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Sense of stewardship guides David Rivinus of Yachats in restoring 100-year-old harp

An instrument cannot truly be owned, the luthier says: “You are its custodian, for as long as you keep it, or for as long as you live,” but the instrument belongs to history.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Jordan Essoe’s story, “Sense of stewardship guides David Rivinus of Yachats in restoring 100-year-old harp,” was produced in collaboration with YachatsNews.com, an ArtsWatch Community Partner, which first published it on April 14, 2022.

David Rivinus plays the newly restored, 100-year-old harp in the workshop of his Yachats home. “My job was to redo their work, but do it right,” he says. Photo by: Jordan Essoe
David Rivinus plays the newly restored, 100-year-old harp in the workshop of his Yachats home. “My job was to redo their work, but do it right,” he says. Photo by: Jordan Essoe

YACHATS — A musical instrument restorer attracted to ambitious projects came out of retirement to bring one more trounced instrument back to life. This time it was something he’d never worked on before.

David Rivinus is a 72-year-old expert restorer and innovative luthier who in the past invested as much as a year of intense, unpaid restoration work on a single project. He’s returned an instrument found in crushed pieces to stunning, fully playable condition. He undertakes projects few others in his field would, because he doesn’t let the marketplace tell him what to do.

Musical instruments are susceptible objects. Wood shrinks. Glue weakens. Pins break. Wood-boring beetles infest and burrow. Neglect and human accidents are likely. Even oils, acidity – or, more recently, hand sanitizer — from musicians’ hands can damage strings and varnish.

“Most fragile instruments don’t survive,” said Arian Sheets, curator of stringed instruments at the National Music Museum in South Dakota. “They wear out, they get lost, they get thrown out, they get replaced. And a lot of it has to do with that equation of how much it takes to fix something versus how much a new instrument costs — and is it worth it?”

The condition and cost of instruments matter. But violas, guitars, and flutes are more than just tools. The place they occupy in a musician’s life amounts to something significantly more sacred.

“There come moments when only music can fill that human, existential void that threatens to overwhelm us all,” said Yachats musician Gretchen Armstrong.

Against the terrible odds of history, a percentage of musical instruments survive. Bone and ivory flutes have been discovered that are more than 30,000 years old.

On the other end of the timeline, even the youngest of instruments commonly need repair. They may need a peg replaced, a fingerboard re-glued and or a warped bow straightened. These are simple fixes you can probably get done at a shop for less than $100.

Yet, when you get into extensive restoration work for severe damage, the cost can quickly run into the thousands or tens of thousands. At that price, the instrument likely will not be worth enough money to justify the repair. These are the broken instruments that usually end up in the garbage.

But not always.

Sometimes someone like David Rivinus intervenes.

David Rivinus thinks the grainy photo is most likely a picture of the harp’s original owner — name unknown — who kept it until she died in the 1980s. The harp then was purchased at an estate sale, went to Florida, Tennessee, Atlanta, Seal Rock, and finally Rivinus’ workshop in Yachats.
Rivinus thinks the grainy photo is most likely a picture of the harp’s original owner — name unknown — who kept it until she died in the 1980s. The harp then was purchased at an estate sale, went to Florida, Tennessee, Atlanta, Seal Rock, and finally Rivinus’ workshop in Yachats.

Instruments survive us

As a craftsman, Rivinus is attracted to the challenge and pleasure of his labor. As a person who has spent a lifetime deeply devoted to all aspects of music, he is driven by a romantic sense of responsibility and stewardship. He keeps an eye on the expansive sweep of both the past and the future.

“These instruments are going to survive us,” Rivinus said. “I’m going to kick the bucket, and this thing is going to endure.”

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The philosophy he has adopted takes a holistic, long view. After working with hundreds of clients in the restoration business, he arrived at the idea that instruments cannot truly be owned. In a philosophical sense, he says, even if someone spends tens of thousands of dollars on an instrument, it doesn’t actually “belong” to them.

