The cases that hold and protect great instruments are often neglected. Violin Insider investigates what makes the heart and soul of the finest and most beautiful cases, from Hill & Son's to Musafia.

Hill & Son's double violin case

Hill & Son's double violin case 

As a child I remember looking into a violin case with the impression of glimpsing into something sacred, a private nest meant to hold and protect the beautiful instrument within that also was the intimate space of the musician. In my memory the case and the violin were one single entity, it seemed absurd to carry a violin around without its case, as indeed it would be considering the instrument’s fragile nature. Yet there seem to be many players who don’t take the importance of a case into consideration.


They will spend large sums on an instrument and bows and then poorly protect them from damage by not choosing a case that does what a case is meant to do: to protect the instrument’s every aspect, while serving as an integral part of the artist’s relationship with the instruments.

Some of the earliest cases were made by the violinmakers themselves; Antonio Stradivarius crafted cases for his violins as seen by the few that have survived and the templates for their hinges and latches from his workshop. They were conceived to protect the instrument from the dangers of travel at the time: in horse-drawn buggies over rugged roads, overseas on ships… Much like the luggage of the same era, they were robust solid wood coffins usually covered in studded leather with hand-wrought brass fittings. Obviously weight was not a consideration as they were most probably handled by servants and valets, and rarely by the violinist himself.


The violin case began its transformation in the early 19th century with the appearance of specialized case makers, such Debouche in Paris (Paganni housed his Del Gèsu violin in one such case, which is on display today in Genoa’s Palazzo Doria Tursi). We were lucky to have a sister version of this case in our shop and its detailing is similar to what we use today: a lateral top-opening, dart-shaped box, fitted brass hinges, locking mechanism and silk velvet lining with a decorative leather exterior. Great care at the time was taken to combine the case’s practical needs while giving ample attention to its aesthetic details.

Advances from the mid 1800’s paved the way towards modern case design, most notably the development of molded laminated wood to replace the solid wood structure, the handle moving from the top of the lid to the front side to both facilitate carrying and allowing for the addition of a removable protective cover in canvas or leather. Starting from around 1880 in both England and France, we see case designs using presses to form wood laminate into fitted dart shape cases, it is this association of a formed wood laminated shell and a protective cover is the method used to make the best cases today.

Some of the best examples of case production in the second half of the 19th century came from London. In his book The Art and History of Violin Cases Dr. Glenn Wood underlines the importance of 19th-century London as the center for the violin trade. “From 1850 to 1890, this trade was dominated by Hart & Son, Edward Withers and W.E. Hill & Sons and each establishment had active workshops making and repairing violins”(1). Among these, Hill & Sons stands out in 19th-century England as the maker of the finest violin cases and behind the development of numerous characteristics that are still used today in case design. “The Hill had a relentless obsession with quality and consistency of product” (2); their cases were built in a dedicated workshop in Hanwell, established in 1893 that produced cases until the 1990’s, using a combination of extraordinary craftsmanship and select materials. These cases show their dedication to create cases that reflect the beauty of the instruments, protect them and strived to meet the exigencies of contemporary players. The 20th century ushered in a golden age of case design and construction for Hills & Sons, a new designs appears which quickly establishes itself as a design classic, instantly recognizable and built to last”(3).

While discussing innovation with today’s leading specialist and Master case builder Dimitri Musafia of Cremona, Italy, he confirms that the origin of the laminated case and cover is probably from Hill & Sons, although the exact site of production of the pressed formed shells is currently unknown. Because of the close ties at the time between English and French violinmakers we find shared parts. When asked if Hill was at the origin of this type of case construction, Musafia comments: “To my knowledge, yes, however there is some uncertainty about whom exactly was making these cases. Glenn Wood mentioned that Hill & Son's did not have presses and that perhaps the shells were made in France, at Mirecourt. The cover itself might or might not have been ‘invented’ by the maker of these cases, as third party cover suppliers existed at the time and continue to this day”.

