René Morel, 1932–2011

The master restorer of rare violins

René Morel was never short of customers. Earlier this year, concert violinist Anne Akiko Meyers visited the luthier’s Manhattan studio to have her instrument checked over. She found herself in line behind legendary violinists Elmar Oliveira and Itzhak Perlman. Minutes earlier, she said, Morel had “finished adjusting Yo-Yo Ma’s cello.” Such world-famous musicians were happy to wait, knowing Morel could make their instruments sing like no one else could. Tune-ups often began with Morel asking the customer to bow a few notes. He’d then spend mere seconds tweaking the instrument before handing it back to the player. A Morel-adjusted violin “would just explode with color,” said Meyers. “He was like a doctor, knowing exactly what was wrong with the fiddle with no explanation. It was uncanny.”

Morel was born into a family of violin-makers—his father was a luthier, as was his maternal grandfather—in the northeastern French town of Mattaincourt. At the age of 12, he began his training in nearby Mirecourt, and was soon making two violins by hand every week, said the London Telegraph. “We had no machinery, not even an electric motor,” he later recalled. After serving in the French air force, Morel relocated to the U.S., where he made violins for Kagan & Gaines in Chicago, said the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger, and then, after 1955, for New York instrument dealer Rembert Wurlitzer.

As his fame grew, Morel was hired to carry out “major surgery” on some of the world’s most valuable instruments, said The New York Times. In the late 1990s, he spent two years restoring a cello made in 1707 by master craftsman Antonio Stradivari—a delicate task that involved retaining all the original material, including the small strips of canvas glued to the inside for reinforcement. But most of Morel’s career was spent fine-tuning stringed instruments so that their sound perfectly matched their owners’ playing styles. A non-player himself, Morel had a fail-safe way of telling when he’d hit that sweet spot. “He would put up his sleeve and say, ‘You see the goose bumps?’” Perlman said. “As long as he didn’t get the goose bumps, it was not properly adjusted.”

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