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Arland O. Fiske: The story of Knute Reindahl, violin maker

Scandinavians have always been fond of both woodcarving and music.

These talents met in Knute Reindahl. Born in Telemark in 1858, his father died when he was just three years old. He had come from a family of silversmiths who were always carving wood as well. On his mother’s side, an uncle was considered the best rosemaler (ornamental painting) in Norway. Her name, Gulbek, was also found on the finest violins in the land. His great-grandfather was the king’s bodyguard in war and was thought to be the strongest man in Norway. He used to break up feuds at wedding parties. That is how he met his death by an iron bar over his head. When Knute was 9, his mother immigrated to Madison, Wis. Times were tough for the immigrants in America. She worked in the harvest fields and his sisters worked as hired girls. Yet he remembered these as the happiest days of his life. Knute got little schooling. He never passed fifth grade even though he was a year older than his teacher. He’d rather carve salad bowls and picture frames than study in books. Selling his handmade trinkets, he visited Indian camps on Lake Monona by the city. They taught him how to make bows and arrows. Realizing that woodcarving was his chief interest, Knute returned to Norway in 1887 to study ornamental carving. He had learned the best violin builders had originally been wood carvers. He also tried his skiing skills in the mountains of Telemark. As he tried to out-jump his brother, both skis fell off, and he landed like an arrow into the soft snow. Success in America did not come quickly, but hard work and determination had its rewards. When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra moved into the newly built Orchestra Hall on Michigan Avenue, the old violins built by masters were too weak to be heard. The director bought five of Reindahl’s violins in their place. In 1900, the Reindahl Violin won the Diploma of Merit for woodcarving and had a special medal struck for it at the World’s Fair in Paris. He was the only violin builder mentioned in the “Who’s Who” of the World Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893. One of the dreams of a violin builder is to discover the “lost art of the masters.” One of the great swindles in musical instruments is by people who claim to have made this discovery. Knute contended that the only magic was in good workmanship. His wood came from spruce from the ruins of a 14th-century stave church near Oslo. How good were his instruments? In 1922, when the city of Madison wanted to honor Fritz Kreisler, they presented him with a Reindahl violin. Nothing less would do for the “master.” A Danish violin teacher by the name of Adamsen, who had studied in Italy, said of the Reindahl violin: “I am surprised that anybody can make that good a violin in America.” One of Reindahl’s comment about his life was: “I was always whittling.” Through his hands, personality passed into his works of art. Next week: Anna the immigrant girl. ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.