Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Master from the past

One of the most interesting people of my youth was a old violin maker Jukka Bergman who lived in Helsinki. At some point he had been a promising violinist and was a student in Leopold Auer's master class in St. Petersburg, a very short distance from Finland. When Auer left Russia for the United States during the revolution, Mr. Bergman was supposed to go along but then decided to return to his native country, which had just become independent in 1917.

Since he knew all the Auer students, he obviously became their favorite repairman in Helsinki, whenever they would come there to concertize. His reputation spread quickly and everyone notable in the was field would come to visit him. He had so many stories to tell, and he taught me much knowledge and wisdom forgotten by violinists long time ago. Who today would know that every violinist used to rub the back of their instrument with a silk scarf until the violin was hot? This explains the strange pattern of missing varnish on most old instruments. Playing on a 'cold' instrument was a no-no. One must also remember that heat was not taken for granted those days, and a violin had to survive a lot more extreme conditions than today. Everybody would loosen their strings as soon as the playing was over, and the instrument thus got to rest. You really cannot do this today with Dominants or other artificial core strings, but those did not exist then. -- In the Heifetz class we had to use pure gut A and D strings, just like the maestro.

Mr. Bergman remembered once having tea with Heifetz in St. Petersburg. When the time for paying the check came, Heifetz started looking elsewhere and my Finnish friend had to pick up the tab. -- He told me that Auer used to teach anyone willing to pay. A student would just knock on the door and when the housekeeper opened the door, the student would ask if professor Auer was home and available for a lesson. She would then ask: "Do you have the money?", take the rubles and put them on the mantlepiece so that the famous professor would see them at all times. The lessons never went a minute over an hour.

My old friend was not really a dealer but took his repair work very seriously. I managed to buy a bow or two from him, plus some strings, but I don't think he was into making a profit. He loved cigars and I remember one time when he had one of Finland's leading industrialists over (also a great fan of the violin and a frequent audience member of my recitals), and they made me and my young first wife try their Cuban cigars. She inhaled, instead of puffing, and passed out. They laughed so hard.

I learned among other things that Ricci wasn't happy with the volume of his lower strings and had his bridge turned slighty in an angle, to make the G string longer. How he could play his Paganini Caprices and other showpieces in tune remained a mystery to both of us. I also learned about Stern's problem with perspiration. The varnish on his fiddle was badly damaged because of this. Mr. Bergman was very upset about the way old great violins were being retouched with alcohol based varnish, so that they would look shiny and brand new. He said it was like closing them in a glass cage and affected their sound.

Jukka Bergman was my link to the past and being with him was like traveling through history. We all should have experienced something like that. I feel very priviledged. He knew violins (and violin playing) inside out, and I was a good listener and student. It is completely different to learn something from a living master than from a book.