Nor does it belong to any musicians who played the instrument before them. Or the ones who may come after. The instrument belongs to something greater than all of them. It belongs to history.

“You are its custodian, for as long as you keep it, or for as long as you live,” Rivinus said. “But you are basically just a blip on the radar screen of this instrument’s life.”

Rivinus’ restoration work focuses on instruments of the violin family. He was first introduced to the craft as a college student in Indianapolis, where he worked for a local violin maker. As a member of his college chamber orchestra, Rivinus was a shy performer. He didn’t like being on stage. In contrast, he felt immediately at home in the maker’s workshop.

In Hollywood, Calif., he apprenticed under a famous violin restorer named Hans Weisshaar. Weisshaar had two international reputations: He was a brilliant restorer, and a really difficult person to work with. Rivinus studied at Weisshaar’s elbow from 1975 to 1979. As taxing as it was, he didn’t regret a single day.

“That is where I learned to do what I do,” Rivinus said. “He was extraordinary. No question about it.”

David Rivinus plays the final Pellegrina model he made before retirement. After personally handcrafting 70 of these violas, it’s the only one he kept. He plans to leave it to his children. Photo by: Jordan Essoe
Rivinus plays the final Pellegrina model he made before retirement. After personally handcrafting 70 of these violas, he kept only this one. He plans to leave it to his children. Photo by: Jordan Essoe

In the 1980s, Rivinus ran his own shop with a partner in Glendale, Calif. By 1989, he was burned out and took a respite to farm in southern Vermont. During this time, he raised pigs, turkeys, and geese, tapped maple trees, and – in his spare time – invented an instrument design no one had thought of before.

He called it the Pellegrina. The ergonomically compressed viola had an eye-catching torqued body that made Rivinus famous among players and collectors. The Pellegrina was constructed to offset some of the common musculoskeletal injuries professional viola players are likely to suffer.

“His violas were some of the few nonconventional models that have been fairly widely accepted by professional musicians,” Sheets said. “These ergonomic instruments were actually solving a problem that musicians had. And it helped them extend their careers.”

Rivinus moved to Portland in 1998, where he continued his unique instrument-making with great success. He also resumed his restoration work and soon found himself in the middle of the most daunting and exciting instrument repair he ever attempted.

This is how the front of 19th-century George Gemunder violin looked after being run over by a car. To restore it, David Rivinus applied every technique he knew. “This kind of work you usually reserve only for instruments that are in the half-million dollar range,” he said.
This is how the front of 19th-century George Gemünder violin looked after being run over by a car. To restore it, David Rivinus applied every technique he knew. “This kind of work you usually reserve only for instruments that are in the half-million dollar range,” he said.

The violin had been run over by a getaway car during a robbery. A man had broken into a parked car, searched for things to steal in the cab, and then discovered a violin case in the trunk. When the owner discovered the thief holding her instrument in the street, she screamed so loud he dropped it – right behind the wheels of his car, before he jumped inside, backed up, and sped off.

Once the insurance money had been paid out, the insurance company officially owned the scatter of violin pieces but had no idea what to do with them. The pieces ended up in the attic of a friend of Rivinus’, where he later discovered them.

Rivinus recognized the destroyed violin. It had been made in the late 19th-century by a German-born craftsman named George Gemünder, who was considered by many to be the founder of the American school of violin-making. Rivinus touched the tortured parts of the previously dazzling, historically important violin body and was compelled to rebuild it.

“While Gemünder’s instruments are not all that valuable,” Rivinus said, “those of us that are successful American instrument-makers owe him a debt of gratitude. I thought I owed him this.”

He paused.

“And it was a really nice violin.”

Rivinus laboriously reassembled and revived the Gemünder violin. Once finished, he parted ways with it, donating it to the Community Music Center, a school sponsored by Portland Parks and Recreation.

David Kerr, restorer and owner of David Kerr Violin Shop, the largest violin shop in the Pacific Northwest, applauds Rivinus for undertaking such personal projects.

