a ball point pen by the proud butcher.”
What determines the quality of a violin? “Everything!” says Miller. “The craft and use of tools, the varnish, the wood and the tastefulness of ensemble. Each part of the violin, including the bridge and strings, even the shape of the fingerboard, behaves in such a complicated manner, it’s really a brain teaser.”
Fortunately for his followers, complicated or not, the teaser has never deterred Burritt Miller from his chosen handwork — despite the strings attached.
Ed. Note: Jane Lenel taught violin for many years. She also had a violin renting business, Fitler Strings, studied violin making and repair, and repaired her students’ rented instruments. Burritt Miller can be reached at 215-984-8842.