Sunday, July 26, 2015


We are writing about objects that we cherish and have so much meaning in our lives. Mine is my viola, named “Wolf” by his luthier, who cared for him, when I lived in Detroit, Michigan. Fine instruments are given names by luthiers; I am not sure why that is. I acquired Wolf when I was eighteen years of age, getting ready to start college, and my mother didn't want me to start on a “block of wood” as she termed it. The luthier in San Francisco who sold us the viola, bought “him” from an estate sale, of a woman who had died in her late 70s. She had developed something like MS or some motor disorder and had been a young violist in the San Francisco Symphony. Wolf was found in her closet after her passing.

The one time I don't want a picture of the cat, she sneaks in; the bow is German-made, by Richard Grunke, and at 72 grams is the heaviest viola bow made.

She had all of his papers and provenance, so there is no question that he is a Guidantus Florenus of the Bolognese school of violin making, not the Cremonese school, which turned out the lovely Stradivarius, Amati and Guarneri instruments. You can go on for days and days about different makers, houses, schools, blah blah blah. I have all the viola I need right here. When I first played Wolf, I could not believe the sound that came out of this small, unassuming looking instrument. It was huge! The lower notes were full and rich, the higher ones were sweet and piercing without stridency. I had to take this instrument to my professor to have him listen. There is an adage: "Don't buy the first instrument you play" and naturally, this was the first one I played!

Florenus had some odd little things that he would do with his instruments; here, he has managed to match up 2 pieces of maple so that Wolf appears to have "stripes" the length of his back.

I took him to my professor, the good and kind, late Dr. Jakey and we went to the concert hall. I played Wolf, while he walked around the hall and listened. He had me turn my back to him, because conversely, the viola's sound is projected through the back of the instrument, due to it's size, and not the f-holes, like the violin (probably more than you want to know, but there it is) and he walked up and down, back and forth. Then, he played and I did pretty much the same thing. There wasn't a false note on the instrument, no matter how high up the register, or high up you played on the lower strings. The viola was just solid and so rich. Wolf "plays easily" too. By that I mean, he's a dream to play. I had a viola once that I was trying to sell for a friend, and I felt like I'd been in a cat-fight every time I played it.

Another "hallmark" of Florenus' house (usually several members of one family worked on a "bench" or for a "house" - Antonio Stradivarius passed on his fiddle-making to his sons) is that his f-hole work looks like cavemen chiseled them out with rocks. Interesting, since he took such care with the backs, but then, wait until you see the scroll!

Before Wolf got his name, I had to have some work done on him. I took him to my luthier in Detroit, Michigan. I needed to have all of his pegs changed out to rosewood, his fingerboard was beveled as was the custom in the 18th century and needed to be smoothed out and evened, I wanted to have him outfitted with matching chin rest and end pin to match his pegs. He also had a tiny, tiny crack on the front and that needed to be fixed. The luthier, Peter, said he could do all of that, but would have to take the top off. I went into a near-frenzy. I think all players do that. He said, "relax, just going to put a tiny cleat on that crack underneath". 

Wolf is small compared to most violas; 15 and 7/8" inches, instead of 16 1/2, or 17 inches, but because he is "fat" between his front and his back, he is able to project the kind of sound much larger violas produce. He can pretty much out-shout bigger ones, but then I have a "heavy" arm and have had to learn to back off and play with a lighter arm, when necessary. Now, that I'm back playing symphonically and no longer a free-range violist, I actually have to pay attention to the dynamics. When I toured with rock 'n' roll bands, like Styx and the Moody Blues, no one gave a hoot about dynamics. 

He went off to do his voo-doo, while I paced around and fretted. Peter came back in a bit, and said, "come here, I want you to see this?" I'm thinking, "oh geeze, he's gonna tell me the thing's got termites." So we go back into his inner sanctum, and he's taken the top off of Wolf. First off, there's a dust bunny in there, that's been there so long and is so huge, it's viola-shaped. Just kidding. Peter shows me where he fixed the tiny crack and the set of pegs, chin rest and tail or end pin, that he's picked out for Wolf. Wolf is not a deep red, or mahogany; he's blond and his varnish is also a softer varnish. That's another thing string people yap about; varnish. For days. 

