Sunday, October 6, 2019

Strings and Celebrities- It Took Some Guts

By Andy Fein, Luthier, Fein Violins
and Ivana Truong

         Gut Strings and String Choice: "Influencers" Before World War II

Catgut strings? Were they really from cats' guts? Or from the guts of anything else? Who made them? Who used them?

Before World War II and the invention of nylon, Perlon, and similar materials, natural gut core strings were the strings of choice of most violinists, violists, and some cellists.

Were they really made from cats' guts? NO! But were they made from some other animals' guts? Yes!

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A violin with gut strings, 3 are bare gut and one is wound with silver

© Anoixe / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL
In the years between World War I and II, The Hakkert family established a factory in Rotterdam to produce the finest gut strings available. They also established one of the finest marketing programs.

The family's string factory was run by the talented Jacques Hakkert, who learned violin making in Mirecourt, France and helped run his family's large music store in Rotterdam, where they perfected the process of gut string making. The Nazis murdered this talented man.

Professor Uri M. Kupferschmidt, the author of Strings and Celebrities: Hakkert's "First Dutch Stringmakers" and Jacques' grandson, is primarily known for his work on social history in the Middle East. His previous book, published in 2007, was actually on Middle Eastern department stores and their consumers. But since 2013, when he first found the Hakkert's publicity brochure that is featured prominently in "Strings and Celebrities: Hakkert's 'First Dutch Stringmakers'", Professor Kupferschmidt has been looking into his grandfather's life, the catgut strings his grandfather manufactured, and the musicians who promoted them.

Jacques Hakkert was born in 1891 in Rotterdam, a city in the Netherlands. His family owned a prominent music store that sold a wide variety of instruments, gramophones, and accessories, including strings. He was named Jacob (changed to Jacques after he went to France) Wolfgang Hakkert after Mozart and his brother, Max Richard Hakkert, was named after Richard Wagner.

Jacques Hakkert was sent to Mirecourt, France for his luthier training at age 15. He was abroad from 1906-1909, and during that time he worked at the French violin factory of Jérôme Thibouville-Lamy. Then, he apprenticed under luthiers in Mattaincourt, France and luthiers in the German cities of Düsseldorf, and Cologne. The first violin that he made is now part of the Violins of Hope collection, which has recently obtained a Hakkert bow as well. When he returned to Rotterdam in 1909, he began work on violins in his family's shop. In his lifetime, it is estimated that he made close to 100 violin and cellos as well as a number bows, though it is unknown how many.

Two years after Jacques returned to Rotterdam, his family's music store started advertising their own catgut strings and they announced the opening of their formal string factory in 1917. They started producing strings for violin, viola, cello, double bass, guitar, harp, and later mandolin, banjo, and ukelele. The strings could be spun with aluminum, steel, silver, silk, or gold depending on its use. They also produced string for tennis rackets and medical sutures.
Gut strings are made from the small intestines of SHEEP (not cats!), which have been cleaned and soaked in cold water to preserve color and strength. The intestines are then softened in an alkaline bath and then split into 2 strands. The strands are then bleached, bundled in various numbers, depending on the string, and then twisted together. They are then dried, polished and cut to length. Depending on the string, a metal winding may be added. In the second half of the 1920s, Hakkert marketed a gold-wound G string which he advertised as more durable and intense in tone. While Hakkert's general process for producing gut strings would have been similar, he stated that he modified his manufacturing to fit the Dutch climate and water, which was high in calcium salts.

Video on how gut strings are made

Sidenote: The origin of the word catgut itself is pretty interesting. The strings, contrary to the name, are not made from the guts of cats. Actually, they are made from the small intestines of sheep. One possibility is that the "cat" in catgut is an abbreviation of cattle, which are sometimes used to make gut strings. Another possibility is that catgut was originally kitgut, "kit" being an obsolete word for a fiddle. Later, the "kit" may have been mistaken for "kit" as in a small cat, like a kitten, and from there, the word evolved to catgut.

Jacques also brilliantly marketed his strings with a method surprisingly similar to today's "influencer" marketing, where companies send products to internet celebrities with the hope of an endorsement or promotion. While this method certainly wasn't invented by Jacques, it was very effectively utilized by him. He would often send string samples to celebrity musicians and ask for written endorsements. He would compile these endorsements, along with signed photographs, and use them in newspaper advertisements and marketing brochures. His father would even keep a leaflet of these testimonials in his shop for customers to browse through. By the 1920s, Hakkert catgut strings had expanded worldwide. Hakkert strings were sold in Mirecourt, London, Berlin, Barcelona, Johannesburg, and even in Minneapolis!

