by Jane Lenel

Chestnut Hiller Harold Golden won two first prizes in the 50-year-old Violin Makers Association of Arizona International competition.

If you long for a Stradivari violin and have a spare million dollars or two, you should of course go somewhere and buy one. But if you’re short on cash, a good option would be to drive over to Harold Golden’s workshop at 7801 Winston Rd. in Chestnut Hill where, for relative pennies, he can make a copy that will sound mighty close to an original — and except for possible external signs of vintage, you might not even be able to tell the difference. You could have it under your chin in about 300 hours, the time it takes him to make a violin completely by hand.

First, of course, you should know Golden’s credentials. He has recently won two first prizes in the 50-year-old Violin Makers Association of Arizona International competition. In one of these, competing with 70 violins by makers from the U.S., Canada and Mexico, his award was for a copy he made of a Guadagnini  (famous 18th century Italian violin maker).

At the British Violin Makers Day of the British Violin Makers Association, he won fourth place, competing with 60 violins from England, Scotland and Europe (he was the only “Yank”), and his instrument was chosen to be played at the afternoon concert.

Along with these awards, Golden has won high praise from violinists who play and own his violins. “I love my Golden violin so much that I now have two of them,” said John Brennan, a local Irish fiddler. “The responsiveness of Golden’s violin is amazing, and the depth and evenness are wonderful.

“I have trouble putting the violin down,” added Doug Jasik, a Philly jazz and classical violinist. Golden also made a violin for John Blake, a local jazz violinist of international renown.

All this is great, you say, but how can we possibly compare Golden and Stradivari? Golden is just a neighborhood guy, only 60 years old with 30 years’ experience to date, while Stradivari is a sainted Italian master and made violins until his death in 1737 at age 93.

Perhaps the different images we have of the two makers contribute something to our hesitation. We think of Stradivari romantically as a bearded Old World craftsman hunched over his rustic bench in a garret, scraping and gauging by gas light (maybe a candle?). On the other hand, we see Golden, clean-shaven, upright  posture, probably sitting at an up-to-date bench, with electric light and other modern comforts in the garage he converted into a workshop in his fine modern home.

However, comparing beards and electricity, whether in Cremona or Chestnut Hill, is rather silly. More important to consider are the training they received and the craft and art they developed in their decades of experience.

Golden launched his career in his early teens making a guitar. He then started a nine-year apprenticeship with German violin maker Sofian Zapf, owner of Zapf’s Music Store (now in South Jersey), and Ed Campbell, founder of the Chimney Violin Shop in Boiling Springs (central Pennsylvania). Golden opened his shop in 1980.

An autographed label in one of Stradivari’s early violins says: “Made at the age of 13 in the workshop of Nicolò Amati,” indicating the beginning of his apprenticeship with the famed maker. A later label says “Alumnus of Amati, made  in the year 1666,” and since records show that Amati’s name was not mentioned on labels in 1667 it is assumed that his apprenticeship ended then — after 10 years. It is also said that Stradivari studied the instruments  of contemporary masters, such as Guarneri and Amati, and took tips from them and others.

So Golden’s and Stradavari’s  study backgrounds were similar. Now, to fill out a comparable record of experience, Golden has to put in three more decades. As to the differences in their work processes: Golden doesn’t have a forest nearby where he can go chop down a tree or two when he runs out of spruce or maple for the bellies and backs of  his violins — as stories have Stradivari doing. But he does get specially chosen wood from all parts of the world — British Columbia, Europe, Vermont, New York State and Connecticut — possessing the requisite weight, grain density and beautiful grain patterns possibly or probably equaling those of Stradivari and the makers of his time.

Another difference is the varnish, believed by some to be the secret of the magnificent quality of Strad violins. Strange, because, according to Golden, Stradivari used the same varnish that all Cremonese makers used, while he, Golden, makes his own — a mixture of pine resin, sandarac and mastic that doesn’t damage vibrations — with different forms for different colors and styles of instruments.

How does Harold Golden make violins replicate the tone of a Strad? “I know the sound of a Strad,” he says. “Reproducing that sound is determined by many factors, and there is no formula. It’s really trial and error, time and patience:  dealing with the variations in the thickness and types of wood and its grain, the shaping, arching and graduating, and the reaction to the varnish.”

However, in producing the tone he wants, Golden has the advantage of his work with the late acoustical scientist Carleen Hutchins, who found a way to determine the path of sound through instruments by nodal patterns made by mercury drops placed on the violin top and back plates. (See www.goldenviolins.com for more technical explanation.) Stradivari and the others had to rely on tapping the wood or other methods to determine the sound they wanted.

Now, when all the pro and con information is in — to be or not to be a reproduction — the final choice is:  Do you like the sound of the instrument? If so, take it.

See Harold Golden’s website at www.goldenviolins.com for further information about his violin shop. To contact him, call 215-242-0307.