In 1993, Cal Meineke, a doctor with a talent for playing the violin, set out to solve a perplexing mystery: Why do some stringed instruments produce a heartbreakingly beautiful sound, while other, nearly identical instruments do not? After almost two decades of obsessive violinmaking and intense scrutiny, he thinks he has the answer
By Jim Collins
June 24, 2011, 9:00 am
Cal Meineke, the skeptical violinmaker: “I wanted knowledge that I could explain.”
Forty-five years ago, as a freshman in college, Cal Meineke was poking around a music department storage room and came across a rare Tyrolean violin made in the 17th century by the German Matthias Albani.
Meineke had recently become serious about playing the violin. He drew a bow across the strings of the old instrument. Nothing in the violin’s appearance marked it as special, yet its sound was unlike anything Meineke had produced before. “It had a buttery quality,” he later said. “You never forget it if you hear it.” The experience lodged a question in his mind: Why is it that some instruments sound beautiful, while other, nearly identical instruments do not?
Meineke graduated in 1971 from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a chemistry degree and went on to graduate work and research in molecular biology. He finished medical school in less than three years and busied himself establishing a medical practice and raising a family in Oak Park. But the question persisted.
Meanwhile, Meineke skirted the fringes of Chicago’s classical music world. He played first violin in Oak Park’s community orchestra and got to know Michael Darnton, who worked on stringed instruments at Bein & Fushi, a dealer in downtown Chicago. Darnton occasionally let Meineke try an antique violin made by one of the legendary Italian masters, and the tonal difference between a great instrument and an ordinary one continually struck the doctor.
What accounted for that difference?
In his early 40s, his practice established and his kids getting older, Meineke indulged his curiosity and turned his scientific mind to the question. During nights and weekends in the fall of 1993—in a few weeks, with only a book to teach him and tools he’d been given by the violinmaker Günther Reuter—he built a violin. “It was a thrill,” he says, remembering that first one. “Just making an instrument that was playable, one that sounded kind of like a violin.” The next year, he made three more violins, two violas, and his first cello.
His approach conformed to the practice of a conservative craft: Match the measurements of a great instrument of the 17th or 18th century made by one of the masters of the Cremona school in northern Italy—Amati, say, or Stradivari (see “A Short History of the Violin”). Follow its precise dimensions and arching diagrams and rely on improving skill to come ever closer to making an exact copy. But despite his improving skill, Meineke’s third, fourth, and fifth instruments sounded no better than his first, and some sounded worse than others.
Trying to figure out why, Meineke looked more deeply into the history of the instrument. He read all he could find on the subject, including articles about the “mystery” of the Stradivarius, a perennial topic in violin literature. Generations of musicians had speculated about why few, if any, modern violins could compare with the several hundred surviving Cremona instruments, which sold for a million dollars and more. Was it some secret varnish? Did the hard Italian maple in the violin backs produce the incomparable power? Or was it something intuitive that had been passed down—and stayed—in the old Cremona guild?
It wasn’t long before Meineke came to view much of the accepted wisdom of violinmaking and violin quality as mythology. Trained as a scientist, he didn’t believe in mystique and wasn’t interested in intuition. “I wanted knowledge that I could explain,” he says.
Many of the Cremona instruments did sound exquisite to him, but not all of them did—and the Strads, especially, were notoriously finicky, difficult to play and keep in tune. Some newer instruments by little-known makers played effortlessly, Meineke thought, and to his ear sounded superior to old Italian violins 20 times more expensive. (Occasionally, over the decades, celebrated blind tests have embarrassed learned audiences and violinists who couldn’t pick out a Cremona instrument from its well-crafted modern counterparts.) There seemed to be a murky relationship between an instrument’s sound quality and its cost. With a strong financial incentive to push the pedigreed instruments, whose value as objets d’art was driven by collectors, dealers typically determined value based on three factors: the market, an instrument’s condition, and its provenance. The sound—in a tool created to make sound—had no bearing on value except at the highest end of the market. Meineke saw emperor’s clothes all around.
He understood the argument that sound quality is subjective, that a great player could produce a more pleasing sound on a cigar box than a poor player could on a fine violin—that beautiful music, like the appeal of any art, is a matter of aesthetics. But Meineke listened to lots of people play the same and different instruments, and he became suspicious that it wasn’t the playing that made his own creations sound unpleasant, nor any sense of aesthetics, but something inherent in the instruments themselves.
He believed there might be an empirical way to figure it out, some basis in the physics of the instrument. So he set out, as a scientist, to answer a question of art.
Photograph: Nathan Kirkman
“In a good instrument, you can hear the harmonics,” a long-time cellist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra counseled Meineke, who labored in his basement workshop, striving to craft violins that produced the perfect sound.
Meineke didn’t find anything in the orthodox research of stringed-instrument acoustics that was of much use to him. Some of the pioneering work by the German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz in the 19th century and the later experiments of the Catgut Acoustical Society and its cofounder, the innovative East Coast violinmaker Carleen Hutchins, interested him and helped frame his early thinking. At least that’s what he says when he’s being generous. Other times, when he doesn’t hold back the strength of his opinions, he might say something like, “Hutchins did some interesting experiments, but she was wrong. Helmholtz himself would have told you he didn’t understand how instruments work. He lived in a Euclidean world, where the entire branch of physics was essentially solved. Violins have been refractory to the applications of science because the problems are profoundly abstract and layered and require, beyond insight, process skills that are not easily developed in our noisy, impatient world.”
