Peter White, the Story of an American Violin Maker

Fiddlershop is in the fortunate position to be able to carry a variety of unique and incredibly rare professional violins. Among these exquisite instruments is the 2014 Stradivari “Tuscan” and the 2019 Stradivari “Messiah,” both of which are bench-made violins created by Gold Medal winner Peter White. Mr. White currently has a workbench among the Fiddlershop’s luthiers and he was able to offer insight on his inspirations, impediments, and journey through the violin community. 

White, a retired English and American Studies professor from the University of New Mexico, has been making violins for over 40 years. While White wasn’t exposed to violin making as a youth, the root of his initial encouragement for the craft was in his childhood. Influenced by his father’s violin practice, he started learning the fiddle, playing American folk music. “My grandfather’s family, even though they were very poor, were folk musicians,” said White, “and my grandfather bought a violin for my father, which was the same violin that got me going on this whole thing,”

In 1969, White concluded his college studies and found his father’s violin from the early 1900’s, which had been a gift from White’s grandfather. The instrument was in need of repair, which was where White was first introduced to restoring violins.  

“I got the bug for working with violins,” said White. Soon after, he started purchasing violins at estate sales, persistent and determined to gain more experience in repairing the structure of the instruments. During his practice, White attended an arts and crafts fair at Pennsylvania State University, where he was able to see a variety of artwork, and crafted instruments. This was White’s inspiration to create his own bench-made instruments.

After a few years of developing his skill, Peter White traveled to Poland on a Fulbright Fellowship. “After I went to Poland, my interest in becoming a professional violin maker really exploded,” said White. He studied luthiering under Jan Pawlikowski, Rajmund Swirek, and Wladek Stopka. With this time in Europe, White was able to cultivate contacts in the European violin-making community and was exposed to a variety of European violin contests. 

“My inspiration came from all of the 17th century violin makers. I went to Cremona; I saw first-hand the collection of Stradivari and Guarneri violins. I went to Oxford to see the ‘Messiah’ violin, which I made a copy of as well.”

White travelled back to the United States after accepting a position as a visiting professor at Penn State and continued to work on violins as a hobby. In the late 1980’s, he opened his own violin-making workshop in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His former associate, Wladek Stopka, joined him in Albuquerque, and together, they created professional bench-made violins.  

White worked at developing his violin shop, hiring apprentices and luthiers to work on instrument repairs and setups. White noted that the struggles of violin making were still in existence, regardless of establishing his own workshop. Reputation and name recognition continued to be a challenge for up-and-coming violin makers, who, in order to sell their instruments, were often forced to advertise. However, the largest obstacle many violin makers faced, including White, was the sheer quantity of instruments that had been created. “You’re competing against incredible contemporary violin makers in America and South America and Europe, but you’re also competing against 300 years of the great violin makers, too.” 

Despite challenges, White was steadfast in drawing attention and popularity to the violin community in New Mexico. In 1991, White’s violin shop sponsored the Violin Society of America to host a convention and competition in Albuquerque. This was the first year the VSA hosted the convention in the New Mexico city. The convention not only gained a great deal of attention but also put White into contact with great violin makers throughout the Americas and Europe.

In 2008, White started a program at the University of New Mexico called the New Mexico Musical Heritage Project. It was created in an effort to teach Hispanic and Native American students professional violin making. The program was funded by the University and the State of New Mexico, as well as private donors. In addition to teaching the craft of violin making, White introduced the students to the folk music of New Mexico.

White and a Fine Arts student, Cedra Wood, constructed a violin and a viola, and entered them in the Cremonese competition in 2010. The creation of the instruments was divided among the two, with White developing the structures and Wood painting detailed images on the pieces. Both instruments were ornate replicas of work by Andrea Amati, and were judged based on dimensional accuracy, craftsmanship, and aesthetic design. After the initial review of instruments, White was called back to meet with the judges of the competition. “Initially I thought this meant we were being eliminated,” said White, but instead, he was informed that they made it to the final round of the competition. After final review, White and Wood were awarded Gold Medals for both their violin and viola from the Cremonese competition. The viola is currently on display at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, while the violin resides in a private collection.

White currently lives in South Florida, and visits New Mexico periodically. He continues to create his own bench-made violins and assists in improving the craft of Fiddlershop’s luthiers. He prides himself in knowing that the New Mexico Musical Heritage Project is still available to students, and is under the supervision of White’s protege, Klarissa Petti. White is currently working on a replica of Guarneri’s Fritz Kriesler 1734 model, and his violins can be purchased through Fiddlershop.com.
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3 comments

Farid Hussain

Thanks for the enjoyable article. Mr White seems a multifaceted personality and as violin maker at par with the best contemporary ones-I felt this after hearing his Tuscan Stradivari on video. His violin evokes the human voice:it’s bright ,open and has the requisite projection.His Kriesler replica is something to look forward to and I hope he makes the Vieuxtemps as well.

Fiddlershop

Thanks for your kind words – we really appreciate it, Linda! Yes, we definitely feel extremely grateful and blessed. Peter is a very talented and special man :)

Linda Krause

I loved this story of Peter White. What an honor to have heard it and how blessed for Fiddlershop to experience his talents and love of the violin/viola! Thanks for sharing.

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