Otto Erdesz Remembered

Late one afternoon in the summer of 1975, I cycled from the restaurant where I worked to an address in Toronto’s newly fashionable Yorkville area. A beautiful woman with an Israeli accent greeted me from the top of the stairs. She told me her name was Rivka, and that Otto would be down in a minute. I was twenty-two at the time, and though I had officially quit music several years before, I stilled dreamed of having a good violin. Players were talking about Otto Erdesz (pronounced air-desh), a violinmaker recently arrived from Israel with his wife, violist Rivka Golani.

I left our first meeting with a dawning sense of incredible luck. Rivka had encouraged me to take up viola, and offered free lessons. Otto lent me a wonderful viola. The couple soon made me feel part of their family: over the next five years Otto taught me violin making, loaned me money to buy tools, and gave me beautiful wood for at least 20 instruments. In return he asked only that I run downstairs every now and again to make coffee.

He was in his late 50s when we met, a huge, striking figure of a man with long silvering hair brushed back from his massive head and green eyes set beneath the devil’s own eyebrows. He could charm you or frighten you or make you feel like royalty. He read character quickly and deeply, and this made him an excellent teacher, though you sometimes felt uncomfortably transparent in his presence. His humor, both in conversation and in the cartoons he drew, was by turns affectionate, bawdy, corrosive, delightful. Along with his gifts as a craftsman, he was a virtuoso with pen and ink and he had an astonishing visual memory. There was an economy of his movements, both at the bench and away from it, that reflected his great dexterity.

Otto Erdesz and his son Michael

Erdesz and his son Michael, Toronto, 1978

Erdesz delivered cheerful re-inventions of the English language in a guttural Hungarian baritone, and God help the person who tried to correct him. Dogs ate dogsfood. To make coffee, you first put up the kettle. In a series of full page ads in Strad magazine, he dubbed himself “The Viola King – the World’s Leading Maker in Violas” When I suggested “of Violas,” his face darkened with anger, then he calmed down and patiently explained my mistake. His pride in his work was as easily offended. The owner of a Gaspar viola once called in search of a “second instrument.” Erdesz’s outrage at this perceived condescension turned to glee when Rivka showed him the “Gasparo.” “Tell him it’s a wonderful viola,” he said, having recognized at once his own work.

Erdesz studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. His favorite medium was wood, and he made his first violins while working as a graphic artist. He fraternized with violinmaker Max Frirsz and took apart every old instrument he could get hold of. When I knew him, Erdesz worked around the clock. He slept while waiting for glue to dry, or between coats of varnish. Fueled by cigarettes and instant coffee sweetened to the point of viscosity, he produced new instruments at the rate of one every couple of weeks. The workshop seemed chaotic – all available surfaces buried under archeological layers of tools, drawings, bits of wood, and used strings – but he was uncannily able to locate anything he was looking for. A stalactite of glue had grown on the under-surface of his bench where he wiped the excess from his finger. Violins and violas hung from a wire. Behind his bench was a television. A power jointer and a drill press lay within easy reach, a disc sander and bandsaw lived in the basement.

As a teacher, Erdesz had the rare gift of knowing how much to say and when to say it. He would lavish praise on my latest scroll or varnish, then a week later, when I was less easily demolished by criticism, would offer to break my arm if I ever made such an ugly f-hole again. Never doctrinaire, he would say, “If you take my advice, you do what you want.” Advice was not limited to violinmaking. I showed up once in shoes that had, I’ll admit, seen their prime, and was surprised by the anger he showed on my behalf. “You want to be a professional, better you dress like one.” He continued in this paternal vein before saying, with the air of a gentleman confiding the name of his tailor, “Go to the Salvation Army Store – for a few bucks you can dress like the Prince of Wales.”

Otto was a wonderful cook. I still fry eggs the way he taught me, spooning a little water into the pan then covering it so the steam quickly firms the sunny side. If I could go back for one last meal, I would ask for potato pancakes – those loose slabs of batter he dropped into a spitting lake of hot oil until they were crisp and golden brown. He would salt them and rub them with raw garlic, then serve them with sour cream to anyone who happened to at the kitchen table: Rivka, their son Michael, an ever-shifting congregation of viola students, musicians, collectors and young violin makers.

As a maker, Erdesz experimented continually. His innovative “cut-away” viola model gave the violist easier access to high positions by way of a reduced treble upper bout. Golani was skeptical at first, but her mother urged her to try one seriously, and she has played a cut-away ever since. When she performed Colgrass’s Chaconne with the Boston Symphony, the instrument’s sound filled the hall. The design also helped with evenness, and much reduced the stridency violas tend toward in their high registers. Erdesz explained this by analogy to the grand piano, which has a shorter soundboard for the higher strings. He built about three dozen cut-away violas. Rivka tells me they are now in constant use, but at the time, he got discouraged, as players were shy of anything different. He told me “It would be about as easy to sell violas with an extra lump in the upper bout.”

Erdesz cut-away viola on the cover of The Strad, 1991

Erdesz cut-away viola on the cover of The Strad, 1991

Many Canadians of my generation were, like me, the children of immigrants who fled the Holocaust or Soviet oppression or the poverty of southern Italy. Some found stability and peace of mind, others – and I think Otto was one these – were pursued by anxiety and a sense of dislocation. During World War Two, he was conscripted into the Hungarian Army. Captured and imprisoned in a Russian camp, he was one of the few in his unit to survive. According to his first wife, Maria, he was never the same again. Following the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the couple immigrated to the US with their two sons, Otto Jr. and George. They established a successful fabric design studio in New York but Erdesz was increasingly drawn to violin making. He eventually left the business (and the marriage) to set up shop as a maker.