This is a true Florenus scroll. It's out of kilter. It looks like something that got left out in the sun and kind of melted. There is no symmetry and I laugh every time I see it. If I were to have no provenance or proof of Wolf's lineage, an appraiser would look at this, his f-holes and his back and go, "yep, Florenus". They're all horrible. It's like Florenus just didn't care, at least about the head-on part of it. 

Anyway, Peter is looking at Wolf's scroll and his front, deep in thought. He says, "Mary, I've seen this viola before." I'm like "Orly?" in my head. Peter goes to his catalogs. Luthiers have very, very expensive catalogs that are updated every so many years with notable string instruments. He hunts around for a certain year and pulls out this book. It's huge and it's heavy and he flips through it to the "F" section and there is my Florenus. I was pretty shocked. I told him I have the bill of sale. I had to have the instrument authenticated and insured, but Peter named him "Wolf" because of his huge, at times gruff sounds on his lower strings. Another weird convention: Wolf is a "him" because I'm female. This is not etched in stone, it is more a tradition that has gone on through the centuries, among luthiers and string players. 

Wolf and I have been a team now for nearly 41 years; that's longer than any of my marriages have lasted and longer than the time I had my father in my life. Wolf is by my side pretty much all the time, and we have had our adventures, and our disasters, although I make sure that if it's gonna get physical, I take the brunt of it, like falling off a stage. Ribs can heal; it's damnably hard and expensive to fix an Italian Aristocrat. This happened to a friend of mine; I completely understand his “tuck and roll” move.

I do have to give Florenus this much. When it came to the serif and the profile, there were few better. The sweep from the serif up to the crest is gorgeous. The only prettier one I've seen is on a Gofriller cello. All in all, Wolf is a spectacular instrument! I'm so fortunate to have him.

In an eery coincidence, several years ago, I developed a motor disorder and it was though that I would not play again. Understandably, this may have been caused in part by about 10 or 15 years of total hell – went blind, had congestive heart failure, during which time, husband got a girl friend, left his cheating ass, tried to buy a house with the settlement, lost it in econ meltdown of 2008, got sick AGAIN and HOMELESS, this time – and at one point, I just wanted to lay down in my traces like a tired old cart horse and not get up. But, that's not what we do in my family. We come roaring back, and are usually made stronger by whatever set us back on our pins in the first place.

But, the motor disorder, is in fact inherited and I had been displaying symptoms for many years. They just chose to become overt and I was unable to play. Well. Shit. After two years of fighting with a bunch of quacks who call themselves “neurologists” I was set up through the Parkinson's Foundation with a world-class neurologist, who had me diagnosed and out the door in well under 2 years. Understand, that neurological problems typically take from 6 to 10 years for a diagnosis. Within a year, I was playing again. I joined the local symphony and took it head-on. We started our season with Beethoven's 5th Symphony (Oh, I should mention, Beethoven is my muse, not just for music, but for life) and ended with Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony for Big Orchestra, and gave a seminal performance. I am so thrilled to be able to make music again on this level! It was just a dream, but to have Wolf? Icing on the cake and I'm making up for lost time!


Judy Phillips said...

I love this, Mary! And I think the picture of Wolf and your gato is perfect <3

Anonymous said...

Wolf is so handsome-- lovely post for the blogfest, Mary. It was interesting to know all that goes into the making and repairing-- thanyou for particpating-- this was awesome.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely post, Mary! Fascinating to learn the relationship between you and your viola, and how much you cherish "Wolf" shines through the whole article. So special!

Viola Fury said...


Thank you so much for coming by! It was too funny; Mama is so hard to get INTO a picture and I couldn't get her OUT of the pictures. The one that I didn't show you, was the one of her licking her butt in front of Wolf's back. Gatos can be a class act, sometimes. All in all, she is a gentle and loving companion! Thanks again for reading. I love you! <3

Viola Fury said...

@Dearest Damyanti,

Thank you so much for reading. I got confused for a bit and thought this was about cherished FRIENDS ONLINE and was working up some posts on my 10-year old gaming clan, then, decided, I'd better double-check since I got the dates wrong. Well, I just had all sorts of wrong going on, so, I knew of course, that I would be writing about Wolf. Easily done, as he is cherished and such a mainstay in my life. Now that I'm playing again, which is in itself a wonderful thing, I really had to go back and look more closely at my "partner in crime", for the unique voice that he is.

