Historic violin in attic reawakens in St. Vincent College display
After possibly 100 years of silence, a violin sprang back to life as Matthew McCarthy pulled his bow across the strings at St. Vincent College and played a 40-second improvised tune.
The 165-year-old violin had been in an attic storage space on the campus in Unity since at least the 1930s, until Jordan Hainsey decided to incorporate it in a display about early life on campus and Bonniface Wimmer at the St. Vincent Gallery.
The violin and a cello were given to St. Vincent's founder Wimmer by King Ludwig of Bavaria in the 1850s, said Hainsey, a 2011 alumnus who now works as assistant to Archabbot Douglas Nowicki.
The king also sent two pianos to be used by the school's new orchestra, which performed Mozart's “Requiem” and Handel's “Messiah” in some of the earliest performances of those pieces in the United States.
“Musical history at St. Vincent, it's never really changed,” Hainsey said. “It's developed over time, but it's always been integral to St. Vincent.”
Priests and monks have participated in musical ensembles since the archabbey was founded and perform in a string ensemble today, he said.
“They (the instruments) ended up in the attic in the 1930s. They would've been played well into the 20th century,” Hainsey said. “Musical instruments would've been expensive, and they would've been using and conserving everything they had.”
Beginning in late April, McCarthy, an 18-year-old freshman music performance major, scheduled time over two weeks with Hainsey to replace the bridge and restring the instrument.
The body had no major cracks or holes, which would have made repair difficult, McCarthy said.
McCarthy of Liberty Borough in Allegheny County said he was able to work in a relaxed way, undaunted by the history of the instrument.
The violin is playable, but not quite for regular use as professional installation of a sound post inside the body and adjustment of the tailpiece pressure would be necessary. Hainsey said the archabbot has expressed interest in fully restoring it.
Even so, he suggested McCarthy play it in the basilica crypt.
“I thought the acoustics were fantastic down there, so the sound really travels, and you get this nostalgic sense of the instrument and the space that it might have been played in,” Hainsey said.
McCarthy appreciated the short performance and what came from the instrument.
“It sounded great, and it was fantastic,” he said.
‘One of a kind'
Music professor Tom Octave listened to the video and said the age of the instrument lends to the tone of the notes when played.
“You can hear the richness of the tone of the instrument is very nice with Matthew's playing,” Octave said, adding that air pollutants have changed the wood now used in the instruments. “Violin making is a fine art, and one of these older instruments, they're one of a kind.”
Octave said that as a student, McCarthy was a good choice for working on such a project.
“As a student, he's very diligent, hard-working,” the professor said. “He's good with details, so I wasn't surprised when I saw that he was working on the violin, because he likes detail.”
Studying the violin since age 3, McCarthy is a member of the St. Vincent Campus String Ensemble, campus ministry Festival of Praise and orchestra for St. Vincent College Players' performances of “Cabaret.”
He also has played viola with the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra for two years.
“I realized what a gift it was to be able to take lessons that young and learn everything about music that I learned,” he said. “Music is a world language; anyone can understand it — that's what I love about it. Playing music, it's so expressive.”
Ready for royals
His mother, Valerie McCarthy, said it was important to her and her husband, Michael, to instill that in their children.
“I just wanted them to have an appreciation for music, and it's something they'll take with them for the rest of their lives,” she said, adding that her older son Michael performs with the New World Symphony in Miami.
She said the educational experience at St. Vincent has been a “perfect fit” for her son and this opportunity illustrates that.
“I think that says a lot about (the college) and him, that they value him to be able to do that,” she said.
The violin will remain on permanent display in St. Vincent Gallery on the college's campus alongside early bricks, china and casts of the statue of Wimmer to represent the early history of campus from its founding to the 1930s, across from artifacts that belonged to Wimmer, such as his vestments and snuff boxes.
While it is in playable condition, any performance from it may be rare. Other than honoring McCarthy for his work by allowing him to use it in his senior recital, it could be played for any visit by the royal family of Bavaria, the last of which was in 2010, Hainsey said.
Octave said this project reflects the collaborative spirit of St. Vincent and the Benedictine Order from which it was founded.
“To have an alumni that is now a staff member reach out to the next generation, who will be alumni, and bring them to this history is so phenomenal.” Octave said.
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.