Violin Makers of Saskatchewan

Growing up in a house filled with music in the Nokomis, Saskatchewan area, I have always known of world-class violin maker Frank Seidler. Today, I play a violin that was rebuilt by him in 1965, purchased from E. Felske in 1979 for the princely sum of $150.

There are other ‘world class’ violin luthiers in Saskatchewan. David Palm of Shellbrook has been making high quality instruments for decades.

While searching for a luthier to do a little bit of set-up for me, I came across a story about the late Max Lang of Raymore, Saskatchewan. I had not heard of him before, but, as with Frank Seidler, it appears he was a world-class luthier. Also, as with Seidler, it seems most if not all of his violins have disappeared in the years since his passing.

‘Lang’ is a well-known Raymore, Saskatchewan name. Read Max’s story from an article in the Star Phoenix in 2007:

Love of violins runs in Lang family

—SP Photo by Greg Pender
Ed Lang poses with the violin he passed down to his grandson, Simon Fanner

Simon Fanner’s third season with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra ended a week ago. At 17, he is as old now as his great-grandfather, Max Lang, was back in 1904 when the Lang family left Austria and came to Canada. Simon plays violin. Max made them. Max made 39 violins. He was in his late 40s when he started making his first violin and 91 years old when he finished the last one. Wearing an old apron, working at the kitchen table on his farm just south of Raymore, Max carved and chiselled his winters away, inspired by a concert he had gone to in 1934.

Buying a concert ticket seemed extravagant at the time, considering it was the Depression and he had a family to support and all, but Max wasn’t given to excess. As newlyweds in 1909, he and his wife, Teresa, got by on only $10 for the winter. Max could be forgiven his indulgence in 1934, for this was a one-time chance to hear the great Fritz Kreisler, a man who could make a violin weep.

Max and his brother, John, went to the concert at the Regina Exhibition. They experienced the Kreisler magic. It was all Max talked about for days. One night, he had a dream about Kreisler. “If I make a violin,” Max asked, “will you try it?” “Yes,” Kreisler said. He said it would be his pleasure.

The dream went on. Max made a violin and presented it to Kreisler. When the maestro put the bow to the strings, Max held his breath in anticipation. Kreisler was magic, as always, conjuring music that was rich and warm and pure from wood and wire.

When Kreisler finished playing, he gave the violin back to Max. “Masterpiece,” Kreisler said. Max, the sweet dream believer, decided to make a violin for real. He bought a block of raw maple and left it behind his kitchen stove for six months to cure. Although he was an experienced woodworker and had helped build the Raymore hotel as well as the grain elevator and the local Catholic church, in making a violin he needed special tools to fiddle with. He improvised, fashioning a chisel out of a Sheffield table knife.

He cut, shaped. He laboured for hours on the purfling, a strip of inlaid wood on the body of the violin that’s just for show. He experimented with glues, creating his own blend. To the finished work he applied eight coats of varnish. Max made music. As his name became known, people brought him violins for tune-up and repair. Times being what they were, they sometimes couldn’t afford to pay him for the work. They cut a deal instead. Fix one of our violins, customers said, and we’ll let you keep a second one. Max then used the repaired violins, as well as his own, to barter for goods and services, too. In exchange for a violin, he once got a brand new Eaton’s Glider bike for his kids.

He and Teresa had 10 children — five boys and five girls. Max gave each of them one of his hand-crafted violins. On the inside of every instrument, he glued a thin metal strip engraved with a Roman numeral. His first violin, marked I, was given to the oldest of the Lang children, John.

In 1939, when Max finished his ninth violin, he entered it in the Canadian National Exhibition hobby show in Toronto, winning first prize. He gave both the violin and the prize certificate to his son, Ed.

Ed played for a few years, mostly at weddings and dances at the Raymore hotel on Saturday nights. He played in a group with five other members of the Lang family, making $12 a night — two bucks apiece when split six ways.

Max played in the group, too, but he preferred being on the dance floor to performing up on stage. Max could have danced all night. He died a few days short of his 98th birthday. Today, the whereabouts of all 39 Max Lang violins is unknown. A collector in Outlook bought two. The Lang family still owns several. A few years ago, Ed Lang was offered $50,000 for his violin, but graciously declined.

“There are some things you can’t put a price on,” Ed said. Besides, Ed had plans for that violin.

From the time Ed’s grandson, Simon Fanner, enrolled in the local Suzuki violin program, Ed has been watching Simon develop. He has heard him grow. In one of Simon’s first big performances, he played Ava Maria at Ed and Rita’s 60th wedding anniversary.

“He’s always been one of my biggest supporters,” said Simon, who’s been raised in a house of stereo sound. His father, Nick, is a music teacher at Marion Graham Collegiate and his mother, Bernadette — Ed’s daughter — is a piano instructor.

And so it went that when Simon outgrew his threequarter size starter violin in Grade 6, Ed offered a bigger, better model.

“He said, ‘I’ve got this one,’ ” Simon said. “He said, ‘I’d love to see it work for you.’ ”

In a room at home where Simon practises violin each day after class at St. Joseph High School, the framed certificate from the CNE hangs on a wall. Simon played Max’s violin for three years and although he uses a different one now with Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra, Max’s sweet, old No. IX is never far away.

“It has a nice, clear sound that projects really well,” said Simon. “At the lower register, it’s warm.

“It’s nice even to just look at. That bird’s eye maple on the back, I think, has a shine to it.”

Crafted by Max. Played by Simon. You could even say it glows.

“Simon,” said his grandfather Ed, “can make it talk. He puts his heart and soul into it.

“I wish my dad could have heard him. He’d be in a seventh heaven, I’m sure.”

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