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Researcher Stories: The Violins of George Yu

George Yu. Photo: Jon Cherry.

George Yu is an award-winning luthier based in Louisville, Kentucky, who models his handcrafted violins on rare Italian instruments, including a 1654 Amati violin at the Library.

You started your professional career as a software engineer. How did you end up making violins?

I was lucky to have parents who nurtured both my scientific and my artistic pursuits. I did some growing up in their chemistry labs while they were grad students, often asking, “Why?” — not from defiance, but from wanting to better understand. As a child, I started playing the violin.

Later, I graduated from the University of Waterloo [in Ontario, Canada] with a bachelor’s degree from the Systems Design Engineering program, which focuses on acquiring and integrating knowledge across multiple disciplines — an approach that would become very relevant to me as a violin maker. After working as a software engineer for nine years, I decided to combine two other disciplines with my scientific one — playing violin and creating with my hands — and become a violin maker.

I was accepted into the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City, graduating in 1999. Afterward, I apprenticed with Ken Meyer and Di Cao in suburban Boston, then established my own workshop in Toronto. In 2018, I moved to the U.S. to marry my husband, the Rev. Dwain Lee, pastor of Springdale Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

How does science inform your violin making?

For me, violin making is a confluence of music, art and science. Science involves constant learning about why violins sound good or bad. It’s an engineering problem that provides no ultimate, neat solution and raises questions. There’s no room for boredom.

Before I start working with a piece of wood, for example, I take measurements to get a good idea of its stiffness and density. While working only with wood that has both good stiffness and good density doesn’t guarantee that the finished violin will have great tone and responsiveness, it is a good starting point.

My choice of drying oils in varnish also draws on science. They vary in their number of double bonds and their sequencing along fatty-acid chains, affecting how the varnish chips, crackles and wears down. This is important to know in the process of antiquing, or making an instrument look like a replica from the 17th or 18th century.

Which instruments in the Library’s violin collection have inspired you?

I became aware of the Library’s collection of rare violins before heading off to violin making school in 1996. Bob Sheldon, who was then the curator of musical instruments at the Library, and Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, his successor, kindly gave me access on multiple occasions to study, play and photograph them.

Every visit deepened and matured my acquaintance with the violins. The three that stood out for me, in chronological order, were the “Brookings” Amati (1654), the “Betts” Stradivarius (1704) and the “Kreisler” Guarneri del Gesù (circa 1730).

In playing them, I found that the Betts required a totally different approach from the others — faster and lighter bow strokes — and coaxing. I could not press or dig into it; otherwise, it would choke. There was no such issue with the Kreisler — I could press more, and it would respond by bringing forth even more of the beautiful, complex tone that was readily available in reserves; there was also an immediacy of sound. But the Brookings was my favorite. While it didn’t have quite the reserves of the Kreisler, it had more than the Betts; it also had a strikingly beautiful, rich, contralto voice.

The Brookings is named after Robert Somers Brookings, founder of what is now the Brookings Institution. He is said to have bought this violin on the advice of the virtuoso Joseph Joachim, a friend of Brahms. In 1938, Brookings’ widow presented the violin to the Library.

Describe one of your award-winning violins.

A violin of mine inspired by the Brookings Amati won double-distinction awards at the 2014 Violin Society of America Competition. Out of 246 violins entered that year, only three won awards in both categories of tone and workmanship. In creating the instrument, I made use of CT scans of the Brookings that were made through a project with the Smithsonian Institution.

Where are your instruments being played?

My instruments are being played by professionals in the New York Philharmonic, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Lyra Baroque Orchestra and other ensembles. They are also being played by students at top music conservatories.

How has it been to do research at the Library?

Bob and Carol Lynn have been a great pleasure to work with! I hope to arrange more visits in the future to further study the Library’s violins — there is always more to learn.

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