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A journey through a violin's past


Sunday, The Buffalo News ran a story I wrote about Clement and Karen Arrison, a Buffalo couple, and the three almost-priceless violins they own: a Stradivarius, a Guarneri and a Gobetti, all hundreds of years old. They lend these violins out through the Stradivari Society of Chicago to some of the world's foremost young violinists. You can read the story here.

What I love about this unusual situation is the cachet it brings to Buffalo. It is just not the image people have of our town! To have a Guarneri that belonged to Fritz Kreisler in Buffalo hands, that is amazing. 

There is another glamorous aspect of the Kreisler violin, the "Mary Portman" Guarneri del Gesu, which could not make it into the story. That is the identity of this Mary Portman whose name the violin bears. She is usually identified as a "British violinist," and that's certainly accurate. But there is a little more to the story than that.

Mary Portman owned the violin relatively recently in its long life. She was its owner as World War I dawned. She was not a professional violinist, which I find interesting. She was an accomplished amateur.

Portman was the daughter of a British peer. As World War I approached, she was studying violin in Leipzig. She was also building a mansion near the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen -- which music fans might recognize as the town where Richard Strauss lived. Her mansion, built in the British and Irish Arts and Crafts style, became known as the Kranzbach Castle. But by all accounts, she never saw it finished. That was because the war broke out, and Portman, along with other British nationals, had to go home because of the hostilities.

That is a picture of Mary Portman's mansion above. It is now Das Kranzbach, an upscale hotel and spa. Their Web site tells the history of the grand house and paints a romantic portrait of Portman:

Once upon a time there was a lady from London, the Honourable Mary Isabel Portman, builder of "The Kranzbach Castle". In 1913, at the age of 36, this wealthy English aristocrat, known as a beautiful, self-confident and independent woman, signed the purchase contract for the "Kranzbach meadow near Garmisch". At this time, Mary Portman was studying music in Leipzig, Germany, practicing with her own Stradivari violin. She called numerous famous musicians her friends.

The mansion's Web site does not go into the drama of Miss Portman's departure. She almost wound up in a German jail for debt because, owing to a series of wartime complications, she was unable to pay the mansion's builders. The New York Times reported on that colorful situation in this archived story.

A history of the "Mary Portman" Guarneri onlineleaves a lot of gaps, but states that Portman acquired the instrument in 1924, and that Kreisler was an earlier owner.

The more you learn about the history of these violins, the more otherworldly it gets. It is fascinating to think of this violin now owned by the Arrisons and in safekeeping in Chicago, awaiting the artist who will play it next.

Next time people try to hand you something about Buffalo being a blue collar town, tell them that story.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman



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