Thursday, July 15, 2010

J. Frederick Müller (Ch.6 Pt.2)

Scherl & Roth company owned and operated a large string instrument factory in Cleveland, Ohio. My mother was so determined to purchase a quality violin for me that she arranged for us to meet with a personal representative.

A big-bellied, moon-faced man opened the door.
"Welcome to Scherl & Roth. I'm J. Frederick Müller, president of the company."
"Nice to meet you," said my father, removing his hat. "We're the Kransbergs from Massachusetts. I'm John, this is my wife Frances, and youngest daughter, Marjorie, the budding concert violinist."
"So, you're a violinist, young lady," Mr. Müller said, bending to my eye level.
"Where, and with whom do you study?"
I stared at his horn-rimmed glasses perched upon a snub nose.
"Answer the gentleman," my mother urged.
"Oh?" Mr. Müller asked, evidently impressed. The name Juilliard had cachet.
"Yes," said my mother. "Our Marjorie studies with Ivan Galamian's first associate, Sally Thomas. In fact, she recently returned from Meadowmount, the prestigious summer school. Everyone agrees that her violin is inadequate at this stage of her development. We heard a young girl, Stephanie Chase, who plays on a magnificent instrument—it might even be a Strad, and she's signed with management all ready. This is what our Marjorie is up against in terms of competition. Can you show us your finest?"
"Bear in mind," said my father. "I'm only a furniture dealer, so we're concerned about cost—"
"I understand. I'm sure we can find just the right instrument for your daughter."
"She'll also need a good bow, and strong case," added my mother.
"Tools of the trade," laughed Mr. Müller as he led the way to his office.
"I'll go to the store room and be right back. Please folks, make yourselves at home."

My father whispered as he glanced around the office. The walls were lined with framed posters of Germany.
"Müller—a German name, Frances. You think, deep down, that he's a Nazi? I'd say he's probably in his mid-fifties."
"Oy John, you think?"
"Müller doesn't have to know we're Jewish. Don't say anything, Frances. Promise me. It'll just make everyone uncomfortable."

Mr. Müller returned to his office with a stack of violin cases.
"So. Where are you folks from?"
My parents gave each other knowing looks.
"We traveled all the way from a little town in north-shore Massachusetts," said my father. "It's just a bit north of Salem. You've heard of Salem, haven't you, Mr. Müller? The witch trials. Frances grew up in Salem—"
"We're of the Jewish faith," blurted my mother.
"That's nice," said Mr. Muller unfazed by my mother's random statement. "Many of the world's greatest violinists are Jewish." And he went on to name a few. "Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, Nathan Milstein, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, right? Maybe you'll be famous some day, young lady. The world awaits a great woman violinist. Here. Try this one. And I have some bows for you to play on as well. Nurnbergers—fine German made bows."
Mr. Müller sat down on his swivel chair, leaned back, and clasped his hands behind his head.

I lifted a mud brown violin to my chin, and decided to show this J. Frederick Müller that I wasn't just any kid playing the fiddle. From repertoire that I heard others perform at Meadowmount, including works by Mendelssohn and Wieniawski, I played excerpts with unbridled passion, stomping my foot for heightened effect. I, too, could be a rising star.

From the look on Mr. Müller's face, I thought he might tumble off his chair.
"Why that's remarkable," Mr. Müller exclaimed. "You are—how old?"
"Just eleven," boasted my mother.
"Oh, this selection will never do."
He swiveled around in his chair and grabbed the wretched, muddy violin from my hands.
"I'll go to the vault, young lady, and bring you back a magical violin."

Mr. Müller returned with renewed energy and a bounce in his step. "Here you go, Marjorie. What you played on a moment ago was a factory made Roth. But these violins were handmade by Ernst Heinrich Roth. He was the maker responsible for carrying on the tradition of fine German craftsmanship to America. The Grandpapa, so to speak. Anyway, Ernst Heinrich crafted each instrument to the exact dimensions of the Cremonese luthiers, Stradivarius and Guarnerius."

"Margie, play the same repertoire as a moment ago, so we can make a comparison," said my mother, her voice taut with anticipation.
"You must be a musician, Mrs. Kransberg. Are you?"  
"Only an amateur violinist, Mr. Müller. I enjoyed playing in Brookline Civic with Harry Ellis Dickson. Oh, the fun we had—"
"But Margie gets her musical talent from her old man," my father winked. Everyone laughed.
I played through a wide range of repertoire. My mother's eyes were closed. She listened intensely to every note.
"Ooh," she gasped. "What a magnificent sounding instrument. I prefer this one to all the rest. It has carrying power."

Of all musical instruments, the violin is praised for being the closest to the human voice. My mother used to warn me if I became angry, the violin would growl in response, and betray my anger. If I achieved inner serenity, the violin could soothe and soften the hearts of those who listened to its song. I tested as many violins as Mr. Müller encouraged me to try that day in 1970, and chose the one that responded to my demands with a rich, varied tone.  

"Your daughter is a marvelous talent," said Mr. Müller, after I laid the chosen Roth in its case. "She could be a soloist all ready."
"Really?" asked my mother. "How might our Marjorie secure concert engagements? She hasn't an agent or manager—"
"I tell you what, Mr. and Mrs. Kransberg. If you purchase a violin from Scherl & Roth, through my connections with Music Educator's National Conference and American String Teachers Association, I can assure you that this company will put your daughter on the map. Why, we'll get the word out nationwide that Marjorie plays on one of our instruments, and we'll have her booked for concerts in no time at all. I'll personally launch her career."
"Mr. Müller!" My mother drew in a breath as she uttered his name. "You're our angel." She turned to my father. "Remember John, when I spoke of seeking a benefactor for our Marjorie? Here he is—
J. Frederick Müller."
In photo: Me featured on cover of Orchestra News 1971