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This superb, ivory-edged violin by Johann Gottlob Ficker complements the NMM's documentation of the rich instrument-making traditions of the Vogtland (southwest of Dresden). Beginning in the 17th century, skilled Protestant instrument makers fled religious persecution in Bohemia and re-settled across the border in small towns nestled in the hilly Saxon farmland. One of these towns, Neukirchen (Markneukirchen, after 1858), became the home of the first violin maker's guild in the Vogtland, founded in 1677. It became increasingly important in the 18th century, as a center for the production of stringed, brass, and woodwind instruments that were exported to many regions in Europe and the fledgling United States in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In addition to producing fine handmade instruments, the Neukirchen makers employed division of labor to produce inexpensive products for the mass market. While the sheer quantity of these mass-produced instruments, whose numbers surged in the second half of the 19th century, sometimes overshadows the efforts of the master craftsmen, there are a handful of instrument makers whose excellent reputations made them well-known outside of the Vogtland. Johann Gottlob Ficker (1744-1832) was one such maker.
Kay Marcum Larson and Arian Sheets, Curator of Stringed Instruments, admire the Ficker violin shortly after its arrival at the NMM in July 2004.
The son of Johann Caspar, the first of a prolific family of Neukirchen makers whose work spanned nearly 260 years, Johann Gottlob was registered as a master in the violin maker's guild in 1764 at age 20. In 1769, he married Eva Maria Schuster, and eight years later Johann Gottlob II, who would study violin making with his father, was born. Both of them inserted faux-Latin printed labels into their violins, the most common of which appears in this violin: Iohann Gottlob Ficker, Vilino, / Correspontent Romani Cremona, 1810. The text, which is meaningless in Latin, implied a connection with the great Cremonese makers who used Latin printed labels. Indeed, the Fickers' labels managed to fool some 19th-century violin collectors into thinking that these violins were from Cremona, as is documented in Willibald Lütgendorff's famous 1922 book about stringed instrument makers, Die Geigen- und Lautenmacher vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart. Nevertheless, violins made by the Ficker family were certainly known to the great Italian connoisseur of violins, Count Cozio di Salabue, who wrote in his Memoirs (1804-1816) about the Fickers' peculiar habit of carving very thin tops and inserting two soundposts, one in front of and one behind the bridge. The NMM's violin, however, shows no marks on the inside of the top from a second soundpost.
Top: two-piece, quarter-cut spruce: fine grain; no notch in upper edge; large wooden pin through top into top block on bass side of center joint; large wooden pin through top into bottom block on bass side of center joint. Click here for view of violin front without strings.
Back: two-piece, quarter-cut maple: narrow curl ascending from treble to bass; ivory button with etched and black-ink-filled branches and leaves of grass; edging shape continues under button; circular ivory plaque inlaid in back below button, with etched and black-ink-filled decoration comprised of two branches enclosing a circle topped with a crown and cross, indecipherable etching inside circle, with compass mark at center.
Ribs: quarter-cut maple: prominent, narrow curl; one-piece lower rib; rectangular ebony insert between endpin and saddle; incised lines under varnish delineating wider insert not installed.
Head and neck: maple: narrow curl; edges and center line of scroll inlaid with ivory strips; carved ivory scroll ears with separate ivory eyes set in black mastic; concave neck heel sides; inside of pegbox not varnished.
Edging: edges capped with ivory strips and a separate ivory piece at each corner; rises abruptly from edge, forming ridge.
Purfling: continues under fingerboard; depressed center strip; narrow outer strips.
Varnish: dark red-brown spirit varnish with fine craquelure at chin position; ivory plaque covered before application of varnish, leaving thin line of varnish missing after removal of covering.
Tailpiece: ebony; later.
Tailgut: red gut; later.
Saddle: ivory; dovetail-shaped ebony insert in top in front of saddle.
Endpin: ebony with ivory oblate pin.
Corner blocks: spruce.
Top block: integral with neck; rounded end, shaped like spruce bottom block; spruce shims between top block and ribs.
Bottom block: spruce; small.
Bassbar: low height.
Other: file marks on inside of pegbox and on bass side of fingerboard.
Built by Ficker at age 66, the 1810 violin is no run-of-the-mill instrument. The extensive, delicately executed ivory trim marks this instrument as a special commission, probably ordered from the well-respected maker by a wealthy patron. The ivory edging on the front and back serves both as decoration and as protection against wear and cracking. Ivory edging is occasionally found on other, later Neukirchen instruments, but not with the same intricate detail to the lines of the scroll, and it is possible that Ficker originated the fashion. The contrast between the wood and ivory is highlighted with a rich, chocolate-colored version of the glossy spirit varnish that was often used in the Vogtland.
Ficker's ivory-trimmed violin was for many years a prized part of the collections of Bernhard Zoebisch, a Markneukirchen native. Zoebisch had family ties to the music industry and was the descendant of a co-owner of C. A. Zoebisch & Sons, the New York instrument distributor, founded in 1848. He earned his living as a dentist, but his passion was for historical research into the history of violin making in the Vogtland. His life's work culminated in Vogtländischer Geigenbau, a definitive, two-volume book in which the NMM's ivory-edged Ficker violin is prominently featured. In the first volume, Zoebisch documents that the violin was previously in the collection of Willy Enders of Markneukirchen, and was repaired by Paul Knorr, a well-known 20th-century Markneukirchen violin maker.
Pegs: ebony with ivory oblate pins on the ends; concave, undercut heads; two rings.
Nut: bone; incised lines on surface toward pegbox marking string positions, with three scallops between lines.
The button and decorative inlaid ivory seal on the back are incised with branches and leaves of grass. Circular ivory plaque inlaid below button, with etched and black-ink-filled decoration comprised of two branches enclosing a circle topped with a crown and cross, indecipherable etching inside circle, with compass mark at center.
This violin, which survives in unaltered condition, follows the high-arched Stainer model, prized for its silvery tone, that was popular in German-speaking regions in the 18th and 19th centuries. It retains its original blocks and linings, as well as its bass-bar, which is much smaller than those in modern violins; but, Ficker modified Stainer's original 17th-century design by emphasizing the full arching and prominent edging with a deep recurve.
Traditionally, the Vogtland makers of the time used native pear or beech veneer over a spruce fingerboard, but this violin's original, wedge-shaped fingerboard bears a thin layer of inky-black ebony, which would have been more expensive. Likewise, the pegs and endpin are made of ebony with decorative ivory pins in the ends.
Stop length: 194 mm
Literature: Bernhard Zoebisch, Vogtländischer Geigenbau: Biographien und Erklärungen bis 1850 (Markneukirchen: Verein der Freunde und Förderer des Musikinstrumenten-Museums Markneukirchen, 2000), p. 115; Abb. 1, 358-359.
Text above excerpted from: Arian Sheets, "A Beautifully Preserved Violin from das Vogtland Joins the Museumís Collections," National Music Museum Newsletter 31, No. 3 (August 2004), pp. 4-5.