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Originally published October 13, 2010 at 9:55 PM | Page modified October 13, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Hermann Bischofberger, 87, violin maker

Mr. Bischofberger died last month at the age of 87, ending a generation of the handmade violins that filled his store on Seattle's Capitol Hill — Bischofberger Violins, Ltd.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Hermann Bischofberger would hold up the violins, one after the other, pluck their strings, turn them over and trace their outline.

He was a violin maker, and his love for the instruments was visible.

Mr. Bischofberger died last month at the age of 87, ending a generation of the handmade violins that filled his store on Seattle's Capitol Hill — Bischofberger Violins, Ltd.

Those who frequented the shop knew Mr. Bischofberger for his uncanny ability to see a violin from across the room or on television and know instantly who had made it. Oftentimes, he had personally met the violin's maker.

Others knew him for his love of apple strudel and chocolate.

"What's a violin shop without a bowl of chocolate?" he used to shout in jest, his voice booming.

And sure enough, there was a bowl of chocolate at his shop last week, where members of his family gathered to talk about his life.

Mr. Bischofberger learned the trade from his father. As a young man, he became an apprentice to several well-known violin makers and later moved from his native Switzerland to Copenhagen. There, his sweet tooth made him a regular at a local ice-cream parlor, where he fell in love with the ice-cream maker's daughter, Jytte (pronounced You-ta).

The pair later wed, but Jytte Bischofberger contends he didn't marry her for the ice cream — and she didn't marry him for the romance of his profession.

"It was his eyes," she said, adding that they had a certain twinkle and would light up when he looked at her.

Mr. Bischofberger eventually moved to the United States after some Danish violin-making friends told him about Chicago job openings. They all decided to apply. Mr. Bischofberger was the only one who got a job.

He moved to this country, later bringing Jytte over, too. Once here, he began to look for opportunities to be near mountains and the sea. He found what he was looking for when he heard Seattle had a symphony.

"Where there's a symphony, there must be a violin maker," he had said.

So Mr. Bischofberger, Jytte and their then-three children drove to the West Coast.

In 1955, Mr. Bischofberger opened a violin shop in his family's small home at 12th Avenue and Denny on Capitol Hill.

Denice Bischofberger, his daughter, said she remembers the living room being full of violins and people who filtered in and out.

Talking about it, she closed her eyes remembering the familiar scents of wood and varnish that she came to love. And there was always the music of the violins as customers would play them and her father would tune them.

Like their father, Mr. Bischofberger's two sons have become violin makers. Henry has a store in Kirkland; Ken works out of the family's Seattle shop.

The Bischofberger violin shop has been in two locations. In 2000, a fire burned the store on East John Street, destroying violins, cellos, basses and bows. Denice said the instruments were museum-quality collectibles, some of which had been in the family for generations. Fortunately, Mr. Bischofberger's handmade violins were in a safe and unharmed. The shop temporarily moved back to the original location while the family rebuilt the burned shop as close to the original as possible.

Two or three years later, the shop returned to its John Street site and that's where the family now sells violins, cellos, violas and basses — most of which they purchase from other makers.

Ken Bischofberger said he doesn't make violins as often as he used to because it's hard to find the time. Making a violin usually takes more than 400 hours, he said.

At his shop last week, he picked up a violin his father had made, pointing out the grooves that outlined it — they were finer than on most other violins — a trait of his father's work. He traced the grooves with his fingers. Even after everyone had turned their attention from the violin, he still gazed at it.

Earlier, Ken Bischofberger had been unable to articulate why he loved violin making.

"It takes watching him," Jytte Bischofberger had said, "to understand how he feels about it."

She knows this from experience; it was the same way with his father.

Hermann Bischofberger is also survived by his daughter Beatrice Abbott, of Kenmore.

A celebration of his life will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Meydenbauer Yacht Club.

Carly Flandro: 206-464-2108 or cflandro@seattletimes.com

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