arts entertainmentPerforming Arts

Faced with the cold, SMU professor slept with his 331-year-old violin to protect it

With his Plano thermostat in the 40s, the owner of a precious instrument was forced to get creative in caring for it.

SMU professor Aaron Boyd poses with his violin on Thursday.
SMU professor Aaron Boyd poses with his violin on Thursday.(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)

As temperatures plummeted across Texas this week, a local violinist began sleeping with his instrument. Aaron Boyd, director of chamber music at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts, spent a few nights snuggling up with his 5-year-old son, Yuki, and his violin, which was nestled in its case, under many blankets.

It was made in Venice in 1690. “I treat this violin as if it were a living creature,” says Boyd, who didn’t have power for most of Monday and Tuesday. Though he doesn’t think his “old Italian masterpiece” would have cracked when the temperature at his home in Plano dropped into the 40s, he “would never want to test it,” he says. “Because once it’s cracked, you have to have it fixed. And it’s never quite the same afterward.”

A salesperson pulled the instrument out of a safe at a New York City violin shop about 10 years ago after Boyd had asked to see something Venetian. Its creator, Matteo Goffriller, was the father of the “Venetian School” of luthiers. (From the French word for lute, “luthier” means an artisan who builds and repairs string instruments.) Goffriller is believed to have taught several prominent luthiers, and the deep red varnish he used was one of his trademarks.

“It was love at first sight,” Boyd remembers. Though he declined to say what it cost, it was more than he could afford, so he started saving up. “I spent the next six months waking up and going to sleep with a calculator in my hand, trying to see how I could make it happen,” Boyd says. “It’s a love affair I have with a particular instrument which expresses the sound I’m looking for.”

Aaron Boyd's violin sits in its case on Thursday. The instrument was made in Venice in 1690 by Matteo Goffriller, a renowned craftsman of string instruments.
Aaron Boyd's violin sits in its case on Thursday. The instrument was made in Venice in 1690 by Matteo Goffriller, a renowned craftsman of string instruments.(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)

Goffriller built the violin during the golden age for luthiers in Italy. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the northern Italian cities of Brescia and Cremona were hubs for the craft. Cremona was home to Antonio Stradivari, whose instruments are coveted by musicians and collectors alike for their supposedly superior sound and resonance. (Stradivari’s instruments sell for millions at auction.)

Goffriller is more famous for his cellos — Pablo Casals played on one — than violins. But Boyd says Goffriller’s best violins are “just as good” as his cellos, even though they aren’t as “uniformly successful” as they are.

Because Goffriller would have been Venice’s foremost luthier when composer Antonio Vivaldi worked in the city, Boyd wonders whether the violin was involved in premieres of Vivaldi’s music, maybe even the Four Seasons, he speculates.

Boyd usually brings his violin to luthiers in New York City for basic maintenance. Although he’s been unable to fly there during the pandemic, he still cleans his instrument “maniacally” and focuses on keeping its temperature and humidity levels stable. “That’s how I ended up with a violin in bed,” he says with a laugh.

Tim Diovanni, Staff Writer. Tim Diovanni is reporting on classical music in a fellowship supported in part by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The News makes all editorial decisions.

tim.diovanni@dallasnews.com @howeyehearit
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