The Maestro Sacconi
in the testimony of the violinmaker and restorer
David Segal

New York, March 3, 1984
Link: David Segal Violins

I met Maestro Sacconi for the first time when he came to Cremona in 1971. I was in my second year of school and I met him in the shop of my teacher, Francesco Bissolotti, with whom he was working on his book. I was totally impressed by his talent, knowledge and humanity, and there was a spontaneous understanding between us. He was a man who represented more than just violinmaking, and his humanistic attitude was very important to me.

The following year, Mr. Sacconi came to Cremona again to conclude the work on his book, and this time he stayed for several months because his wife was in the hospital. I got to see him pretty often, as he spent plenty of time in Bissolotti's shop making a violin with Bissolotti, and helping me with a cello. While we were together, we also discussed the varnishing system. During this period, I really got to know him very well, professionally and personally. Mr. Sacconi was a great expert in repair and restoration, and at that time Italian violinmakers were mostly involved in constructing new instruments. Everybody admired Sacconi's knowledge and recognized that he was second to no one. In addition, he never hesitated to show, explain or teach whatever he knew. It came naturally to him, and anything he couldn't explain in words, he would just show. He had such terrific hands! He could pick up a pencil or a piece of chalk, draw on a piece of wood or paper, and make you understand how to do things. While he was helping me make the cello, I understood with ease when he explained so simply what I was to do with the archings, the f-holes, the purfling – everything.

On top of his great knowledge and generosity, he was «vivace e allegro» (lively and jolly). He was on his feet endlessly in Bissolotti's shop, day and night, tiring us to death while he was as fresh as a «good morning!».

That summer I was about to finish school and was debating whether to go back to Israel or to go to America. Mr. Sacconi advised me to go to New York, because he believed that the modern violinmaker should study repair and restoration. According to him, one had to know a lot about old instruments in order to fully understand the acoustics and needs of modern ones. The best place to learn this at the time was New York, and naturally I wanted to go to Wurlitzer's shop where I could be with him.

Mrs. Wurlitzer sent me an invitation to come to work in the shop, and I arrived on February 26, 1973. It was a cultural shock to come from a small place like Cremona, and my home country Israel, to a huge place like New York all by myself. In addition, when I was introduced into the shop, I knew nothing about repair or about adjusting an instrument. In my three years in Cremona, I had seen only new instruments.

On top of all this, there was tremendous tension at Wurlitzer's, for which I was completely unprepared. From what I had heard from people who worked in the shop several years before my arrival, the atmosphere and personal relationships were great. People who came there admired the shop and appreciated the people who worked there. When I arrived, however, there were all kinds of conflicts between the management and the employees and among the employees themselves, as well as those between musicians and the management. All this created difficulties for me.

The worst thing of all, though, was to find Mr. Sacconi completely different from the way he had been just half a year before in Cremona. When I saw him for the first time in the shop (at Wurlitzer's) I was utterly shocked to see him subdued, closed within himself; a man with a curved back and curved emotions. He even behaved with great insecurity, or perhaps fear. He didn't dare open his mouth, even to say «Hello» to me, and I feel sure that he was very fond of me. He was not supposed to teach or even show anything to the workers, because by then someone else in the workshop was in charge. When he came to the shop, he was only to look at a few instruments which had to be identified and to see the clients who asked specifically for him.

After the first week, I asked him why he hadn't told me that the situation at Wurlitzer's was completely different from what I had been told by Charles Beare and other people who had worked there in the past. He answered, “Never mind! I wanted you to come here even in this kind of situation because you can still study and learn, which is what I intended for you.”

Sadly, he came to the shop only when he was called, usually on Saturday, or perhaps on Friday. They used the excuse of his high blood pressure or his eyes to prevent him from doing more, and that was completely unfair. His eyes, in fact, were as sharp as an eagle's, and his blood pressure had been high since he was forty years old. Besides, it was well controlled with pills and his good attitude. Just think, he was able to travel for two hours to get to work, stand for eight hours in the shop, and then travel two more hours to get home, all in the stressful rush of New York. You have to be strong to do that.

