Mrs. Wurlitzer was the President of the Rembert Wurlitzer fìrm of violinmakers and dealers after the death of her husband Rembert, who founded the company in New York in 1949. Collaboration between Rembert Wurlitzer and Fernando Sacconi had brought the fìrm to world fame and made it the meeting place for the greatest musicians in the violin world. As President, Mrs. Wurlitzer distinguished herself by concluding the largest violin transaction ever made, that of the Hottinger Collection of extremely rare instruments. She studied sociology and English literature at the Ohio State University and at present does music therapy with drug addicts.
When we met Mr. Sacconi he was working for Emil Herrmann. He lived down in Greenwich Village very close to us, and Rembert used to send him special violins to restore. Then he began coming to visit us every Sunday and saying. “Oh Rembert, I would like to work for you!” Rembert already had a young Czechoslovakian running his shop, though, and he couldn't ever bring himself to hurt anybody. I remember his telling Mr. Sacconi, “Fernando, I couldn't possibly put you under Roman because of your talents, and I can't put you over him because it would break his heart.” The angels must have meant for Rembert and Fernando to be together, though, because poor Roman died suddenly of a heart attack, and after that Mr. Sacconi came to be with us. He and Rembert made the greatest team that ever was!
Not only did they both have particular talent when it came to violins, but their main interest in life was stringed instruments, and they would go to any length to find out more about them. They were really great students! Both of them had learned how to make, play, and appraise the instruments they worked with, and the whole violin world came to them. They were really generous in giving help and advice, too, because they had such great love, both for the stringed instruments and for their fellow man.
Rembert inherited his passion for the violin from his father and grandfather, who both played extremely well. His father, in fact, was Fritz Kreisler's roommate at the University of Berlin. The funny thing was that he was studying violin, and Kreisler, medicine! After Rem's father came back to the States to help run the enormous Rudolph Wurlitzer Company his father had founded in Cincinnati in 1856, he still loved to invite violinists to the house. One of the guests Rem always remembered was the great Eugene Ysaÿe, (who loved food so much that he would go around to the kitchen door to check out what was for dinner before he decided whether or not to present himself at the front door for an impromptu invitation!). With such musicians in the house, you can see how Rem became so attached to the violin, which he learned to play, too... badly!
He didn't begin his serious study of the violin, though, until after he'd gotten his B.A. in fine arts from Princeton. Then he went to Mirecourt, where he was the first American that I know of to complete the course in violinmaking. After that he went to England to Alfred Hill, who was the great, great expert of that time. He lived with old Alfred while he studied with him, so he really absorbed a tremendous amount of expertise. Then he began travelling in various countries, doing research on the old instrument makers and studying all the great instruments he could find. He spent at least six months in Germany and another six in Rome during this period.
Mr. Sacconi learned to play the violin with his own father, who was a tailor in Rome, but also played the violin very well and owned several good instruments. Later Fernando learned to play the viola and cello by himself, but his real love was always the construction and restoration of the instruments. One day when he was only eight or nine years old, he took a kitchen knife and opened the top of one of his father's violins to see what it was like inside.
When his father saw what he had done, instead of being furious with him he said, “Well, well, he must want to be a violinmaker! Let's have him study with Giuseppe Rossi.” He was apprenticed to Rossi in Rome soon after that, made his first violin when he was only eleven, and had his own shop by the time he was sixteen! During his lifetime he made over seventy violins, some sixteen cellos, and at least twelve violas. Of the five hundred known Stradivariuses, he studied, restored, or repaired some three hundred.
Mr. Sacconi had an incredible knowledge of stringed instruments. Without looking at the date inside the instrument, he could tell when it was made, and even when it had been repaired. He knew all about the various famous violinmakers, especially his idol Stradivarius. He was familiar with all the periods of development Stradivarius went through, and was able to date one of his instruments by minute study of the wood and the shape of the arch, scroll and f-holes. He used to say, “Looking at two fine Stradivariuses is like studying two portraits of the same person by one artist: no two are ever alike!”
The violin is probably the most studied instrument, and no one really knows everything about its acoustics. Mr. Sacconi knew more than anyone else because he studied Stradivarius more closely than anyone ever had, but he was still learning when he died. He was particularly interested in the varnish, and you know that everyone is always talking about the secret of Stradivarius's varnish. In his later years Mr. Sacconi said “There's no secret to Stradivarius's varnish, no secret at all... the secret is how long he waited between varnishes!”
