In today's world of mass production and planned obsolescence, there are still a few artists like Clarence Berger whose work continues to reflect an age when the standard was craftsmanship rather than efficiency.
Berger is a violin maker, helping to keep alive a craft that can be traced as far back as the year 986, when the first professional guild was organized in Europe, and that many believe reached its zenith in the 17th and 18th centuries under such men as Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri.
The custom furniture and cabinet shop Berger opened in Northeast Washington in 1940, The Berger Woodworking Co., is still in its original location at 223 Riggs Rd. NE, but has since had to triple its space.
"We've done a lot of work for the National Cathedral," he said with pride, "including some doors and heavily carved hymn boards."
Berger's violins are built according to the Guarneri pattern and, as with Guarneri, his most important tools are his hands. Modern technology is of little use in the process, he said.
"Prior to World War II, people attempted to use machines to cut the wood and in other parts of the violin-making process," he said. "But they soon found out that a machine ruins the fibers and potential tone of a good piece of wood."
Berger's family heritage provided him with the violin maker's requisite qualities of patience and the ability to see, hear and create beauty through a love and knowledge of music and wood. He was born in Hagerstown, the great-grandson of a cabinetmaker.
During his boyhood, he recalled, "my grandfather made fiddles and cabinets, and my grandmother taught piano and fooled with the violin." He took violin lessons from his grandmother. During World War II, he and some friends picked up extra money playing at the Chateau in New York City's East Village.
In choosing a profession, however, Berger at first turned to his background in carpentry. In 1934, at age 18, he began an apprenticeship with the M.P. Moller Organ Works in Hagerstown, where he built organ consoles and pipes. About that time he began to build violins as a sideline, which eventually led to the opening of his Washington business.
Since 1965, Berger also has worked full time at the National Geographic Society, where he supervises the carpentry shop. A few years before he joined the society, Berger completed a part-time, two-year apprenticeship under Herman Weaver, a well-known Baltimore violin maker. He has since built more than 30 violins.
Berger sells his violins to professional and amateur musicians for between $500 and $3,000, depending on their tone.
Students who show musical promise should invest in a quality violin, which will mellow through the years with proper use and care and increase in value with age, he said.
"I hate to see someone with potential play on a cheap violin," he said. "It won't produce the tones. We need to get more youngsters interested in music; a large percentage of the people in symphonies today are over 60."
Berger works on the instruments in his Silver Spring home and at his shop, sometimes meeting with a potential violin buyer several times a week for months before a sale is completed.
Berger will work for six months on an instrument before he even puts strings on it and hears its tone. Then it must be played for at least another six months for its true tone to evolve.
Materials for each instrument cost about $500. The front plate is of spruce, the back plate and neck are of maple, the fingerboard is of ebony and the strings are of silver or aluminum wrapped over catgut. It is put together with "hot glue," made from animal hide, that makes it possible to take the violin apart for future repairs.
The older the wood the better, providing it has been naturally dried and aged, Berger said. But he added that it is "increasingly difficult to get old wood." He once sought wood that was at least 20 to 25 years old but now finds it hard to obtain any that is more than 15 years old.
Berger uses wood mostly from West Germany and Switzerland and some from Romania. World War II destroyed many old barns and buildings that would have been good sources of violin wood, Berger said.
He is using some 50-year-old wood in four of eight violins he is making, but he prefers to keep the wood's origin a secret.
His violins favor the tenor side of the tone scale, but Berger said that is a personal preference. "The tone must please the individual's ear," he said. Tone depends upon several factors. Two violins made of wood from the same trees, cut, thinned, glued and varnished the same way, with identical fingerboards and strings, may have very different tones.
An example of the delicacy his profession requires is the sound post, which Berger said "must fit exactly right or any slight movement could ruin the tone." Although it is only a small strip of wood in the center of the violin, the sound post, called by the French "l'ame," the "soul" of the instrument, must support 50 pounds of tension from the strings.
Modern technology has made a contribution to the tuning of wood for a violin, a process in which the maker traditionally paused during planing and scraping the unfinished plate to tap it with his knuckles and listen to its tones.
In the past five years, violin schools in Europe have begun to test the plates electronically, using a microphone and oscilloscope to measure the vibrations. Berger said he has used this method, along with the traditional tap test, successfully for about a year.
Berger said that despite the high cost of materials and the time-consuming, uncertain nature of his profession, he plans to make it a full-time occupation in the next year or so.
"It's a heck of a challenge," he said. "In furniture and cabinet work, it's the same patterns over and over. You know the outcome. But each of those eight tops and backs I'm working on, even though I'll tone and graduate them the same way, will become eight very different instruments."