Jan Baptista Špidlen is one of the busiest and most successful violin makers.
The story of the Spidlen violin and a Prague family of violin makers that balances art and sport
Innovation and the avant garde are a standard which are taken for granted in many spheres of both the art world and in craftsmanship. In the field of violin making, however, they tend to play more of a subordinate role. Even at the Prague atelier of the world-famous violin maker Jan Špidlen, unusual commissions are more the exception than the rule. As Jan Baptista Špidlen himself states, he has more than enough daring new ideas, but the number of orders he receives for premium-quality traditionally crafted instruments is usually so large that little time remains for more artistically progressive projects.
Consequently, one particular original violin has earned a very prominent position in his oeuvre. Jan Špidlen’s “Blue Violin,” which was made for the Czech virtuoso Pavel Šporcl, has an extravagant varnish which in and of itself stirred up quite a bit of attention. In creating this instrument, however, Jan Špidlen not only chose exceptional colouring, he also gave it special technical features to optimise the sound and stabilise the violin, such as a titanium screw in the neck and a carbon-fibre reinforced bass bar. Experts including the panel at the VSA Innovation Exposition in 2006 gave Špidlen high praise for these achievements.
František Špidlen – Otakar Špidlen
Jan Špidlen represents the fourth generation to run the family business. His great-grandfather František Špidlen made violins, first in Kiev and then Prague in from 1910 on. Frantisek Spidlen was followed by his son Otakar Špidlen, who quickly established a great reputation for himself as a talented luthier and sought-after merchant and expert. Unfortunately, however, the political changes which affected the country after WWII posed a serious threat to Otakar Spidlens ability to work for himself: the Communist regime which rose to power in 1948 made it illegal to own a private businesses. Otakar Spidlen’s home and workshop, which were located on Jungmannova ulice, were confiscated. In response Spidlen attempted to join forces with other kindred spirits to create a group of artistically inclined luthiers, since artists were still allowed to pursue their work independently. Retreating to the safety of their ateliers so as to practice their craft in relative peace gave the Špidlens an opportunity that was not available to many: not 200 kilometres away, the Bohemian-Saxonian violin making centre of Schönbach/Markneukirchen had also once enjoyed economic power but had been torn apart by the war, and the socialist terror of industrialization and collectivisation had had a widespread impact.
Ultimately it was Otokar Spidlen’s son Premsyl Špidlen who helped found the society of artistic luthiers after his father’s death in 1958. Premsyl Spidlen also made history as an outstanding violin maker, starting out as a student of the violin at the Prague Conservatory and then took an interesting turn: Premsyl Spidlen was on the Czech national ski team from 1946 to 1948. Both of these art forms were passions he passed along to Jan Špidlen in addition to his skill as a luthier. From 1983 to 1984, the latter was a member of the national windsurfing team. During the 90s, Jan Spidlen was also one of the Czech Republic’s top snowboarding talents.
Jan Spidlen crafted his first violin while still in middle school, and later it was played by no less a luminary than the world-famous violinist Josef Suk. After completing his training at the violin making school in Mittenwald, Jan Spidlen worked as a restorer at the highly esteemed London workshop J. & A. Beare.
In addition to his numerous other successes at competitions, in 2003 Jan Spidlen entered two violins at the Cremonese Triennale and won first and second prize with them as well as three additional awards for remarkable sound and aesthetic features. This was the first time any luthier won so many prizes at once in Cremona. This massive triumph is also what opened the veritable floodgates of commissions, and demand for Jan Špidlen’s work has continued unabated – even though, as mentioned above, it also leaves him tragically little time to experiment.