By Harvey P. Katz ’57
“I have a violin that was born in 1713. It was alive long before me, and I hope it lives long after me. I don’t consider it as my violin. Rather, I am perhaps its violinist; I am passing through its life.”
— Ivry Gitlis, The Art of Violin
Memory. I was 11 in the sixth grade. My mom valued education for her children above all else — music next. She said to me, “Harvey, you are going to be a doctor and a violinist!” Not daring to question my mom I did both, striking out on the torture of beginning violin lessons with Harvey Fairbanks, our local string teacher. Little did I know then how much I owe to my mom for what turned out to be among my greatest joys in the years to come.
This story begins on a day in 2011 when I was reading a book by Arnold Steinhardt about the history of the groundbreaking Guarneri quartet, Indivisible by Four. Steinhardt noted: “Michael (Tree), still a fledgling violist, was playing on a brand-new instrument made by a relatively obscure maker, one Harvey Fairbanks from Binghamton, New York.” A chill ran down my spine. My hometown. My teacher.
In 2016, I was about to embark on a trip to Upstate New York to visit my parents’ graves. I phoned the temple’s cemetery caretaker for directions. We struck up a conversation.
Out of the blue, he asked if I knew a Harvey Fairbanks. Stunned, I questioned why. “I was speaking to his daughter Shanna the other day,” he said. “Incredible,” I replied. “Her dad was my teacher as a kid. I would love to speak to her.” He told me her number. I called, left a message and received her call back three weeks later. Her dad had died in 1977. He had taught his daughter to play and to make violins. As we reminisced about our childhoods, I told Shanna that I had this image of her dad chipping away at a block of wood destined to be a violin at their summer cottage, where he had often invited me to camp out and enjoy the lake after practicing. Often wishing to own, but not able to afford one of his violins, I asked if she had one that I could see. “Sorry, all of his 65 violins and 24 violas are gone.”
Later, Shanna called to say that one of my old childhood friends had a violin that her dad made in 1943. He hadn’t touched it in 30 years and wanted to sell it. It needed some repair work. “Do you want me to mail it to you?” “Sure!” By the way, she added, “I was rummaging through some old papers and found a program of Dad’s pupil recital. Your name is listed.” Shanna promised to send it along with the instrument.
A week later, an oboist friend and I were planning to play a Beethoven trio, but we needed a violist. We asked our community orchestra conductor if he would play. He kindly agreed, and a few weeks later we got together at my home. As he arrived he said, “Hi guys, I just bought a new viola!” It looked and played beautifully. We asked who made it? Harvey Fairbanks!
Two weeks later, UPS delivered the violin. Unpacking it carefully, a beautifully varnished instrument emerged from its bubble-wrapped cocoon. Looking though the f hole, there was the Harvey Fairbanks 1943 label stamped inside. Strangely, above the label was a handwritten name, Mischa Mischakoff, the renowned late Russian violinist. Shanna had mentioned that her dad and Mischakoff had been friends. As I was telling this to my quartet at rehearsal, our violist chimed in, “I know Mischakoff’s daughter (also an acclaimed violinist).” So I called her and we chatted about her dad. Mischa was an avid collector of violins, including four Strads. The Fairbanks violin might have been his practice instrument, perhaps a gift from his Binghamton friend.
The promised 1946 program came with the violin. Slightly yellow along the edges, it shows that I played at Binghamton’s Monday Afternoon Club on a Tuesday at 7:45 p.m., 1946 (I was 11). It listed many familiar names of friends from a long forgotten childhood. Another spine-chilling moment.
An unfinished journey? A violin needs its exercise, to be played. After 30 years inside a closet, who knows what’s outside? I spoke to my childhood-friend owner who had not played it in 30 years. He reminded me that we played in our junior high school orchestra together. He bought the violin from another good friend of ours who had it for 10 years. Where is the violin now? In the hands of my 10-year-old granddaughter.
The legacy lives on.
Harvey Katz is a pediatrician and associate professor at the Harvard Medical School where he has served as director of the Primary Care Clerkship and the Primary Care Division, and as the health center director of the Harvard Community Health Plan.