Rivka tells me that when she bought an Erdesz viola in 1969, she had never met the man, though he had already achieved legendary status in Israel. Later, the Israel Philharmonic decided to purchase a couple of Erdesz violas, and while on tour in the US, Rivka was dispatched to his shop, accompanied by the assistant conductor and principal cellist. She played violas back and forth, but did not say a word to Otto. Nor did he to her – instead he announced to her amazed colleagues that he intended to marry her. Back in Israel she began receiving daily letters. When she asked for a photo of him, he sent instead a drawing of a scroll. It was carved in the form of a devil’s head, tongue curled out in a scream. “Don’t be frightened,” he wrote. “My tongue is now back in my mouth.” Otto later told me that the viola bearing that scroll ended up in Salt Lake City in the hands of a Mormon violist who asked a local maker to re-carve the head into something less blasphemous. In 1973, a tiny suitcase in hand, Otto Erdesz arrived in Tel Aviv. Within weeks he had improvised a workshop on the terrace of Rivka’s apartment and was back at work. He never returned to his New York studio, not even to collect his tools.

Wood was scarce in Israel and they scoured the country in search of it. When he spotted a piece of pear wood in a trucking company’s scrap pile, Rivka asked the bemused workmen if they might take it. Sure, they said, take as much of our garbage as you want. Otto made two violas with the wood and was so pleased with the results that he took a large bottle of cognac to his unwitting benefactors. The promise of plentiful wood was one of the reasons the couple moved to Canada in 1974. “Any country with a maple leaf on its flag must have good wood.” he told me, and wood hunting was one of the few reasons he ever left the house. In those days huge beams of exotic wood filled a warehouse the size of an aircraft hanger at Oliver Lumber. We found a spectacular log of broadly flamed maple – wood enough for several hundred instruments – and I never saw Otto happier. Douglas Fir, which he favored for tops, was plentiful at Tepperman’s. They demolished buildings and stacked the recovered timber house-high in their yard. The best wood was often impossible to get at, and Otto would bribe the yardman to bring out the forklift and help. Like any violin maker, he loved beautiful wood, but he had a special fondness for unlikely materials. My fellow pupil, John Newton, remembers pointing out a battered plank lying on the ground. Otto picked it up, turned it over, and a few weeks later it was under the chin of the principal violist of the Israel Philharmonic – two nail holes hidden under the fingerboard.

Otto constructed the ribs for his instruments without using a traditional form; this allowed him to constantly adjust his models. He loved and was much influenced by the work of Guarneri del Gesu for his violins. His violas usually followed Brescian lines. Only under pressure would he admit to admiring Stradivari. Otto’s instruments were always antiqued to some degree, and in my experience, he always grafted the scrolls. He liked to rotate the neck stock so the quarter-cut face showed from behind. Never one to complicate the craft, he used readily available artist’s materials for varnish: shellac, mastic, pigmented inks. The results could be seductively beautiful: I still remember a radiant viola brought back by the client for adjustments. When I asked Otto how he got the beautiful soft gray that picked out the crevices of the scroll, he tapped his cigarette on the bench and told me to mix the ash with sepia ink. I loved the color of the varnish itself, and when we were in New York for Rivka’s Carnegie Hall debut, he took me to the art supply shop where he had purchased the dyes. We tested a little on our fingers, and for the rest of the afternoon yellow splotches kept appearing on our clothes, our faces, our hair, and anything else we touched.

Otto worked quickly. The instruments could be rough – and he would curse his own impatience – but there was always a matchless freedom of line. He had a genius for getting them to sound: a huge, focused, dark, rich sound inspired by the gypsy violinists he loved. He left plenty of wood in the plates and although his instruments are not always easy to play, the projection is usually outstanding. He made his living by making, rather than repairing or dealing, and in doing so played a significant role in opening out the current market. He often loaned (and sometimes gave) instruments to players he wanted to encourage. Over the years he helped many young makers: John Newton, Lawrence Furse, and bow maker Stephen Marvin come to mind, and I will myself will thank him for as long as I live.

One autumn I returned from Italy to find Otto alone. The marriage was over, and Rivka had moved out. Otto had no idea what to do next. He considered Niagara Falls, Buffalo – even Cremona. Instead he moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey, eventually remarried, then moved back and forth between Canada and the US until I lost track of him in a series of abandoned apartments and disconnected telephone numbers.

Rivka now goes by her maiden name Golani, and lives in South London with her husband, Jeremy Fox. To date, more than two hundred pieces have been written for her, including thirty-nine viola concertos. Her two dozen recordings include the Bartok Concerto with the Budapest Radio Symphony, and a 1989 CD of a transcription of the Walton Cello Concerto that made the London Times classical Top Twenty list. And she continues to play her cut-away viola. It is not, she says, the sort of sweet-sounding, easy-to-play instrument that many violists are drawn to, but the struggle to play it brings out the best in her playing, and it has reserves of depth and power that inspire her to dig deeper, to work harder. “I cannot change it for another,” she says. “It is part of me now. It is my voice.”

Rivka Golani with her Erdesz viola

Rivka Golani with her Erdesz viola, 2014

In July, 2000, Rivka called me to say that Otto had died of pneumonia in a Toronto hospital. He was 83 years old, and she had been there at his bedside.  I had heard rumors of his death ever since we met. Legends and stories seemed to proliferate around him – a tangle of weeds and flowers cultivated by those who loved him and those who did not. Here is a final story:

One evening he and Rivka were to attend a gala concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall. He told her, “You will look specially beautiful tonight,” and then opened a can of beans, threw away the contents, and disappeared into his workshop. When he came back, smiling broadly, the tin can had been refashioned into a completely original piece of jewelry. And that is how I like to remember my teacher. He had in extravagant measure the born artist’s ability to take the rough, even tawdry, material that life brought his way, and to change it with his own quick magic into something enduring and beautiful.