History and Documents + Throw Back Thursday

From the Wall Street Journal !!


Following a family tradition that he worked to perfect, Carl Becker became one of the most acclaimed violin makers of his time.

Symphony orchestras around the world feature players who depend on Mr. Becker’s instruments, known for their bright, loud sound. Others are collected by wealthy amateurs.


“He was, in my opinion, the Twentieth Century’s outstanding maker of new violins, violas and cellos, as well as a meticulous restorer,” said Charles Beare, a London-based violin dealer. Mr. Becker died Jan. 30 at age 93.

Mr. Becker worked on some of the most famous Stradivari and Guarneri violins at his Chicago store, Carl Becker and Son. Mr. Becker was the son, having learned the craft from his father, a mostly self-taught craftsman who made his first violin in 1901. The family had already been in the violin business for two generations, but it was Carl Becker Sr. whose reputation spread as a master luthier.

Carl Becker Jr. learned the craft in his teens at his father’s workbench, making cello ribs and moving on to crafting whole instruments. After serving as a flight instructor during World War II, he turned down an airline pilot’s career and returned to the workshop. With his father, he produced about 500 instruments.

The elder Mr. Becker hated paperwork and for decades the father and son worked for another Chicago dealer. But in 1968 they opened their own shop, one of the few offering new instruments, valuable old Italian instruments as well as repair and restoration services.

By then, son had long surpassed father as the more acclaimed luthier. “Compared to this boy, I’m a shoemaker,” the elder Mr. Becker once exclaimed. Yet most of the Becker instruments were joint productions. Carl Becker Jr. on his own produced just 13 instruments, at an increasingly leisurely pace in recent years. But they were his best, his son Paul Becker, also a violin maker, says.

The family tradition continues with Mr. Becker’s son, his daughter Jennifer and two granddaughters, all violin makers and repairers.

Unlike his father, Mr. Becker left voluminous documentation of his methods, though his heirs struggle to organize it all.

“His workmanship is so meticulous and perfect,” said Peter Seman, a Chicago violin maker and president of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. “When you see them, that’s what you strive for.”

“Carl was a titan who wore his greatness lightly,” said Charles Rufino, one of many apprentices and assistants who trained with Mr. Becker over the years.

Mr. Rufino remembered visiting Mr. Becker at his summer workshop in Pickerel, Wis., where newly-varnished violins hung by their necks on the clothesline, drying in the sun and wind off Pickerel Lake.

A benefit of the summer workshop was Pickerel Lake, where Mr. Becker fished for muskie. He had recently applied to renew his pilot’s license.

—Email remembrances@wsj.com


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