A journey to the Valley’s musical past: Amherst native is restoring a viol built two centuries ago in a town underneath the Quabbin Reservoir

  • The inside of the viol, which had been found by a Detroit homeowner inside the joists of his basement, shows evidence of damaged ribs. CONTRIBUTED/LOREN LUDWIG

  • A viol made in Enfield, Mass., in 1816 was discovered a few years ago in a basement in Detroit and is now being restored to playable condition. Loren Ludwig is having it worked on and hopes to play it next summer. CONTRIBUTED BY LOREN LUDWIG

  • The label inside a Ludwig’s find, a 206-year-old viol, shows it was made in 1816 by Benjamin R. Harwood, born in Enfield in 1794.

  • Amherst native Loren Ludwig with three other restored 19th-century viols — a bass, tenor, and alto — that were made in New England. CONTRIBUTED BY LOREN LUDWIG

  • The Harwood tenor viol is seen in contrast to a restored viol; the second instrument is also part of Loren Ludwig’s collection.

  • Amherst native Loren Ludwig, a musicologist and performer now living in Baltimore, is restoring a viol built in 1816 in Enfield, Massachusetts, a town now beneath the Quabbin Reservoir. COURTESY LOREN LUDWIG

  • A historic photo of Enfield, Massachusetts circa late 19th century/early 20th century.

  • The remains of Enfield, Mass., in 1939, not long before it disappeared beneath the waters of the Quabbin Reservoir. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, September 05, 2022

Most people familiar with local history know the basics of the story: how Enfield and three other towns in the Swift River Valley were dismantled and flooded in the late 1930s to create the Quabbin Reservoir.

Now a reminder of Enfield’s ghostly past has surfaced in the form of a 206-year-old viol built by resident Benjamin R. Harwood in 1816 — and with that ancient instrument, a bit of light is also shining on a musical tradition in early New England about which relatively little is known.

To add yet another wrinkle to an unusual story, the viol was discovered wedged amid the basement joists in an old home in Detroit, of all places. And now a Valley native who’s also an early music scholar, performer, and educator is having the instrument restored, with hopes that he can begin playing it by next summer.

Loren Ludwig, 45, who grew up in Amherst and now lives in Baltimore, has been playing a variety of viols for years, a tradition he began as a teenager when he began taking part in the Amherst Early Music Festival, held for years in summer at Amherst College but this year staged in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Broadly speaking, viols are stringed instruments somewhat similar to cellos, violins and violas but which are all held between a musician’s legs or on the knees and played upright like a cello. They also have different backs and a softer overall tone; they were particularly popular in Europe in the Renaissance and Baroque eras before classical music moved to larger venues, in turn requiring the greater volume of cellos and violins.

But Ludwig says there’s a rich history of viols being built in New England in the late 18th century and the first parts of the 19th century and being used in a variety of musical settings, from church services to community dances to family gatherings.

To find one that originated in a town that’s now underwater and then was tucked up in some basement joists in a house over 600 miles away “just sort of defies belief,” he said during a recent phone interview.

“It survived the ravages of time, of weather, of being transported,” said Ludwig. “And it’s in pretty good shape overall, though it needs a good amount of repair.” The viol is now being repaired by Sarah Peck, a maker and restorer of violins and viols in Philadelphia.

A rare find

Ludwig, who graduated from Amherst Regional High School in 1995, has collected a number of restored viols over the past 10 years, including one made by a Northampton man, Myron Kidder, in the 19th century. But this particular instrument, a tenor viol, is pretty rare: Only 20 to 30 of them are known to exist in the U.S., he says.

He first learned of the viol about a year ago through his connection with Darcy Kuronen, for years the curator of musical instruments at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Kuronen told him he’d been contacted by a homeowner in Detroit who had discovered an old instrument in his basement and was trying to find out about its origins.

Ludwig got in touch with the Detroit homeowner and, while visiting his brother in Ann Arbor, Michigan this March, drove to Detroit to examine the viol.

“As soon as I saw it I became really excited,” he said. “This was exactly the panacea I’d been looking for.”

A label attached to the inside of the instrument stated it had been built by Benjamin R. Harwood in 1816 in Enfield — but that was all, with no mention of where this town might have been.

But Ludwig, who’s done plenty of musical research in both online and physical archives, quickly found links between “Enfield” and “Benjamin R. Harwood” that pointed to the old town of Enfield, Massachusetts, which by coincidence was incorporated in 1816 from parts of Belchertown and the former town of Greenwich — another of the villages that disappeared beneath the Quabbin.

“It became pretty obvious that this was where the viol was built,” said Ludwig. “All the pieces started to fit.”

Further research determined that Benjamin R. Harwood (1794-1858) was one one of eight children of Benjamin Harwood (1766-1852), who moderated the first Enfield town meeting in 1816.

Ludwig, who studied the viola de gamba at Oberlin College and then got a doctorate in critical and comparative music studies at the University of Virginia, is still trying to find out when the Harwood viol made its way to Michigan. As of 1858, it was still in Massachusetts, as he discovered a George E. Knowles of Leicester made a somewhat crude repair to the instrument that year; Knowles wrote his name and the date in pencil inside the viol.

One of Ludwig’s goals is to restore the viol as close to its original condition as possible. To do that, he and Peck are trying to discover what types of wood were used in its construction, in part by examining a few fragments from the instrument under high magnification.

Of particular interest to him is the way the project shines a light on how viols were constructed in early New England, in a manner that he says was “totally different from the way they were made in Europe.”

New England viol builders “were mostly living in rural places, and they didn’t have access to the tools and resources and traditions that European makers did,” he said. “They were looking to solve problems in a new way … it’s really a classic case of Yankee ingenuity.”

In addition, he’s learning more about the type of music viols were used for in early New England, and where they would have been played. He notes that in the 18th century they were introduced to church services to provide background for the singing of psalms; the Harwood viol would have been played in the Enfield Congregational Church, built in 1787, he says.

But by the 19th century viols were also used in community music performances, he says, in which classical instruments like viols were combined with fiddles played in a more of a folk style to create what he calls a “notated folk tradition,” in which players both improvised and worked with earlier forms of sheet music.

“It’s a fascinating period and really a forgotten tradition,” said Ludwig, who has been studying this period of ensemble music playing for some time.

And though he spent years hiking around the Quabbin Reservoir in the past and was familiar with the story of its creation, “I don’t know that I could have named any of the towns that disappeared underneath it.” Digging into Enfield’s history this year “has been a great experience,” he said.

Earlier this summer, in fact, Ludwig visited the area and made stops at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, the Swift River Historical Society in New Salem, and the Special Collections at the Jones Library in Amherst.

Now, to have acquired an instrument made so close to where he grew up, he said, “just seems like this wonderful moment in cultural and musical history.”

More information on Loren Ludwig and his work can be found at lorenludwig.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.