Now, Strings Attached
Renovated instruments become scholarship awards for deserving students
By Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85

In the mid-1960s, Llewellyn L. (Leo) Cayvan (left) made a contribution to Calvin that was legendary: the largest collection of printed chamber music in the United States at the time—more than 2,000 titles. His assemblage was bequeathed to the college at his death in 1966 and followed a gift 14 years prior of more than 11,000 classical recordings—vintage, vinyl records—some of which continue to be housed in the Cayvan Recorded Media section of the Hekman Library.

But perhaps a lesser-known and nearly forgotten contribution was Cayvan’s donation of nine fine string instruments—three violins, three violas, two cellos and a bass—plus an assortment of bows all valued at $30,000 already in 1966. That gift was both part of Cayvan’s legacy and his attempt to create a future for Calvin music students.

Read more about Philip McMillan, student violinist, and Leo Cayvan.

“It is my hope and belief that these cherished instruments … can be preserved, maintained and used to the best advantage by and for the benefit of the music department of the college and its students,” Cayvan wrote in his will.

For many years this was the case. Students were encouraged to use the Cayvan instruments for orchestra rehearsals and performances, private lessons and in small ensembles. Other benefactors added to the collection and, after some time, the college had amassed an impressive array of instruments and bows.

Calvin Theological Seminary President Neal Plantinga ’67, then concertmaster of the Calvin Orchestra, was among the first students to benefit from Cayvan’s instrument contribution. Plantinga was given the use of a violin bearing the famed Gagliano label, later discovered to be a copy by a lesser-known maker but still a well-made instrument.

“I had been at Yale my junior year and played a violin made by Garrett Brink of Grand Rapids—not a bad fiddle, but not a really serious one either,” Plantinga said. “Then, as a senior at Calvin, I had the use of the Gagliano. It’s an old Italian violin—a fine violin—with a sound possessing both core and sheen. The difference between it and my Brink was pronounced—both in sound and ease of sound production.”

On and off throughout the years, students like Plantinga used the instruments, perhaps not even knowing their history or value. Over time, though, many of the instruments fell into disrepair, and usage waned. In fact, most were stored in inadequate cases and placed in a dusty, locked janitor-type closet in the Fine Arts Center.

In 2004, nearly 40 years after Cayvan’s bequest, David Reimer (left) was added to the music faculty at Calvin to head up the string area for the department. By default, the Cayvan Collection of String Instruments came under his purview. “It was the last thing I wanted, especially after I first saw the collection,” Reimer said. “There were a bunch of instruments in horrible cases, and the assumption when you see something like that is that they are of very little value.”

But after Reimer began digging into the history of the instruments and their donor, he became more intrigued.

“I love history,” he said. “I hate to just see it fade away. I hated to think about the instruments’ history being forgotten.”

So slowly, Reimer began to crack open the cases—many of them marked “US Army” (“Apparently there was a fire sale of army violin cases at some time,” he said)—and found, to his surprise, some instruments of greater-than-expected value.

More Online

More on Llewellyn Cayvan.

The collection includes:

  • Andreas Guarnarius violin (c. 1684)
  • Grancino violin (c. 1694)
  • Raphael and Antonio Gagliano violin (c. 1820)
  • Matthas Albani viola (c. 1733)
  • Old Italian viola, formerly owned and played in the Boston Symphony Orchestra by Julius Eiechberg
  • Sebastian Klotz viola (c. 1733)
  • Italian cello (c. 1640)
  • Nemansanyi cello (c. 1849)
  • Italian bass viola (c. 1878), played for many years by the bass principal (Mr. Green) in the Boston Symphony

One instrument he didn’t find and didn’t even know existed was a Nemessanyi-labeled cello that a student had been using for the year.

“No one knew it was missing,” Reimer said. “It just showed up. We obviously didn’t have an adequate checkout procedure. And I know how things go sometimes: You don’t mean to take something that isn’t yours, but it gets in your stuff and you forget whose it is, and after a while you have somebody playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ or something on it.

“At that point we realized we had no idea what was in that closet,” he said, “particularly in terms of the value of the instruments.”

So in 2005 Melissa Reiffer, Calvin music events manager and publicist, had the collection appraised. The results were staggering. The recently returned cello alone was valued at $25,000, not to mention the $15,000 bow. Plantinga’s Gagliano-labeled violin had risen from a value of $800 in 1980 to $8,500. Similarly a bass had gone from $3,000 to $25,000.

Other discoveries made about the collection were that some other instruments would be valuable if renovated, that there were not nearly enough usable bows to accompany the instruments and the vast majority of cases were insufficient to protect the instruments.

Over the last two years, Reimer has embraced the role of curator for the collection. By trading some instruments, applying for various school funds and using donations, it is in the middle of a transformation, he said. New cases and bows have made some instruments available for the first time in years.

The elite instruments have become part of a unique scholarship program: the String Instrument Award from the Cayvan Collection. The scholarship awards the use of the instrument to a student based on ability and/or financial need.

“We are outgunned in scholarship money for musicians compared to other schools,” Reimer said. “While we have to keep working on that, we are hoping that the use of a violin and bow worth $50,000 would help sway some students toward us.”

While senior Philip McMillan was already at Calvin when the scholarships were instituted, the use of the newly acquired Peresson violin has been an invaluable asset to him as he is pursuing graduate school options in music performance.

He has been able to audition using the Peresson, which has provided a confidence boost for him, he said. “I feel like I’ve been able to get the most production out of it,” he said. “Most of the people auditioning at a conservatory have very nice violins. It’s reassuring to know that I’m not playing an inferior violin so that isn’t what would keep me from getting in.”

Likewise, senior Angela Gould (left) was awarded a string instrument scholarship. “I was playing on a $1,000 student instrument, the same one I’ve had since eighth grade,” said the music education major. “The Cayvan instrument rings a lot more,” she said. “I can tell exactly when I’m in tune; my own instrument sounded more muffled.”

Occasionally the value of the instrument strikes her, she said. “Once in a while I think, ‘Oh my word, I’m carrying around $4,500 not including the bow!’”

First-year student Peter Plantinga (grandnephew of Neal Plantinga, pictured at right) uses a bow valued at $2,000—about what his previous cello was worth—and the $25,000 cello. “It’s a great instrument,” he said. “It produces the kind of sound that you want from a cello.”

And junior Esther Miller (left), who is majoring in music performance and history, has the Gagliano-labeled violin. She was a concerto soloist on this violin for the orchestra in early May. “It’s wonderful to know that the Gagliano is still in the Calvin string department, still played by a student, still a voice in the Calvin Orchestra,” Neal Plantinga said.

Reimer is thrilled to see the formerly neglected instruments once again in the hands of deserving students, he said.

In addition to the premier instruments in the collection, there are now 33 other instruments being utilized by orchestra members and music education students. But the project is not complete. More violas, cellos and basses are needed for the music education program, and monetary donations help with the cost of maintaining the collection.

All scholarship awards include a brief history of the instrument. “I want to stress that it is a tremendous opportunity for a student to get to use an instrument like this,” Reimer said. “He or she might have a 200-year-old instrument; it has a history, and the more the students know about that history the better. I think that is part of the Cayvan legacy as well.”         

Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark.