Article and images submitted by Sheila Whincup
An antique wooden “coffin-style” violin case with quite a storied past has found its way to Harmony Project Sooke (HPS). More than 100 years old and smuggled out of the former East Germany through Checkpoint Charlie in the late 1960s, the painted black case with violin within was inherited by Colin McMechan of Shirley from his German grandfather.
To stimulate interest in the history of violins and their cases, Colin has kindly donated the case to HPS, a non-profit society which provides musical instruments and instruction to children in the Sooke Region.
The case features brass fittings, is in good condition and has a manufacturer’s label stating: “C. A. Bauer Dresden-N Gegründet 1850.” Although not quite as well-traveled as the famous “Red Violin”, this violin and case also has a fascinating history. Read the saga below as adapted from Colin’s own words:
History of C.A. Bauer coffin-style violin case
In 1969, my Irish father, William Cecil McMechan was given a violin that was made by Gottfried Blohmer, the grandfather of my German mother. This was the ninth violin that was handcrafted by Herr Blohmer who was the chief forester for a castle estate in the mountains of Saxony.
Grandfather Gottfried was very musical. In his spare time, he travelled from his work and home in the Erzgebirge mountains (the birthplace of the hand carved Christmas nutcrackers) to sing as a member of the opera chorus in the historic Semperoper, Dresden.
The WWII firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 destroyed my mother’s childhood home and its contents. The “Blohmer” violin, however, was fortunately rescued and eventually passed into my father’s hands.
My parents were travelling in East Germany when my father was given the Blohmer violin and its coffin-style case. Pops was a bit of a daredevil in those days and took the chance of smuggling the instrument across the Iron Curtain. This is his account of the caper:
“After World War II, a wall was built that divided the city of Berlin into East and West zones. Several control points in the wall were established to allow travelers to move back and forth. In 1969 Rosemarie and I went to visit relatives in East Germany, which was then under Russian control. When it was time to head back to the West, we decided the most convenient exit was through Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie.
“Now, the relatives we visited offered us some valuable family items to take to Canada. One item of particular interest was a violin. This instrument was not only well made and beautiful, but also the last one in the family, made by Rosemarie’s grandfather Blohmer.
“It was forbidden to take anything of value out of the country without permission, which was rarely granted. Here we were, determined to take the violin with us: no permission, not willing to bribe – to bribe may have landed us in the clink – our plane out of West Berlin was scheduled for later that day.
“The officious young Customs soldier was most keen to see how much West money we had spent in the Eastern Republic to ensure we’d spent the minimum required for our visit. He was so engrossed that he did not see the elderly couple in the lineup struggling with their luggage after they had cleared customs. Quick thinking Rosemarie, raising her voice objected to no help being available with their luggage. Turning to me she commanded: ‘You help these old people, Wilhelm’!
“It immediately dawned on me what to do. Grabbing some bags and the violin, I carried them to the Western part of the station. The luggage owners understood our ruse and discreetly waited for us.”
My wife, Catherine Hawkins has since enjoyed playing the violin, including at the former Conservatory Fiddles in B.C. In 2007, Nikki Chooi also played this instrument, performing “Danny Boy” at a farewell concert in Alix Goolden Hall before he headed off to Curtis School of Music and a celebrated career as a classical violinist.
– Colin J. McMechan, Shirley British Columbia, Spring 2021
Harmony Project Sooke is grateful to Colin and Catherine for helping to enrich the musical knowledge of HPS students. For more info, please visit: www.harmonyprojectsooke.ca