“I can certainly understand the passion for wanting to do those projects,” Kerr said. “I don’t know that I ever have myself. I admire that in him.”

David Rivinus at work in his Yachats shop. Early in his career, when he struggled to overcome a surplus of reverence for the instruments he was working on, his mentor reminded him: “David, it’s just a piece of wood.” Photo by: Jordan Essoe
Rivinus at work in his Yachats shop. Early in his career, when he struggled to overcome a surplus of reverence for the instruments he was working on, his mentor reminded him: “David, it’s just a piece of wood.” Photo by: Jordan Essoe

Kerr worked with Rivinus on a different violin that required extraordinary repair. It wasn’t quite as damaged as the Gemünder but had 11 significant cracks in its complicated inlay work. The instrument was clearly old and the inlay was gorgeous, but they weren’t quite sure where exactly it had come from. Regardless, Rivinus began an elaborate restoration.

The violin was a rare 17th-century German model. After more than a year of intricate work, Rivinus described the violin as the closest he’s ever come to essentially creating a brand-new instrument from the wreckage of the original.

“Everything on the inside that is structurally sound is mine,” he said.

He donated this instrument as well, giving it to the National Music Museum, where it joined an important group of similar Allemanic violins in their permanent collection.

Many of the holes originally drilled to hold the harp’s tuning pins were no longer serviceable, so the Rivinus filled and redrilled them.
Many of the holes originally drilled to hold the harp’s tuning pins were no longer serviceable, so Rivinus filled and redrilled them.

Out of retirement, sort of

Rivinus and his wife, composer and pianist Charlene Marchi, moved to Yachats in 2018. While the intention was to retire, Rivinus hasn’t quite been able to stay out of the workshop.

Armstrong approached Rivinus last summer about an old, neglected harp she had inherited from her parents. She would give it to him if he would agree to make it playable again. First problem, he was retired. Second problem, Rivinus had no experience with harps.

“My first reaction was ‘That’s all I need,’” said Rivinus, who is also chair of Yachats’ library commission. “It was in horrible shape and I was ready to say no. Charlene urged me to take a second look and then … I got intrigued.”

The instrument brought with it another interesting stretch of history. Plus, it wasn’t hard on the eyes. He had to admit, harps “do look rather angelic.”

This harp was made around 1918 in Syracuse, N.Y., by the Clark Harp Co. and it came to Armstrong’s family with a picture of its original owner, a girl around 8 years old. No one knows her name, but Rivinus points out that her finger positioning and posture reveal a capable skill level.

The girl kept the instrument until she died an old woman, somewhere in Florida. Armstrong’s parents, who were fond of yard sales, junk shops, and antique stores, acquired the harp in the 1980s. They took it to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, where it sat out on the sun porch as decoration.

Armstrong was given the harp as her parents were preparing to pass. Following a brief stopover in Atlanta, the harp came to Seal Rock for five years, and then finally Yachats, where it sat another 10 years before Rivinus carried it into his shop and took it apart.

David Rivinus cuts a cow’s femur bone on his bandsaw to begin the process of turning it into a pin for the restored harp.
Rivinus cuts a cow’s femur bone on his bandsaw to begin turning it into a pin for the restored harp.

He was aided in the disassembly by sloppy original workmanship that kept the glued joints from bonding correctly. Reassembly presented challenges, however, chief among them being the wood hadn’t been properly seasoned.

Instrument-makers ideally only use wood that has been aged at least 10 years. Due to a booming demand for harps at the time, the Clark Harp Co. didn’t do that. As a result, the remaining moisture in the various wood pieces caused them to shrink away from each other over the years. Parts were now mismatched and of slightly different sizes. To avoid losing any ornamentation, Rivinus had to build up all the smaller pieces.

The bandsaw, a lathe, and carving tools turned a bone from a cow's leg into a small pin, right, for the harp to replace an ivory one, left.
The bandsaw, a lathe, and carving tools turned a bone from a cow’s leg into a small pin, right, for the harp to replace an ivory one, left.