The real explanation behind all this, and the real tragedy, was that in the latter part of his life he was rejected by his own people. They no longer appreciated what he did, and were too proud or jealous to admit that he was still as great as ever. I believe that this kind of situation contributed a great deal to his death, and subsequently to the decision to close the great shop of Wurlitzer. I remember the last repair job he did at home, a Bergonzi. The instrument had been almost «naked» before he retouched it, and he added varnish that was so perfect it couldn't be distinguished from the original. Work like that should have been appreciated at the shop, and I learned on that occasion never to ignore or underestimate older people, especially ones like Mr. Sacconi, who was creative to his last moment. Whoever underestimated him didn't know what he was talking about!

Just before he died he made two beautiful instruments. One was a Stradivarius model viola. It shows the magnificent workmanship of which he was still capable at the age of seventy-seven, and is proof that his skills did not deteriorate at all with age. The other was a copy of the «Lord Wilton» violin made by Guarneri del Gesù in 1742. He managed to finish the wood work on this instrument, but not the varnish and retouching.

When he made a copy, it had to be exact, which meant that even tiny breaks in the linings of the original had to be reproduced! If there was a scratch of the gouge on the inside, he made it in the copy; if the purfling was a bit broken in points – and Guarnerius is notorious for that! – he made identical copies of the cracks. Mr. Sacconi had started varnishing and retouching this Guarneri copy before he died. His method was to varnish it first as if it were new, just as the original had been varnished. Then he began taking the varnish off wherever it was worn off on the original. Finally, he made the scratches and cracks. Unfortunately, he was not able to finish this work.

Sacconi made still other instruments which were not copies, but made on a Stradivarius model. Mr. Sacconi was modest; he said he wasn't a great man, just somebody who tried to understand what a great man – Antonio Stradivarius – had done!

Mr. Sacconi was not only modest; as I said, he was also humane and kind. To give you an example, every time I went out to Long Island on the train to visit him on week-ends, he came all the way from his little town to pick me up at the station. I let this great maestro do a driver's job for a young man because he had told me there was no public transport to his village. It was only after his death, when I was worried about not being able to go visit Mrs. Sacconi any more, that a neighbor told me there had been a public bus or taxi service all the time. He had hidden it from me to save me the trouble of waiting for it!

During those four months when Sacconi was still alive, the only time I found myself at ease was on the week-ends when I went to spend the day with him and his wife. This was the only thing that made me feel that I had a reason to stay in this city, and when he died it was almost the end of the world for me. It was very tough to live in the shark-like world of New York without moral support from anybody.

My relationship with Mr. Sacconi did not end with his death, though. I still relate to him indirectly through his wife Teresita, whom I adore as a great person. Today she is eighty-five years old and still lives by herself, self-supported and always in high spirits. In spite of a few complaints, which were probably the same years ago, she keeps on doing her own housework, sewing and writing.

She and her husband had a wonderful relationship. I could see during my visits with them that there was a true understanding between them. She accepted his life without doubts, and her wishes were not important; she was happy to see to it that her husband was happy, and that kept their relationship beautiful.

If you visited their house, you could see that the greatest maestro, the one who could certainly have taken advantage of all his capabilities and knowledge for monetary gain, in fact never did. The house is small and its furnishings are modest, but it is cozy and warm. I am sure that a great many of his students and people he helped are much better off financially than he was, but he didn't care about that kind of thing. Nor was he a jealous man.

Sacconi was of such vital importance to Wurlitzer's that when they put him in the shadow, both customers and good workers – the best workers in the world! – began to leave the shop. After his death in 1973, those that had remained to study with him flew away as soon as they could, either to go on their own or to work in another company.

Fortunately, Mr. Sacconi had finished his book in which his experience and knowledge of Stradivarius's work was set down. This book is a first-class guide to me and many violinmakers around the world. In many conferences where construction and varnishing of violins are the subjects on the agenda, Sacconi's name is often mentioned.

New York, March 3, 1984

Taken from the book: «From Violinmaking to Music: The Life and Works of Simone Fernando Sacconi», presented on December 17, 1985 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (Cremona, ACLAP, first edition 1985, second edition 1986, pages 159-163 - Italian / English).