When the great luthier René Morel passed away on Wednesday, it was immediately mentioned among us in the Emerson Quartet that an era had ended. This is a comment that I am sure finds resonance in the thoughts of others who knew René and were privileged to have been under his care. But just what constituted the era of René? What did he do that was so definitive and unique that he seems to have taken it with him?
Those of us lucky to have become professional string players likely remember our first visits to violin shops. Wherever they are, big or small, famous or obscure, they possess a certain magic. There is the usual presence of a multitude of instruments, some exuding age, distinction and fabulous pedigree and value. There’s that wonderful smell of varnish and glue in the air. There’s sometimes the chance that a famous musician will just walk in right next to you. And very importantly, there is the presence of the experts and craftsmen who learned their art in time-honored ways not found in universities or online courses. What they know, you cannot just learn if you want by looking it up in a book or taking a course somewhere. It is often a lifetime of study, apprenticeship, dedication, and for the chosen few, the gaining of an artistry that goes beyond skilled craft and factual knowledge.
René Morel epitomized all that goes into the makeup of a master luthier. I first encountered him as a star-struck teenager, having been taken to the shop of Rembert Wurlitzer. I can’t even remember what I needed there – maybe it was just a string – but all the magic I spoke of took hold of me in a very powerful way. The personnel in the front – Ken Jacobs I remember well – had a cordial yet intimidating air, but when, for some reason, the people who actually did the work, like René, were summoned out of the workshop, the room stood still in their presences. Along with the magnetic and vital René was the sage-like Dario D’Attili, who was revered for his encyclopedic knowledge and ability to perform miracles of pedigree confirmation.
Some years later, as a freshman student at the Manhattan School of Music, I was thrilled beyond measure to find out that René was teaching a course in violin repair, and that I was eligible. I couldn’t believe it, and I actually still don’t understand how he found the time, energy or even the interest to share his consummate skills with a bunch of conservatory students whose skills in instrument repairs barely were enough to change a string. René, however, took the whole thing very seriously, as though he was training the descendants of Stradivari. We had to buy tools: sound post setters, clamps, rulers. We were sent down to the West Village to a paint shop to buy exotic ingredients for varnish. I had an alcohol lamp, and pretty soon I could make my little apartment smell like Wurlitzer’s. Damn! I thought, this is just out-of-sight, to good to be true. I worshipped René, hung on his every word, and got totally caught up in the incredible world he was opening to us. (I was so caught up that I actually managed to leave my cello once in the aisle of the paint shop, not discovering it was missing until I arrived home at 215th street. I have never since driven so fast down the West Side Highway).
It was not far in to the course, which took place in the late afternoon, that I learned that after class René took the subway down to the Port Authority to catch a bus to his home town in New Jersey. As I owned a car, I spied an opportunity, and offered to drive him down to 42nd street after a class in my ’54 Chevy. And that quickly became EVERY class, as I was thrilled to have him in my car, paying attention to me alone, hearing his stories and anecdotes and answering my special questions. Wow, was I lucky.
Our friendship continued through my evolution as a performer. I had learned through René’s class the importance of a good sound post adjustment, and of a good setup. It was not until then that I even realized what a major component of a string player’s life instrument adjustments could become. I began taking my cellos to René at Jacques Francais’ shop like any other customer. And, probably unlike with most of his clients, René continued to be my teacher: “What do you hear when you play?” he would ask, never allowing me to simply let him fix it, pay and go. His dedication to me as a student was permanent, and felt truly blessed.
And here I have finally arrived at the question I posed at the start of this story: what was it about René that was special, irreplaceable, and of inestimable value? There are many things.
First, of course, was his ear. He could hear like an owl. He not only heard the quality of an instrument (which he would remember as clearly as we remember peoples’ faces) but also was able to perceive the amount of effort that it took for us to produce the sound. It was from him that I first clearly understood the importance of the instrument’s mechanics, and that if it was simply out of adjustment, it was not much different than having a bad spark plug or loose steering mechanism in your car. But the miracle of his ear, and his ability to judge, was that his analyses diagnoses could be performed through scientific testing. He just knew, from his vast experience and incredible gift, what to do.
The next thing I learned from René was how tricky it is to know how your instrument actually sounds in the concert hall. Most people – instrumentalists and I have to say luthiers – give it their best guess. René knew. He really knew, and he knew it so well that those of us under the most pressure, playing the greatest instruments in the world’s greatest halls, competing with the most powerful orchestras, depended on René to make sure that when the critical performance came, our instruments were at their peak.
He proved he could do it, over and over again. No one in his lifetime – even he was totally open to explaining how he did what he did – ever came remotely close. It was not unusual to find musicians in Francais’ shop who had come all the way from Europe or the Far East just to have René move their sound post. That is truly a one-of-a-kind legacy.
A “René adjustment” is a phrase that will live on forever. Those of us who had them know exactly what one is. First, it is when your instrument sounds its best, when the sound is full of color, but also that the notes on every string have “core”, a word René used all the time and stressed the importance of. Second, it is when your instrument functions perfectly, when the strings speak immediately and the sound sparkles. Third, the instrument has to resonate, so a balance needs to be found between clarity, focus and “cushion”, another word heard often in his adjusting room. A René adjustment always extracts the maximum potential of an instrument, and also has staying power. It was rare that anyone returned for a follow-up, which usually only happened in the event of severe and unexpected weather change. René knew how to adjust for the future, and for where you were headed, and he was, in my experience, always correct.
Another aspect of the René experience that should be pointed out was his understanding of sound production technique. As discreet as René was with his customers, he clearly knew if problems were caused not by the instrument but by the player. René was blessed with the best clientele in the world; he heard and worked with the greatest players of his day, on a daily basis. His point of reference was unmatchable. He probably could have been one heck of a string teacher, but he held his opinions mostly in check, sometimes only barely alluding to the idea that perhaps your instrument was not the culprit.
The most valuable lesson I learned from this last point is that ultimately, even with the benefit of René adjustment, it would do you little good unless you yourself adjusted to the instrument, and not the other way around. This is a hard-line, no nonsense approach to playing, devoid of mystique, and with little credence given to personal intrigue or complex relationships between player and instrument. I was always the most comfortable if I thought René was adjusting my cello not for me, but for the greatest cellists he had ever heard. It was my job as a player to measure up, after he gave me the best tools to work with.
So the end result of a visit to René was coming away with an instrument that you knew would sound great, but only if you played it at the level at which it was adjusted. It was for me, and I’m sure for others, sometimes a challenge, a reach. But it was an incredible part of my education as a musician and a player, given to me by a single individual, for which I am eternally grateful.
It would not be right to omit the immense warmth of René from my list of accolades. That he treated musicians like me, from day one, with respect and friendliness was always appreciated, and was in stark contrast with others in his profession who took years to acknowledge younger, lesser-known players, as clients of worth.
I’m happy that so many had the benefit of his guidance. The whole world of music sounds better for our having had René among us. Not only his work, but our expectations of our instruments and ourselves, live on.