ALL instruments, particularly the finer ones, have their own particular personalities and quirks. I remember a guy in Detroit, who was beyond tickled that he'd bought a Strad. Well, there are good Strad violins and bad Strad violins -- only 12 Strad violas exist, and I understand none of them are all that and a bag of chips! -- and this poor fellow bought a Strad that hated lights. So, it sounded great in a completely dark room, but pinchy and screechy in a lighted, concert hall.

Wolf does not particularly care for cold, dry weather, although he was fine in Detroit for 16 seasons. I found this out, after I moved to Florida and after 2 years here, was on a concert tour that took me to my old stomping grounds. First piece out of the gate, Wolf "untuned" his lower 2 strings, the "G" and "C" strings. As the symphony raged on around me, I had to coax him back into tune, swearing under my breath all the while. He'd never done that before and had always been remarkable easy to keep in tune. We fought the entire time we were in the northeast. He started to behave the farther south we progressed through the tour.

Still, he's a remarkable find and a remarkable viola and fun to play. He also makes me look good, which is always a plus! Thanks again for reading! This was a fun blogfest and I'm glad I got it sorted out. I love you, Damyanti! Mary

Viola Fury said...


Thank you so much for stopping by! I'm so glad I had this opportunity to write about Wolf. I never thought that when my mom bought him for me, I'd still be playing him at this stage in my career. I've watched other string players sell wonderful instruments for what they thought was going to be something better and ended up with something less than they had. The relationship between a player and his or her instrument, particularly a non-fretted stringed instrument is a close partnership and it takes a lot of time to get to "know" your instrument. It also takes a lot of playing on that instrument to bring out the full sound. They are meant to be played, and often. If they're not played, the sound closes up and doesn't sound as full as it should. I really hit the lottery when my mom and I found Wolf; he's been such a huge part of my life. Thank you so much for stopping by! Mary <3

C.D. Gallant-King said...

It's certainly not as impressive as your beautiful instrument, but I have a similar story with my guitar.

My first guitar as a youth-sized acoustic for someone just learning to play. It was fine for what it was but I quickly outgrew it. I really wanted an electric guitar so I picked one out that looked really cool, but turned out it was a piece of junk. Turned out several other students in my music class had asked our teacher about the same guitar and he told them all to stay away from it. I was the only one dumb enough not to ask him first. Despite replacing most of the wiring and electronics it just never worked or sounded right.

Then my aunt gave me (actually sold me, but very cheap) her old cherished acoustic guitar. It was not impressive and certainly not as cool as an electric, but I was immediately struck by how "right" it felt when I picked it up. The neck and strings felt perfect in my hands and the sound was full and wonderful. She said she had already "broken it in" which may have been partially true but it was also just a better made, more well-cared for instrument than anything I played before.

I haven't played in many years but I still have that guitar back at my parents house. My father and my niece have also learned to play on it. I gave away or sold all my other guitars and basses but I kept that one for the day I eventually decide to go back to it.

John said...

Thanks for sharing Mary ! Glad you and Wolf are making music again.

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Viola Fury said...

@C. D.,

That's a wonderful story! You also bring up something that is vitally important to players; the relationship between the player and his/hers instruments. Wolf just feels so "right" in my hands, as does my bow. Also, the comment about being "broken in" is apt as well. These older instruments have mellowed with age. I actually worked for Wolf's luthier for a time, helping him sell fine instruments to gifted students and it was like arranging marriages. The newer instruments are always going to sound raw and harsh, although a good maker can shape the wood so that some of that sharpness is reduced. The maker does have to be wary of removing too much of the wood from the back of the instrument, be it a violin or a guitar, as they then become fragile.

I certainly understand what you're saying and I'm so glad that you still have that guitar. I have a violin floating around here, but got rid of all of the other ones I had. I started with one, but they started to reproduce or something and I was just like. . . gah! (For an explanation, you can read my post, "Playing the Violin, and How to Avoid It") Not a fan of playing them, but I will saw away on Wolf all day!

Thanks so much for reading about my partner in crime. We've had many adventures and are preparing for many more! <3

Viola Fury said...


Thanks for coming by and reading about my lifelong companion. He's a keeper and he makes me look good! I'm glad you enjoyed the article! Again, thanks for the visit! Mary