Once Fernando and Rembert began to work as a team, the shop became an international musicians' club. The best musicians in the world came to them looking for fabulous instruments, or bringing Mr. Sacconi their own for adjustment, repair, or restoration. Heifetz, Elman, Milstein, Ricci, Menuhin, Szeryng, Stern, Casals, Piatigorsky, Francescatti, Rostropovich, all kinds of wonderful people came in all the time. I remember when Fritz Kreisler brought his priceless violin to Mr. Sacconi in 1962. Isaac Stern and David Oistrakh met for the first time at our shop, and before long they had out all the rare instruments and were giving a concert for the staff! Another time Isaac brought in Jack Benny with his Strad, and they started playing together. Who could get any work done with such incredible things going on?!
The instruments that came into Mr. Sacconi's hands were as marvellous as the musicians who came to him for them. Just think, when Mr. Hottinger sold me his fabulous collection, we had thirtyeight of the world's most famous violins all there at once, among them Fritz Kreisler's 1711 «Earl of Plymouth» Strad, which had been locked in its case for a hundred and seventy-five years before being discovered; the incredible «Hellier» with its elaborate inlaid ornamentation; the 1566 Andrea Amati made for King Charles IX of France, with the royal coat of arms on the back, now in Cremona; Jascha Heifetz's «Dolphin» Strad and the «Cessole», two of the world's most perfect violins; the «Harrison» Strad, the «Joachim» Guarneri and the 1740 «Ysaÿe» Guarnerius, which we saved for Isaac Stern. Mr. Sacconi was so proud to show the visitors these instruments when we had a three-day exhibition of them and people came from all over the world.
Apart from the work he did appraising or restoring the great instruments that came into the shop, Mr. Sacconi worked with my husband preparing a detailed file for each instrument. This set of records was begun by Rem's father Rudolph, and has been scrupulously built up and maintained ever since. They list all the main events in the instrument's life: the date or probable date of its making, where it spent its early years, its various owners, dates of purchases and sales, fullface and profile photographs. Rembert and Mr. Sacconi worked so hard on these records that they found themselves with the most complete library on stringed instruments in the world. When I was unable to keep the shop going any longer after the death of my husband and then of Mr. Sacconi, I gave these records to Charles Beare of London. He had spent a year with us, working with Mr. Sacconi in the shop and upstairs with Rembert, who said he had the greatest eye since Alfred Hill. Charles is Rembert's true successor, and also Mr. Sacconi's best student of expertise, so I wanted him to carry on the huge job of keeping up the files. I could have given them to the Library of Congress, because they are invaluable for the provenance of all the great instruments, but they would have had to be kept closed for too long because of the confidential information about prices which they contain, and they wouldn't have been up-dated, as they are now thanks to Charles Beare.
In addition to keeping such detailed records of the fine instruments, Rem had the idea of making a recording of the most famous ones from the Cremona School so people could hear how they compare with each other and with modern instruments. It's called «The Glory of Cremona», and if Cremona can again take its rightful place in the violin world, it will be marvellous. When we went on our long trip to Europe, we visited the school of violinmaking in Cremona, and saw all kinds of machines testing sounds and vibrations. I was beside Fernando when he talked with the director of the school, and since I knew how kind and gentle he always was with everybody, I was really struck when he said, “Jt's all very interesting... Why can't you make a good violin?” He thought all those machines were ridiculous, with their noises and sound waves. What he believed in was careful, artistic workmanship, not industrialized production.
That doesn't mean that he wasn't interested in new scientific developments, though. On the contrary, he was most enthusiastic about certain new types of glue and made endless experiments with them. He wasn't against machines, either. In fact, he and Rembert invented a big machine to age wood, because they thought it made better new instruments after this treatment. They built the machine at our place in the country, and every time we cut down a willow, spruce or maple, they would age it. One time Rembert even bought the thirteenth-century columns from an ancient Italian villa and had them shipped over for Mr. Sacconi to make violins with.
Every time I found one of Mr. Sacconi's instruments for sale, I bought it. I still have a quartet of his instruments which I hope to sell together, because it would be a shame to break it up. I know there are other Sacconi instruments around, and they must be very valuable by now.
Going back to Mr. Sacconi's interest in new inventions, he was the first one to have the idea of making a fiberglass bow. The way he got interested in fiberglass is entertaining, too – through his great love for fishing! He was the best fisherman on Long Island, and won all the prizes – for the biggest fish, the most fish, the rarest fish – for everything! He also made all his own lures, which were absolutely beautiful... real works of art, with little feathers and tiny bits of silk. Everything he did, he did better than anybody else! From April to December, whenever he wasn't with his violins he was out on his boat. It was made of fiberglass, and so was his fishing rad, which gave him the idea of making violin bows out of fiberglass. Usually, good bows are made of pernambuco wood from Brazil, which is extremely rare and hard to get, and he thought the fiberglass could give the same type of flexibility to a bow. He and Rembert spent ten years making great research on fiberglass, and finally came up with the first fiberglass bow ever made. Now they're made by the millions, but that first one was really a special invention, and it is used by one of the world's greatest violists, Walter Trampler. When he said he liked it, Mr. Sacconi loaned it to him... after he had put an especially beautiful frog on it to make it elegant enough for Mr. Trampler's very fine Amati. I remember that when we got that viola in our shop, Mr. Sacconi said. “Oh, this must be for Walter Trampler!”
