“Strings and Celebrities” (Pardes Publishing), a book by the retired Haifa-based historian Uri Kupferschmidt, is due out this month in English. Its primary subject is the biography of Jacques Wolfgang Hakkert, Kuperschmidt’s maternal grandfather, whom he never met. Hakkert was born into the music business. Beginning in 1880, his parents, who lived in Rotterdam, had a store that sold musical instruments, scores and later gramophones as well. Young Jacques (born 1891) trained in making stringed musical instruments in the French town of Mirecourt (still a professional center in this field). From 1920, after returning to Holland, he worked as a luthier. Later, from 1910 he directed a factory for strings next to his parents’ store and greatly expanded it until he fled from Holland in 1942.
A second theme in the book is the history of the strings used for bowed and plucked instruments (and for tennis rackets and surgical threads). Until I read the book, I hadn’t noticed a basic fact: catgut cords aren’t associated only with Renaissance and Baroque stringed instruments – such animal-based strings were used in musical instruments until the the interwar years of the 20th century, and even afterward.
Obligated to reticence
Kupferschmidt is emeritus professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Haifa. His parents, who were from Holland, survived by escaping to Switzerland in 1942, where he was born. After the war his parents returned to Holland; he immigrated to Israel by himself in 1969, having already earned two master’s degrees, from Leiden and London universities. He later earned a PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His primary research interest is the social history of the Middle East in the modern era.
On the occasion of the book’s publication, Kupferschmidt wants to make it clear to his academic colleagues that his lengthy occupation with the biography of his grandfather and with string instruments (mainly with the strings themselves) – a chapter of Jewish-Dutch history – doesn’t signal a complete change of course. “I tell my colleagues, “Be sure – I haven’t left the profession.” In some measure, he adds, the book about his grandfather and his musical occupations connects with his previous book, on Middle Eastern department stores.
“Strings and Celebrities” is the product of a great deal of research. Much of that could have been spared, and unknown facts revealed, if his parents hadn’t consistently refrained from talking about his grandfather and about the period of the Holocaust. Those subjects, so to speak, were a kind of undeclared taboo; a conjectured partial explanation is that Jacques Hakkert tried to escape from the jaws of the Nazis not with his wife, but with his gentile lover, who was employed in his factory. The two fled to Belgium, undoubtedly in order to continue to France and Switzerland, and were seized there in April 1944 and transported to Auschwitz. Hakkert was gassed and his lover died of an illness in a nearby hospital a month after the liberation.
As an industrialist and a craftsman, Hakkert devoted himself mainly to manufacturing strings, besides making violins and cellos. The first violin he made, as far as is known, made its way into the “Violins of Hope” collection of instruments that survived the Holocaust, owned by the Tel Aviv violin maker Amnon Weinstein.
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‘Dust of Time’
Two critical events, involving two discoveries, took place during Kupferschmidt’s search for his maternal family’s history. The first was in 1990. In a meeting in Rotterdam with the former secretary of Hakkert’s factory, whom he had traced, Kupferschmidt had learned that she possessed a document harrowing in its matter-of-factness: a directive received by Hakkert in 1942 to report to a camp near Westerbork concentration camp, in northeastern Holland, for the purpose of “labor expansion.” Instead of obeying, Hakkert disappeared – with his paramour.
The second discovery, which became a important theme of the book, is related to the past few years. In 2013, while surfing the web, Kupferschmidt found a notice from a secondhand bookstore in Paris, La Poussiere du Temps, (The Dust of Time), offering for sale an unspecified item belonging to Hakkert.
“This was just after I arrived in Paris, and we visited the store. I told the salesman immediately, ‘I read that you have material of my grandfather.’ The salesman, an old Jew, climbed up a high ladder – we were afraid he would fall – and came down with a brochure promoting his grandfather’s strings. It wasn’t a token price – my wife, Tamar, persuaded me to buy it.”
The brochure from about 1931 is the subject of a wide-ranging part in the book. Jacques Hakkert, who had a sharp commercial sense, sent famous musicians around the world samples of his strings in order to solicit their opinions. More than 140 of them, including renowned violinists and cellists of the time (mainly in the 1920s and 1930s) responded and wrote recommendations, in many cases highly enthusiastic. The brochure consists of those recommendations along with all the musicians’ photographs and photographed visiting cards.
The book contains biographical annotations by Kupferschmidt to all these recommendations. Jascha Heifetz (quite young at the time, but already world-famous) sent a recommendation in a correct, dry style, perhaps as an act of courtesy. Pablo Casals wrote that he was very satisfied with the sound. Yehudi Menuhin, still an adolescent, noted his admiration for Hakkert’s A string. And the elderly violinist Jeno Hubay agreed to allow the Hakkert G string to be called “Hubay’s gold string.”
Other distinguished musicians who recommended Hakkert’s products were the virtuoso double-bass player and conductor Serge Koussevitsky (“I have found perfection,” he wrote) and the pioneer classical guitarist Andres Segovia. Names famous at the time but now forgotten: the French cellist Juliette Alvin, for example, wrote that Hakkert’s strings were “marvelous”; the French violinist Andre Asselin wrote to Hakkert: “Your G string is a treasure.”
As Prof. Kupferschmidt makes a point of emphasizing in the book, most of the famous musicians who wrote autobiographies failed to mention which strings they used. Perhaps this lacuna indicates that the choice of string (of a particular material or of a specific manufacturer) isn’t a subject that occupies musicians who play string instruments? Or possibly the string’s “weight” in influencing the quality of the sound is negligible?
That is absolutely not so, says Eyal Kless, a violinist and son of violinist Yair Kless. A teacher and the founder and first violinist of the Haydn Quartet, Eyal Kless says “The subject is definitely important and is present in the life of every professional who plays a string instrument. The choice of suitable strings is also not a marginal matter economically. A set of violin strings can cost as much as 200 euros, a set of cello strings a great deal more.”
By “suitable strings,” Kless explains that he is referring to the suitability of the string to both musician and instrument. There are all kinds of differences between strings, he continues. “For example, not all of them have the same ‘resistance,’ and ‘softer’ strings produce a warmer sound but have a slow response time.” A suitable string is an individual matter, he observes.
According to Kless, a nonprofessional will not be able to tell the difference between the sound made by two types of strings, though this is certainly a subject that will occupy musicians. The main problem, he says, is related to advantages versus disadvantages. “A violinist strikes a balance,” he explains. “Sometimes it turns out that the most suitable strings for him are not durable and need to be replaced every month. He will decide to compromise.”
Overall, do sheep gut strings (used primarily by Baroque ensembles) have a finer sound than wire strings (which are far less likely to break in the middle of a concert)? In Kless’s view, an average listener might hear a difference, but will not necessarily experience it as an improvement. In this connection, Kupferschmidt quotes the violinist Mischa Elman, probably from the 1920s. Elman denounced the new strings, ignoring their practical advantage: “I never use wire strings,” he declared. “They have no color, no quality.”