The Hippo


Oct 14, 2019








Meet Quincy Whitney

Water Street Bookstore: 125 Water St., Exeter, Thursday, May 12, at 7 p.m.
Toadstool Bookshop: 12 Depot Square, Peterborough, Saturday, May 14, at 2 p.m. 
Barnes & Noble: 1741 S. Willow St., Manchester, Sunday, May 15, noon to 2 p.m.

Luthier legend
Nashua biographer on her new book, American Luthier

By Kelly Sennott

 Quincy Whitney first called Carleen Hutchins in 1997 as a Boston Globe arts journalist. She’d learned about the 87-year-old violin maker who summered on Lake Winnipesaukee at a New Hampshire Humanities Council meeting and wanted to write a story about her.

“What’s your angle?” Hutchins asked Whitney over the phone.
Whitney was startled. She’d never been asked that as a journalist before.
“I’m interested in stories where science and art overlap,” Whitney said.
It was the right answer. Whitney drove from her Nashua home to the Lakes Region, conducted the interview and wrote about the New Jersey teacher and housewife who began carving fiddles in her kitchen and went on to invent a new family of violins.
After it printed, Hutchins told Whitney she was the first journalist to make her work sound interesting. Would she be interested in writing her biography?
“It’s really rare when someone asks you that. That really does take a pretty strong ego. And I guess I wasn’t as turned off by ego as I was curious about what I had already seen of her. Everything in the story seemed too remarkable to be real,” Whitney said. 
Whitney was tired of weekly deadlines but held off answering. Since she and her husband were planning trips to Venice and Milan for their anniversary, however, she could agree to Hutchins’ request to deliver Research Papers in Violin Acoustics 1975-1993, which Hutchins had just finished editing, to Francesco Bissolotti, luthier and founder of the professional violin-making school in Cremona, Italy, the “city of violins.” It wasn’t far off their planned route.
“I think [my husband and I] are both sort of adventurous in that way. He was intrigued by what he had read in the paper about her,” Whitney said. 
They delivered the package to Bissolotti, who “gleamed” when he saw who it was from, and checked out Collezione Civica, the collection of treasured violins by Italian masters, located in Palazzo Comunale in the city center. They found displays, exhibits and a hallway that paid tribute to the world’s most noted violin makers, from Andrea Amati, who invented the instrument, to Antonio Stradivari, who perfected it. And there at the end was Hutchins. She was who she said she was.
“That was a turning point to me,” Whitney said. 
In 1997, Whitney began researching American Luthier: Carleen Hutchins — The Art & Science of the Violin, during which she conducted interviews in New Hampshire and in the New Jersey home Hutchins grew up in. 
It was a biographer’s dream and nightmare. There were hundreds of primary sources right there (Hutchins was a child from the Depression and never gave anything away), but it was often overwhelming. On the bright side, there was no worrying someone else would steal the story. Hutchins was relatively unknown even though, in Whitney’s opinion, no luthier contributed to the field more since Stradivari.
“So much of women’s history is like that — footprints in the sand, a wave comes over, and then the footprints are gone. This is really the reason I wrote the book,” Whitney said.
Hutchins, encouraged by her mother to explore her interests, started whittling as a girl and perfected the craft by high school. She became a naturalist, wife, teacher, musician, luthier, scientist, author, editor, lecturer and catalyst for the international violin community. 
She carved nearly 500 instruments, conducted 100 experiments and created a new, louder, more dynamic violin and the first violin octet  using physics research. She was the only woman to be given the highest award of the Acoustical Society of America, first awarded to Thomas Edison in 1929. 
Yet musicians hesitated to accept her work. 
“Give a painter a new color, that’s an exciting thing. Give a sculptor a new shape, and it will inspire something else to create. Give a musician a new instrument, that’s a problem. Carleen found that creating new things ruffled people’s feathers,” Whitney said. “The problem with musicians is that, above all other artists, they are married to their tool. … By bringing in something new, Carleen found she was going uphill in a lot of ways.”
 Whitney met with Hutchins for 12 straight years before she died in 2009 at 98.
“I didn’t know whether I would write this while she was living. But she never hovered over me or told me what to write,” Whitney said.  “Biographies take a lot of time. Nobody’s paying you to do research. But she knew by the time she died I was committed to it.”
Whitney’s now in the midst of a book tour, traveling the country to tell Hutchins’ story.
“She created a life and career out of a passion without knowing how to do it,” Whitney said. “I think it’s a model for a lot of us, whatever path we’re on in life.”

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