Mr. Sacconi invented lots of other things, too. One was a tailgut for the violin that literally everybody uses today. He made it just because he thought the violin should have a more durable tailgut, and Rembert had it put under the trademark of «Sacconi». He thought all of Mr. Sacconi's inventions should have his trademark, including Mr. Sacconi's resin and polish, which he prepared with special ingredients. He was some man! He also made one experiment after another with varnishes. He loved the old varnishes so that one time he even touched up the colors on the poster from Cremona of the famous «Cremonese» Strad, because he said they weren't exact... and it looks like a real violin! I have it framed in our country house now. I remember one time when he and Rembert were experimenting with varnish out in the country. We had all these instruments in the white, and Fernando even put me to work! He taught me how to put the white filler on some of the instruments, and then how to varnish each one this way or that, in one direction or the other, to see what would happen with each method. I had the whole kitchen strung with violins instead of laundry!
Fernando and Rembert were always interested in trying out antique methods of doing things, too. Another time we were in the country together, they went out looking for a certain type of rough weed that Fernando was sure Stradivarius had used in the place of sandpaper, which they didn't have then. They looked for hours, and didn't find it until they came back and stepped on it right in front of our door! While they tried it out in the kitchen and found that it really was abrasive enough, Fernando's wife Teresita and I had fun doing the cooking. She is a marvellous cook, and Fernando was great at making the salads. What a production... he would dry every leaf! He also loved gardening, and had the best fruit trees on Long Island. His secret there was burying the fish heads and tails around the trees after Teresita – and all the neighbors – had cleaned the quantities of fish he brought them!
Mr. Sacconi was not only a great mind, but also very handsome. My daughter Marianne always said he kept getting handsomer as he got older, and it was true. He also had such a sweet manner with everybody. When he was teaching Marianne to make her copy of the «Titian» Stradivarius, he was so gentle with her that I thought she'd never finish it! In fact, it is still to this day in the white, and I don't guess she'll ever get it varnished, but it's beautiful all the same, and their father-daughter relationship was even more beautiful. Fernando's son went into electronics rather than violinmaking, but the minute his son had a child he said, “As soon as he walks, he will be in my shop, even if I have to keep a playpen here!” In spite of all his great knowledge and importance, Fernando was always very modest and never thought of himself. You should have seen him laugh while he watched himself on the live television show we had in the shop in the sixties, and when we had a special violin festival to celebrate his birthday one year, it wasn't even on the right day, because he was so distracted by the thought of unveiling his copy of the «Hellier» that he didn't remember when his birthday was!
Shortly after my daughter joined the business in the summer of 1964, Mr. Sacconi, Marianne and I went on a great trip to Europe to visit dealers and the school in Mittenwald, and to look for wood. Mr. Sacconi was absolutely fascinating! Everywhere we went, in England, Holland, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, and of course, Italy, he told us anecdotes with the most wonderful historical details about the violinmakers of the area. I remember his saying on our way through ltaly. “When Guadagnini was here he pulled his cart along this same path. I'll bet he got his wood from this very group of trees.”
He was so wonderful I never wanted to retire him, even though one or two of the people in the shop thought I should at a certain point. I always remembered what my husband had said when he was sent to replace the old head of the violin department in the former Wurlitzer Company: “I just can't retire him, even if I have to pay his salary out of my own pocket... I won't do that to that man!” And I refused to retire Mr. Sacconi. I did tell him he didn't have to get up at five in the morning to get to work at a certain hour, but that he could just come in whenever he felt like it, or work at home if he preferred. “Do whatever you want to do... this is your place!”, I kept telling him, but the atmosphere at the end of his days caused him great sadness.
When Mr. Sacconi died, I knew our days were numbered because he was our greatest expert after Rembert died. I had no expertise, but we carried on as long as we could. I'm glad, at least, that Mr. Sacconi didn't see us close. It was terrible. One person sent me a telegram from Haiti saying, “I'd rather the Bank of England had closed!” Anyway, Fernando and Rembert did incredibly marvellous things together while they were alive, and they're still alive in the memories of all the great musicians and violinmakers that knew them. Then, Mrs. Sacconi says she goes every morning to pray for them, and she's sure they're up there together again now.
New York, April 29, 1985
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 24-30 - Italian / English).
© 2024 - In memory of Francesco Bissolotti in the 5th anniversary of his death