The violinmakers Meineke knew didn’t take the time to think about physics, and almost all of the modern physics research he saw was theoretical. None gave him a practical blueprint for how to build a better instrument.
He was open to ideas—he paid $5,000 for a block of old Eastern European maple, experimented with varnish formulas—and became, over time, a competent violinmaker. But he wasn’t particularly interested in an instrument’s appearance. He was in it for the sound. He kept coming back to the basic understanding that had been articulated for him by the late Philip Blum, the longtime cellist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Blum had played the first cello Meineke made. He’d said, “In a good instrument, you can hear the harmonics. The sound is not damped. It rings with tones and overtones.” Meineke heard that “ring” as strings simultaneously producing both clear tones and echoes of those tones, as if the sound of several instruments were coming through each note. The strings of a well-tuned violin seemed to generate their tones instantaneously, with hardly any effort or pressure on the part of the player.
Holding his ear close to the early instruments he made, Meineke noticed that the pitch differed almost everywhere he listened. He wondered: If a violin’s pitch changes from one end of the instrument to the other or from its top plate to its back, could the sound be a composite of all those competing pitches? “It’s not subjective,” he says. “No matter your ear, an A is 440 cycles per second, and if you hear that along with a tone that’s 448 cycles per second, that’s going to be dissonance, and it’s not going to sound good.”
In a beautiful-sounding violin, Meineke realized, the strings excited the wood in such a way that the sound waves moved in unison and reinforced one another—resulting in harmonic undertones and overtones that gave power and color and texture to the notes. The thought led him to question the accepted notion that a string of a certain length and mass under a certain tension always gives a certain pitch. “I came to believe that might be true of an ideal string,” he says, “but it’s not true for a real string attached to a wooden box.”
Meineke discovered that even tiny changes in the thicknesses of the top and back plates radically changed the pitches he could hear. He developed a thin, pliable tool to reach through the narrow f-hole openings in the top plates and sand away minute amounts of wood from particular regions inside the instrument; he used a long-handled gouge to take heavier amounts from the back. After he’d scarred a few violins for life, he became adept at removing and regluing the tops to get at the insides more easily.
He started out tap-tuning the plates—planing or sanding the plates until tapping on them produced a clear tone along and across certain directions of the grain. But tapping didn’t mimic the moving strings’ effect on the wood. When he plucked a string quietly and put his ear to the back plate, he could hear the tone of the back, and if he plucked louder, he could hear the tones of the back and the top plates at the same time, usually in dissonance. “Bifid!” he’d say, a medical term meaning “cleft into two parts.” He theorized that changing the thickness in specific areas of the plates would bring the pitches together and create clear, powerful tones. He fashioned a crude tool that echoed the Victorian earphone. With his ear cupped to a paper cone glued to a thin wooden dowel, he could touch the dowel to precise points on the plates and hear the tones coming through them as he plucked a string.
And he started getting results. Not all of his instruments rang through the range of notes and across all the strings, but occasionally one did. Susan Ross, a member of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, bought a Meineke instrument and started coming by his house to play on his latest experiments. Philip Blum, who normally played a 300-year-old Italian cello, took one of Meineke’s on tour with him and used it one summer at Ravinia. Teddy Rankin-Parker, an advanced student of Blum’s wife, Nancy, said that his “Cal cello” was so easy to play that he could progress as far in ten minutes on it as he had in three lessons on his previous instrument. In 1998, word of a particularly good cello made it from Nancy to her sister, Sue Ann Erb, who taught Suzuki-method violin in New Hampshire and whose daughter, Alissa, had been discouraged by a long search for a new cello. Alissa flew to Chicago and fell in love with Meineke’s.
Intrigued by what she heard, Sue Ann also visited the violin doctor, bringing along her 250-year-old Leidolff violin. She went downstairs into Meineke’s shop and played some Bach and Corelli on one of his instruments—and felt like a completely different player. “What I’d been struggling to play suddenly came easily,” she recalls. “I was astounded by how responsive and clear the instruments were.” For a teacher, the implications were deep.
Meineke made a violin for Erb and shipped it to New Hampshire, and she had the strange sensation of hearing the notes leap out an instant before she even bowed them. She gave the violin to one of her top students, Lexy Harrod, who took it to an appraiser named Ken Meyer. Meyer, who made adjustments on Yo-Yo Ma’s cello when Ma came to Boston, and who had served as a judge for the Violin Society of America, said he’d give the Meineke violin an F for varnish and fine finish work—but that it sounded amazing. He valued the instrument at $25,000, almost double what Meineke had charged for it.
By word of mouth, a small Meineke fan club was forming. More musicians dropped by his living room to try out his latest creations. (To date, Meineke has made more than 90 violins from scratch, as well as a number of violas and cellos.) Still, the doctor didn’t know how to replicate his intermittent successes and was reluctant about promoting his experiments to a wider audience. “When I know what I’m doing,” he told people, “then I’ll feel I can put the word out.”