Willamette's mysterious violin gains new life in student's hands

by University Communications,

Violin performance major Chloe Prendergast ’14 carried her instrument in a generic black case decorated with bumper stickers and her name in colorful letters. But when she slipped the violin out of its protective silk bag, it was obvious that this instrument was far from ordinary.

The age and uniqueness of the violin — which she played on loan for the past three years — often drew stares and questions. And the story of its origins is one of Willamette University’s greatest mysteries.

It started in 1988, when workers renovating Waller Hall discovered a raincoat under some floorboards. Inside the raincoat was a yellowed 1928 newspaper. And inside that … a violin.

A label inside the violin names a well-known Italian luthier, Giovanni Battista Guadagnini, and includes a date: 1703. Was this violin nearly three centuries old? And how did it come to live between Waller’s third and fourth floors — which, in 1928, were home to the university’s library and literary society displays?

Discovery of the mysterious Waller violin — as it came to be known — gained Willamette a decent dose of media attention. Violin professor Daniel Rouslin remembers the many people who surfaced to claim the instrument — none with sufficient proof of ownership. To this day, that part of the story remains unknown, although many have theories.

“I think it was probably stolen,” Rouslin says. “Someone was afraid of being found out and decided to hide it. It had to be someone with access to Waller Hall. I don’t know how they got it in the floorboards.”

The violin was in decent shape, considering its age and that it was stored, without a case, under a floor for 60 years. Its neck was not original, and it had multiple cracks, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed.

It’s not uncommon to find fictitious labels in instruments, so Willamette sent the violin to an expert instrument appraiser in New York. He determined it was not made by Guadagnini, but thought it likely came from the same general time period and region of Italy where Guadagnini — and the more-famous Stradivarius — crafted their instruments.

This April, Willamette had the Waller violin appraised again, this time by a Portland violin-maker who researches the authenticity of old instruments. He thinks the violin could have been made as early as 1685 by Peter Guarneri, a member of another famous Italian luthier family — one considered by some violinists to be more talented than Stradivarius. If his assessment is correct, the violin could be quite valuable — although not nearly as much as a mint-condition Guarneri with a proper label.

To Prendergast, the Waller violin’s value lies more in the benefits she gained from playing it. She is one of a select few students who have used it since its discovery. All have been musicians with exceptional talent who were constrained by inferior instruments. (Modern, high-quality violins can cost $20,000 to $30,000.)

“Chloe had a tremendous level of commitment as a performance major, and her instrument was really holding her back,” Rouslin says. “Violin students of her caliber and level of need rarely appear on our campus, so she definitely deserved to play this instrument.”

Prendergast was flabbergasted when Rouslin first told her the Waller violin’s story and said that she could borrow it. “My first thought was, ‘I need to practice more,’” she says.

Her desire to be worthy of her instrument was a good motivation. Prendergast went on to participate in two notable music festivals, and, with the Waller Piano Trio, competed at the Music Teachers National Association’s national conference. The trio was Oregon’s first chamber music group to compete there.

In August, Prendergast will head to the prestigious Aigues-Vives en Musiques Festival in France to train in an academy for young musicians before starting a position as the media and marketing intern for the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado, in her home state. Ultimately, she hopes to become a violin teacher and a professional performer.

As Prendergast moves on, the Waller violin will return to Rouslin for safe-keeping — until another worthy student comes along who needs it.

“One of the amazing things about the violin is when I’m playing something like Bach and I think, ‘Wow, this instrument existed when Bach was alive.’ It has seen the time of Bach, of Beethoven, of Mozart,” Prendergast says. “It’s a beautiful instrument that definitely helped me open up my sound, and I was so lucky to get to play it.”

This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of The Scene magazine, which is published three times a year as a service to Willamette alumni and friends.