Replacing strings is easy, but a series of pins that held the strings in place had originally been carved in ivory. One pin was missing. This was a problem, because it can’t authentically be replaced, only substituted with alternative materials.

Beginning with the Endangered Species Act of 1973, U.S. restrictions on the acquisition of ivory have become gradually more severe. Today, even the sale of antiques that contain a fractional amount of ivory is illegal.

Rivinus had an idea.

He went to a butcher shop, bought a cow’s thigh bone and carved out the delicate, thin shape he needed. His solution to use bone for the harp pin replacement originated from a similar practice of substituting the tips of violin bows with bone.

“This was the first time I ever held a cow femur in my hands and put it through the bandsaw,” he said.

David Rivinus plays the restored harp with his wife, Charlene Marchi, who is on a smaller Celtic harp, on Valentine’s Day.
Rivinus plays the restored harp with his wife, Charlene Marchi, who is on a smaller Celtic harp, on Valentine’s Day.

Waiting for the right person

The Clark harp is not among Rivinus’ most radical restorations. But he says it was one of his most thoughtful because of the need to constantly innovate. He enjoyed himself and didn’t rush. He took six months to do restoration work he previously would have completed in one. Full retirement stopped feeling as seductive.

“I realized the extent to which I missed doing this work,” Rivinus said. “I certainly don’t want the pressures that come with keeping it as a career. But if someone comes along with another project that looks interesting, I will definitely do it.”

Due to the ivory pins, Rivinus can’t sell the restored harp, even if he wanted to. But he doesn’t want to. He’s hoping to find someone to give it to.

“If I found the right person,” he said. “If it were some worthy student who needed a harp and couldn’t afford to buy one, I’d turn it over in a jiffy.”

One caveat.

“They’d get a little lecture. They couldn’t treat it like the way it’s been treated in the past. As its custodian, you have a responsibility. You have to take care of it.”

Remember, the harp doesn’t belong to you.

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To read read a detailed explanation of Rivinus’ restoration of the Clark harp, go here.

Jordan Essoe is an award-winning artist and writer who has exhibited and published internationally. His career began as a painter, but his practice broadened to include film, performance art, playwriting, and journalism. His work has been covered by NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Oakland Tribune, Artnet, Artillery, Art Practical, Art Week, and Rhizome.

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2 Responses

  1. Two corrections:
    1. I’ve never heard anyone suggest that George Gemünder was the “founder of the American school of violin-making”—but he was an extremely important maker of very fine violins. Some have called him “the American Stradivari.”

    2. George Gemünder violins are worth a LOT. They aren’t worth as much as violins by Amati or Guarneri—but they’re nonetheless in the $20K to over $30K range. Many famous violinists have played Gemünder violins, including Maude Powell, whose Gemünder is now in the Ford collection.

    1. Thanks, Bruce.
      On Point 1, the link in the story to Gemünder’s name reports that, while of course there were bow instruments in what became the U.S. from the early days of European settlement, the demand grew in the 19th century: “During the early decades of the nineteenth century, a growing demand for European-style musical performance resulted in the establishment of symphony orchestras in a number of cities, which required professional luthiers that worked according to European standards.[1] Immigrants August (born March 22, 1814 in Ingelfingen, Kingdom of Württemberg; died January 15, 1899, New York City, NY) and Georg Gemünder (born April 13, 1816 in Ingelfingen, Kingdom of Württemberg; died January 15, 1899, New York City, NY) stepped into this role as pioneers of high-quality violin making and trading in the United States.[2] The Gemünder brothers were responsible for establishing violin making as a respected craft in the U.S. and also for facilitating the flow of classical violins into the country …” So we could be talking about the difference between “pioneering” and “founding.”

      Point 2: These instruments can, indeed, be worth a good amount. An internet search for sale prices reveals a few Gemünders in the $10,000-$15,000 range.

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