Meet Newton Mansfield: Polish-born, naturalized American violinist in the New York Philharmonic. (1930-2018)
A natural musician, Newton Mansfield always hated having to practice. One day in childhood, rather than practice, he sat down on, and crushed, his violin. When his father, a tailor, came home from work and saw what had happened, he didn’t utter a word, simply turned around, left, and came back with another violin.
Newton’s family left Poland for France, then France for Spain to escape Hitler, finally managing to get to America where Newton became a professional musician. (“I knew I wanted to be a professional musician as soon as I got paid for it! In Paris when I played I got balloons. In New York, when I was 11 or 12, I got paid!“) After playing in symphony orchestras in Houston, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, he joined the New York Philharmonic (then under Leonard Bernstein) in 1961 and performed with them for 55 years. He retired in 2016; died in 2018 at age 88.
Despite distaste for doing so, Newton did practice.
In the early 1950s he purchased a fine, antique violin on which, as it would turn out, he’d play for the rest of his life. This instrument was certified by Rudy Wurlitzer who oversaw the Wurlitzer rare and historic stringed instrument department’s 42nd Street headquarter in New York City. The certification attested that the violin had been made by M.A. Bergonzi, describing: “The back is of one piece of semi-slabcut handsome figure maple. The scroll and ribs matching the back. The top is one piece of wide, slightly irregular grain spruce.”
Meet Michel Angelo Bergonzi: Cremona is a small, mercantile city in the Lombardy region on the River Po in northern Italy. Son of Carlo (1683-1747), father of Nicolo (1754-1832), Michele Angelo Bergonzi (1721-1758), was a Cremona-based violin maker. This family produced exceptional violins during what is considered as the golden period of violin-making, 1650-1750.
Although Wurlitzer certification described the violin as an “M.A. Borgonzi of Cremona (with sound post crack in the back)” unease about its veracity hovered since Wurlitzer was generally thought of as a manufacturer of pianos, organs as well as a purveyor of jukeboxes, vending machines and even carnival rides. Newton, of course, realized that Rudy Wurlitzer was not very highly regarded as an authority on Cremonese violins and that his violin would need to get a certificate written by a more highly esteemed source. When he showed the violin around opinions rarely differed: It was likely a Bergonzi … especially the bottom and sides, but … the top of the violin had …. quirks!
In 1992 he commissioned an appraisal by violin maker and restorer Boris Sverdlik in New York, then, a second appraisal in 2020 by Christophe Landon Rare Violins, Inc. also based in New York. Both were useful in establishing an approximate value should Newton ever want to sell it, but – alas – cast no light on the issue of the violin’s flimsy purveyance. So, whether or not it was truly a Bergonzi made by either father, son or grandson, and as much as Newton hoped it was, he never did get around to verifying the authenticity in his lifetime.
After Newton’s death, his violin was stored with other instruments in a humidity-controlled vault near Lincoln Center and time passed.
Meet David Mansfield: American musician and composer, Newton Mansfield’s eldest son (b. 1956).
David, a child prodigy in music like his father, always suspected that the issue of establishing the violin’s purveyance (he refers to a violin as a fiddle) would – by default – someday fall into his lap. In fact his father had warned him as such. And so it did.
When the time came, he reached out to the world’s leading (also unrivaled) experts – Beare & Son – a family firm based in England, founded by John Beare in 1865. There were long waits for appointments and no way to hurry the process. Close to his eventual appointment date, David retrieved the fiddle from where it safely rested and flew with it from Newark to Heathrow, then traveled (by train) to a market town in Kent (Tonbridge) where a taxi took him to his AirBnB in nearby Penshurst – another beautiful Kent village of historic houses and gardens surrounded by woodlands and fields. It was springtime, there were martins and skylarks and the light in the sky lingered until late evening.
David brought the fiddle to the Beare Atelier in the morning and handed it off to an assistant whom, he presumed, would pass it to the highly esteemed, most respected violin expert on Bergonzi violins in the world, Charles Beare (b. 1937). Hopefully, at this point, Charles or perhaps one of his sons (Peter or Freddie), would oversee an examination and provide a certificate that would officially authenticate Newton’s fiddle as a Bergonzi.
Or they wouldn’t.
That was it. David left empty handed.
A few months later the violin was ready for retrieval so he hurried back to Penshurst but no certificate awaited him. Instead, he learned that Newton’s violin was definitely not made by Carlo Bergonzi. The reason for the certainty was that Charles owned Carlo’s molds. Additionally: Newton’s violin is slightly larger than a Bergonzi and its arch is so high, almost touching the finger board. There was a slight possibility, though, that the violin had been made by Carlo’s son Michel, though Charles doubted it, also a slim possibility that he had been made by Nicolo but Beare didn’t have the expertise to certify as such. When Peter Beare examined the varnish, he decided that the wood probably wasn’t a composite even had uncertainty as to whether or not it was from the 1700s.
