Monday, July 9, 2012

Elizabeth Pitcairn, The Red Mendelssohn Violin, and Wittner Finetune Pegs

By: Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins
 and Kevin Berdine

What is the common thread between the Battle of Bunker Hill, the 1720 'Mendelssohn' Stradivarius, 'The Red Violin', Wittner Finetune violin pegs, and Gamma Phi Beta Sorority? Elizabeth Pitcairn, of course!
Photo Credit: Christian Steiner
Elizabeth Pitcairn

photo taken by Christian Steiner

Elizabeth Pitcairn was born into a musical family in 1973 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to Mary Eleanor (nee. Brace) Pitcairn and Laren Pitcairn. Her mother was an accomplished Juilliard-trained cellist and her father was trained as a baritone and served as president of the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Elizabeth's brother, David, was trained as a cellist, but followed in the footsteps of his great uncle and makes his living as an aerospace engineer.

At the age of three, Pitcairn began studying violin. By the age of 14 she performed her first concerto with an orchestra. At the age of 16, her grandfather purchased for her the gift of a lifetime, the 'Red Mendelssohn' Violin. The instrument was much sought after and demanded a high auction price of $1.7 million. Many prominent soloists were eager to own this instrument, but Elizabeth's grandfather won out.

Elizabeth Pitcairn playing the 1720 'Red Mendelssohn' violin

image from her website
Elizabeth, a Gamma Phi Beta sorority member, studied with the accomplished artist/teacher Robert Lipsett at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music. Currently, Ms. Pitcairn is part of the distinguished string faculty at the Colburn School of Performing Arts, President/artistic director of the Luzerne Music Festival, and guest artist/teacher around the world.

The violin, made famous by Girard's movie "The Red Violin," appeared to vanish shortly after its creation in 1720. There is no evidence as to who owned the instrument between 1720 and 1930 when it surfaced in Berlin, Germany. Because of this long absence, much speculation about 'The Red Violin' had been made of its whereabouts. In 1930 the instrument was brought into the public's view and Felix Mendelssohn's heirs purchased the instrument along with 3 other Stradivaris (2 violins, and a viola) that all bear title 'Mendelssohn.' The purpose of their purchase was to perform chamber music in the home and to help Lily Mendelssohn prepare for a career as a violinist. Sadly, she and her husband, composer Emil Bohnke, died in a tragic car accident. The family then sold the instrument to an industrialist in 1945, where it was cared for and kept in pristine playing condition. On Thanksgiving day, 1990, the instrument surfaced once again, and was purchased by Elizabeth Pitcairn's grandfather at Christies of London. 10 years later, Ms. Pitcairn made her Lincoln Center debut.
File:Juilliard School - Alice Tully Hall.jpg
Alice Tully Hall, where Elizabeth Pitcairn made her debut

This instrument has been given the name 'Red Mendelssohn' due to the famous family that owned the instrument and its intense red varnish that is richer and more vibrant than any other specimen from the workshop of Stradivari. In fact, the famous 'Lady Blunt' Stradivari violin, that fetched close to $16 million in a recent auction, was built just a year after the 'Red Mendelssohn.' Although they share much in shape and form, the color of the 'Red' is much more vibrant. This period of Stradivari's life was the highpoint in his artistic output, thus instruments from this era (the 'Golden' period) tend to fetch extraordinarily high prices.

Ms. Pitcairn always found tuning to be a difficult and precarious task and brought this concern to her luthier, Robert Cauer. Robert suggested the Wittner Finetune pegs. Since then, Elizabeth has had them installed on three instruments; the "Red Mendelssohn Stradivari Violin, her Pressenda violin, and her practice violin. Upon having them installed on her violin, she wrote a letter to Wittner expressing her delight.

The string world is slow to change, and in fact it embraces the "old" as being superior to the "new." Thus many string enthusiasts, teachers, and performers are hesitant about the Wittner Finetune pegs. Even though most musicians agree that tuning with traditional pegs can be hard on the wrists, difficult to tune accurately, and even more challenging to tune quickly, musicians are still reluctant to go against a 400 year old traditional method of tuning: the friction peg. This reluctance quickly diminishes or even vanishes once a player tries the pegs and enjoys the ease in tuning that this geared mechanism facilitates.
Wittner Finetune Pegs

At Fein Violins, we have been installing the Wittner Finetune Pegs for about a year and have had great success. If the pegs are fine enough for the 'Red Mendelssohn' Stradivari and Ms. Elizabeth Pitcairn, we believe they are a fine enough for a Fein. And you!

One can learn more about Ms. Pitcairn, her violin, her family's colorful history and Wittner Finetune Pegs at

Are you a violinist or interested in becoming one? Take a look at our Fine Violins!

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