Violinmaker Hans Benning and Violinist Jascha Heifetz

Violinmaker Hans Benning and Violinist Jascha Heifetz

The people who fashion wood and strings to build great violins are not on the concert hall stage. But sometimes they are great friends with the player.

When the most famous violinist in the world walked into a Los Angeles violin maker’s shop, asking for a repair of a highly valued (Guarneri 1740) violin, would the luthier decline his business?

That’s initially what occurred when virtuoso Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) walked into the shop of Hans Benning in Los Angeles in 1974. Benning was a European-trained (in Mittenwald, Germany) maker of fine violins – the shop now also makes violas, cellos, bass gambas, tenor gambas, and viola d’more – and as a skilled luthier he was also more-than-proficient at repairs and restorations. Heifetz, whose appearance and bearing were immediate clues to Benning as to who he was, brought in his Guarneri because Benning had developed a reputation for his skills at repairs and restoration of fine stringed instruments.

Heifetz asked that Benning come to his home to do the repair work. Which is understandable in that a prized violin such as this is not something a player wants to let out of his or her sight. But Benning declined. His tools and other equipment, made for this task, were all in Benning’s shop. He explained to the great violinist that he wouldn’t be able to do a sufficient job in a different environment.

Initially, Heifetz walked away. But in a few days, Heifetz’s assistant came back to revisit the task, asking Benning to work on the violin in his shop, as he had said was necessary. Later, the virtuoso told Benning he respected him for standing up for himself and his business ethics.

That was the beginning of a 15-year working relationship that could aptly be described as a friendship. Benning serviced Heifetz violins – while it’s unclear now which and how many that was, across the course of his long career Heifetz had the Dolphin Stradivarius (1714), the Heifetz-Piel Stradivarius (1731), the Antonio Stradivarius (1731), Carlo Tononi (1736), Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, Piacenza (1741), the ex-David Guarneri (1740 or 1742), and Guarneri (1740) – but also shared meals and played ping pong with the violinist.

After Heifetz died in 1987, Benning helped assemble the auction of his instruments, bows, and other accessories.

Benning recalls, “Heifetz was a very deep-thinking man…he was a perfectionist … set in his ways … he came to me because he trusted me …. I didn’t want anything from him… he said, ‘you’re more interested in the instrument than me.’”

Benning and his family make violins and other stringed instruments and repair them as well. The skills required for making violins informs the repair process because they understand the intricacies of the instruments, including construction, acoustics, and materials. The Benning family construct instruments based on those of the master Cremonese luthiers (Stradivari, Guarneri, Balestrieri, Amati, David Tecchler), purchased and prized by soloists as well as instrumentalists of some of the world’s greatest orchestras.

But as Hans Benning observed when attending a memorial concert to Heifetz after his death, the sound of the onetime Heifetz violin in the hands of another player produced a very different sound. “The same violin, the same music, the same orchestra … [but] the instrument sounded totally different,” said Benning. “It’s the skill of the player to find out what the instrument has and what you can do with it. Many people could not play the strings he used to use. He made it sound gorgeous.”

It's clear that the violinist and violinmaker bore a great deal of mutual respect – the shaky start to their relationship notwithstanding.