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Jacques Hakkert in his workshop, 1915

Cornelis Johan Hofker / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Scroll of Hakkert's first violin
Photos used with permission of Avshalom Weinstein
Some of these endorsements were found by Professor Uri Kupferschmidt and inspired him to research and write this book. In 2013, he saw a reference to an item of Hakkert's on the internet and after investigating the listing, the item turned out to be over 140 written recommendations for Hakkert Strings by musicians and ensembles. When Professor Kpuferschmidt was in Paris, he purchased the recommendations and decided to write Strings and Celebrities, which contains a full Hakkert brochure from spring 1931. Each written endorsement is accompanied by a very thoroughly researched account of their careers, made by referencing a wide variety of sources. By researching each musician and even uncovering new information on many of their activities in the Netherlands, Professor Kupferschmidt hopes to understand how Jacques selected the musicians he reached out to. (Jacques was fairly successful in his selection, as information and/or clips of over 70% of the musicians featured in the brochure can still be found online today!) The brochure in Strings and Celebrities includes endorsements from Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Pablo Casals, and Yehudi Menuhin.

Just before the war, a new Hakkert Strings factory was opened and the production shifted to mainly medical suture. In 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands and shortly later bombed Rotterdam, eventually ending in the Netherlands' surrender. After the invasion, discriminatory policies against Jews, Romani and Dom (Gypsies), and other minorities were slowly introduced and by 1942 persecution and deportations began. On July 18, 1942, Jacques received a letter telling him to report to a labor camp. He went into hiding and fled to Belgium, where he had many business relations. From Belgium, he hoped to reach Switzerland, but he was caught in Brussels and eventually killed in Auschwitz.

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An advertisement for "The First Dutch String Factory" 
stating that their string can be used for instruments, machines, and tennis rackets

Image from Royal Library of the Netherlands
Image may contain: 2 people
An image from 1917 of the temporary Hakkert string-making factory.
Strings are drying in the background

Image from Hakkert Rotterdam Facebook
Jacques' brother Max sadly met a similar fate. After his father's death in 1925, he took over the family music store and during his time as manager, he organized shows in the Netherlands for Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and many other jazz musicians. Upon the German occupation, Max was forced to give up working at the shop. Max eventually tried to escape after being forced to sell his shop for close to nothing. Sadly, he was caught on the way to Switzerland and was eventually killed in the Sobibor extermination camp. His wife and daughter were able to escape and later returned to Rotterdam and rebuilt the family music shop.

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Hakkert Music Store in 1993, the store closed in 2007

Image from Hakkert Rotterdam Facebook

Shortly after Jacques fled, the string factory was taken over by Pirazzi in a deal with unknown conditions. Pirastro continued producing medical suture at the factory throughout the war, though the factory was returned to Dutch owners in a process beginning in 1945 and ending 1948. As medical suture made of gut was replaced by synthetic alternatives, the Hakkert string factory was forced to close down. But through their music shop, violins, and, of course, gut strings, the Hakkerts certainly made an impact on the music world.

If you found this blog post interesting, consider buying "Strings and Celebrities" from Pardes Publishing for $54 or a digital copy on Amazon Kindle for $27. It's possible that soon Amazon will be offering a paperback version in the North Ameerican market. I found the book to be thorough, well-researched, and enjoyable. Professor Uri Kupferschmidt combines his family's fascinating and unique history in catgut manufacturing with his knowledge of globalization, war-time economics, and marketing. It was a great book and I would recommend reading it! And if you love the history of violin, viola, and cello playing, you'll find almost 300 pages of copies of the endorsements and background information from the performers that endorsed Hakkert's gut strings. That's an amazing amount of research from Professor Kupferschmidt!

Of course, the Hakkerts' fates show the cruelty, idiocy, and eventual futility of Nazism and the Nazi's goal to eliminate Jews. Jacques Hakkert made profound contributions to the musical life of Europe and the world. His productive genius was taken away by the Nazis, but his instruments and legacy live on. We, the Jewish people, are still here and our instruments still sing. Hakkert's descendants are still here, and the Jewish communities of Israel and the Diaspora are thriving.

You can also find references to Jacques Hakkert in Jacques Didier's book "Manufactures & Maitres-Luthiers, Mirecourt 1919-1969".

We would like to thank Uri M. Kupferschmidt, the author of "Strings and Celebrities, Hakkert's "First Dutch Stringmakers" (published by Pardes Publishing ) for generously taking his time to give us feedback on this blog post and sharing some of his photographs. We have formed a new and treasured friendship.

Also, many thanks to our longtime friends Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein for providing pictures of Jacques Hakkert's first violin. They tell me they are hoping to acquire a cello made by Hakkert for their collection of Holocaust-era instruments Violins of Hope.