It’s the stuff of stories and musical legend: the buried violin, dug up and brought to sing anew. In the film “The Red Violin,” the titular instrument is at one point interred with a gifted young player, then unearthed by grave-robbing gypsies who play it for a couple of generations.
But the violinist Chee-Yun didn’t expect to have one in real life.
In 1991, at the start of her career, the Korean-born violinist began looking around for a new instrument, found one that she loved, and brought it to Dario D’Attili, a legendary violin appraiser for an evaluation.
“In my career,” D’Attili said, according to Chee-Yun, “I have never seen an instrument looking this brand-new. It’s over 300 years old, definitely Ruggieri, probably one of his finest. No wear and tear; it’s incredible. This is a great investment for you.”
Chee-Yun, now 46, didn’t care about the investment. She had fallen in love with the instrument’s sound. And thanks to a loan from a private patron, she was able to buy it.
Not until years later did she hit on a possible explanation for the instrument’s unusually good condition. After a performance in Israel, an audience member asked her about her Ruggieri. “My father often wondered about your violin,” she says he told her. “The reason he was wondering is he had heard that it had been buried with one of its owners.”
Suddenly, the instrument’s pristine condition was — possibly — explained. And Chee-Yun’s “buried violin” has become something of a calling card — sensationalized in some press accounts, which suggest that it remained hidden for most of its existence.
She doesn’t, however, have any proof. And that’s the problem with stories about buried instruments. There are plenty of stories about people who loved their violins so much that they wanted to be buried with them — like the composer Henri Vieuxtemps, whose Guarneri actually rode behind him in his funeral cortège. (The violin is currently played by Anne Akiko Meyers, and famed as the most expensive instrument in the world.) But it’s hard to pin down facts.
“I don’t personally know of an instrument that’s actually been buried and brought back,” said Dalton Potter, an experienced instrument appraiser and restorer in Takoma Park. However, “It is true that sometimes instruments go into vaults or secure places. We’ve had instruments [that] were in a sealed property container for 50 or 100 years, so generations would go by.”
Actually burying a violin in a coffin in the ground poses significant risks. “I’m not an expert on coffins,” Potter says. “From what I’ve seen, many of them actually are airtight. Aside from the disgusting idea of there being a body rotting next to it — that would be bad.” But “burying in a wooden coffin in the ground — that would be a death sentence for an instrument.”
There have been documented cases of buried violins returning to life — in the wake of World War II, when families fleeing the Nazis sometimes buried their valuables before they left, then returned to reclaim them. In “The Violin,” published in 2007 as part of a series of memoirs of Holocaust survivors put out by the Azrieli Foundation, Rachel Shtibel recounts the state of a Steiner violin buried in Poland and dug up in 1946, after only a couple of years in the earth. “The case and the bow were almost rotten,” she writes, “but the violin was damaged in only one tiny spot.” (She went on to play the violin for years.)
Another such instrument found its way into the hands of Katrin Stamatis, who as a child inherited her grandfather’s 200-year-old violin, a Klingenthaler, after it was buried in the family garden in The Hague, then dug up and brought to the United States after the war. Interviewed by the New York Times in 1996, when she was a high school junior, Stamatis, now a professional violinist, said that her grandfather was so overjoyed to see the instrument again that he picked it up and played the American and Israeli national anthems on it — only to have it fall apart. “Once it was restored,” she said, “the value completely decreased because it has no value as an antique any more.”
Stamatis played her way on it to a professional career. Now the principal second violinist with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic and a violinist with the Brightmusic Chamber Ensemble, she says the violin is still in her family.
Neither of those buried instruments was a concert instrument — but Lara St. John’s Guadagnini indisputably is. “This one was definitely entombed,” the violinist says. In the 1920s, it belonged to a young violinist named Harry Ben Gronsky, who studied with Efrem Zimbalist and once played the Bruch concerto at the Hollywood Bowl. “He contracted TB and died,” she continued, “and the father was so heartbroken, he put his son into the family tomb with the Guadagnini and a couple of bows.”
After St. John first put up a version of the story on her website, a descendant of the family got in touch to let her know that the violin had only been buried a few years. “Because of the Depression,” St. John says, “the family had to bring it out and sell it.”
Chee-Yun, who has often appeared as soloist with the National Philharmonic at Strathmore and at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, doesn’t have any such proof — apart from D’Attilli’s enthusiastic appraisal, and the fact that the person who sold the violin to her could not give her an exact history. One Smithsonian scholar opined that if it really was buried, “there should be major damage to the unprotected wood surfaces, and probably a kazillion worm holes.”
“It sounds far-fetched,” Chee-Yun concedes. But she does observe that the Ruggieri “has evolved over the years. Often, I will go to the same orchestra I played with 10 years ago, and violinists will come up to me: What are you playing on now? It sounds like a different instrument.”
You might say that, having awoken, the violin has grown. At the very least, it’s a good story.