 François Champarnaud, of 58 rue du Rome in Paris, owns a large collection of Mirecourt cases — beautifully laminated molded cases with fine Walnut veneer on the outside and the classic Mirecourt interior sheathed in silk velour. The shells are rigid at all angles due to the rounded shaped form and are surprisingly lightweight, even for today’s standard. Champarnaud points out that “All of Mirecourt’s high-end case models have the same form made with hot pressed wood and fine walnut veneer from the Auvergne region. They share the same system of interior construction with silk velvet, so in my opinion there is a unity of production that indicates that they all come from the same place that supplied cases to the major luthier houses in France who then had their name plates affixed to them.” Indeed, apart from the color of the interior there are few variations and the latches and hinges are usually the same. Various labels attest that they were sold by many of the famous French luthiers and shops at the time.

When one compares the dart-shaped cases of Mirecourt with those of Hill & Son’s, it is obvious that they are not made from the same mold as the laminated shell shapes are not the same form, suggesting that different presses must have been used. At the time these presses were big machines undoubtedly expensive to manufacture, so it would seem unlikely that there would be a separate production line for export shells outside of France. In addition, none of the fittings are the same and the internal structure is different. In fact, the French cases and Hills’ share nothing in common, which leads me to believe that Hill & Son’s had their laminated shells made in England specifically for them, as they did for their brass locks and hinges. The mystery of Hill & Son’s lost case presses merits further research!

So many of the attributes that we see today for fine cases are the same as the classic Hill & Son’s cases: pressed laminate wood structure, crafted brass fittings and hinges, silk interiors with blankets and canvas case covers fitted to the shape of the case. They have stood the trials of time, proving themselves best to provide full protection: damage from shocks, vibrations, rain, temperature changes and hydrostatic fluctuations. A few months ago I was lucky enough to purchase a Hill & Son’s double violin case, which, according to Glenn Wood was probably made and designed by Mike Gordge in his early years working for Hill & Sons in Hanwell (4). As I restored the case I was surprised at the precision of the craftsmanship down to each screw slot aligned to be parallel with the case lines. The silk velour lining remains in excellent condition, only the bow ribbons had to be replaced (with new-old stock ribbon that we had in the shop) and minor damage to the mahogany box edges had to be repaired. Other than that, the case is still in excellent condition despite the years.

Mike Gordge went on to build some of the best cases, which are still highly sought-after today and coveted by violinists for their strength and elegant English design. The double case in our shop shows how well they stand the passage of time, even after up to 50 years of use, it remains in beautiful condition.

What makes the heart and soul of a ‘perfect’ violin case? 

The heart of a violin case is to do its essential job at all times: to protect the instrument from every possible danger 24 hours a day even in the roughest situations a string player may encounter. The soul is an indefinable balance between the artistry and craftsmanship of its making, its aesthetic beauty reflecting the instrument and the bows it protects, the way it becomes one with the artist and the sacred place where the love and dedication of the violinist lies.

This does not mean that there is no room for innovation in case construction, much the opposite!
In the next article (part 2 here), Violin Insider looks to the future of case construction with Dimitri Musafia.

Plaque Eugène Sartory

Hill & Son's Hanwell workshop

Many thanks to the following people for their generosity, knowledge, bows and help in writing this article:

Dimitri Musafia
www.musafia.com

François Champarnaud
www.champarnaud-mccamy.com



Violin expert Ian McCamy

Ian McCamy

About

With Violin Insider, Ian McCamy shares his passion for the world of exceptional stringed instruments and fine French bows by exploring their craftsmanship and the unique stories that make up their singular history.

Since the age of three Ian knew he wanted to dedicate his life to the violin: he began playing at the Greenwich House Music School in New York City at the age of six and later studied at LaGuardia School of Arts. Following a career of performing around the world, he has turned his lifelong passion and knowledge of the violin to the study, expertise and restoration of fine stringed instruments and French bows at 58 rue de Rome, Paris France.

Violin Insider shares his fascination for instruments of the string quartet and the extraordinary bows used to play them through a series of articles, documents and photographs. 

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