Because a dendrochronology (technique for dating artifacts by tree rings) report hadn’t been gotten, Beare suggested he get in touch with Christopher Reuning who knew more about Nicolo’s work.
Meet Christopher Reuning: An American born maker and restorer of fine violins, Reuning is considered one of the world’s leading experts. He owns Reuning & Sons Violins in Boston’s Back Bay and provides appraisals, also certificates. Thus, shortly after returning from Kent, David transported Newton’s violin to New England and left it with Reuning.
When the violin was ready to be retrieved, he hurried north again.
The reveal: Reuning concluded that (as Beare suspected) Newton’s violin was not a composite, that it hadn’t been crafted by anyone in the Bergonzi family. The conclusion: Newton’s violin had been made by Jose Contrares (1710-1780) probably in Madrid. (Admired for building fine violins, Jose Contrares began receiving commissions from the Spanish royal court after which his fame grew.) It was possible that Contrares had been assisted by his son. Reuning based the conclusion on the fact that the scroll on Newton’s violin pointed directly to Contrares regardless of the “curve” and strange placement of the f holes that weren’t typical of Contaras’ style. In the later part of his life, had Contraras experimented by copying Bergonzi’s violins as opposed to his earlier violins that were based on Stradivarius and Guarnerius. Perhaps the unusual placement of f holes and the curve under the fingerboard were part of this experimentation?
Christopher arranged for the dendro report to be done. Conclusion: the violin was made in 1734. Additionally, that Newton’s violin was slightly larger than those made by a Bergonzi was (finally) clarified. By ‘larger’ it was meant that it didn’t match Bergonzi’s molds. The difference was miniscule … insignificant … except for identification purposes. Reuning did concede, though, that the wood or dendro (the Greek word for tree) from which Newton’s violin came might have originated from the same source used by other Cremonian’s – Bergonzi included – as some of the same dendro verdors sold both in Italy and in Spain in the 1700s.
One side note: Reuning (who’d written a book on Contraras) took the violin with him to Madrid to a private exhibition on Contraras work (June 2023) attended by dealers and experts. He told David that Shlomo Minz, the Israeli violin virtuoso and conductor, owned a violin quite similar to Newton’s.
So much for purveyance.
Certified or not, Newton’s violin remains an instrument that has survived intact from the 1700s until the present. If safely stored in its sturdy case in a climate-controlled vault, the wood will continue to age and, as it does so, the sound will get even better. Of course, only if the violin is played. David: “It’s thought that the modern violin reached an apex in the 18th century … so, you see, those violins will always be the very finest ever made.” I note this. David: “Yes, Newton’s violin is ready for another set of hands … ready for another fine violinist. Now, since provenance is established, it can … indeed … move from the hands of one fine professional to another over future decades and centuries. Maybe, though, if it hadn’t received certification, I might have kept it. But now … I can let it go.” Any regrets? “I only wish I’d met Charles Beare.”
Subsidiary reveal: While cobbling together this post, I am struck by how abysmally ignorant I am when it comes to David’s world, his father’s world, the world of the wooden chordophones (string instrument) generally known as the violin or fiddle. Truth be told, I wouldn’t know how to bend my wrist around one, wouldn’t really have any idea if a sound it emits is superior or ordinary or if the bow I’m clutching is right side up or upside down. I do know, though, that when the sound of a violin reaches my unrefined ears, feelings of shivery sadness are released, also melancholy. Some part of my heart breaks open. Trying to explain these deep feelings leaves me inarticulate. Perhaps someone else can put their finger on what I’m trying to say better than I, a post-covid rock or clot of mineral matter whose ten fingers often caress a silicone keyboard. During his musings on woodwind instruments (piccolos, flutes, oboes etc.) in relation to violins, Christopher Carroll wrote in “The Knight Errant and other Music Criticism” (his biography of Virgil Thompson) the following: “While the wind plays sustained harmonic progressions … the violin caresses with almost inaudible tendrils of sound, like wiggly figures that dart like silent goldfish around a rock.”
[A violin maker is also called a luthier or one who builds or repairs string instruments that have necks and a sound box. The term was originally used for maker of these luters and also for makers of other bowed and plucked stringed instruments including other members of the violin family: violas, cellos, double basses and guitars.]
[Coco Gauff almost didn’t become a tennis pro. Echoing Newton on the matter of practice she said, “When I was younger I didn’t want to practice at all ...”]
[Photo credit: Photo of David by Masie Mansfield-Greenwald, David’s daughter]
[Violin photograph in this post is generic – not, repeat, not – Newton’s actual violin.]
[Full disclosure: David is married to my sister Maggie Greenwald, the award-winning independent film director and writer.]