On May 27, a viola made in Charleston in 1938 by Ivan W. Allison was given to Japan’s Emperor Naruhito by President Donald Trump, along with a signed photo of composer Aaron Copland. The gifts were in honor of Naruhito’s ascension to the throne. He is following his father, Emperor Akihito.
Naruhito plays the viola, and his mother, Michiko, plays piano. His father is a cellist, and plays the viola, too, according to a May 28 story on The Strad classical music magazine website.
A viola is a sister instrument to the violin, with a larger body, and is tuned lower.
The instrument was purchased at the Little Rock Violin Shop in Arkansas. According to The Strad, owner Joe Joyner heard about Naruhito on April 30.
“Twenty-four hours later, I received a call that the U.S. State Department was seeking an American-made viola to give as a diplomatic gift,” Joyner said. The instrument was presented to Naruhito by Trump on May 28.
“God, I love my job,” Joyner told the Strad. In an email, Joyner said he figures someone at the State Department found the viola on his website.
So how did the viola make its way from West Virginia to Arkansas?
All that is known for sure is that it made a stop in California first. According to Joyner, “years ago” a man there found the viola for sale on the internet. The seller “had been gifted the viola by members of the family,” but they did not play, so it sat untouched for years, Joyner wrote.
The viola is in exceptional condition, Joyner added. The man did not remember the name of the family, so Joyner was unable to track the provenance of the instrument beyond this sale. He also does not think it bears a number.
As for the man who built it, Ivan Allison was born on Feb. 11, 1894, and was raised in Putnam County. The 1900 census lists him living on a farm with his parents, Addison and Joanna, and siblings in Pocatalico. In the 1940 census, he is listed as an electrician at a chemical company, and lived with his family in Charleston. He and his wife, Gay Nell, had a daughter, Anna Dean.
In the years before World War I, there was a violin factory near Patrick Street, in Charleston. Allison worked there, Goldenseal editor Stan Baumgardner said, as did famed American violin builder James Reynold Carlisle, who may have had a financial interest in the company.
While the Patrick Street facility was a production shop that focused on violins in quantity, for the catalog trade perhaps, Allison was a luthier — an instrument builder — and his instruments are what are known as bench instruments, individually crafted. All his instruments were constructed in his small garage workshop at 9 33rd St. SE, in Kanawha City.
Baumgardner plays an Allison violin, No. 49, and can be heard locally in the string band, That High Country Revival.
“The violin is really bright,” Baumgardner said. “The low end is really nice. It jumps out.”
His violin was built in 1943 and was one of five constructed for symphony musicians in Charleston.
Bobby Taylor, the dean of West Virginia fiddlers and former manager of the State Archives and History Library, had similar thoughts about the tonal qualities of an Allison.
“Allison violins are like a Stradivarius, bright and beautiful,” Taylor said. “According to Harold Hayslett, Allison did not like a dark-sounding violin. He considered [the sound] ‘tubby.’ ”
Hayslett, who died in 2018, was a pipefitter in South Charleston and a self-taught violin builder who knew Allison. As for how much Hayslett learned from the older man, “They were friends,” Taylor said, “and I am sure they shared ideas and luthier knowledge with each other.”
Hayslett became nationally known and won awards for his instruments.
Baumgardner, who spoke with Hayslett about his relationship with Allison, said, “Allison was more of a mentor to Hayslett, a cheerleader as much as anything.”
Some of Hayslett’s earlier violins have little rounded corners and other touches that were a tribute to Allison’s aesthetics, Baumgardner said.
“Hayslett bought molds, and some tools and wood” after Allison died, Taylor said. Allison retired as master electrician from FMC and continued to work in his shop into his 80s. According to Taylor, he built 27 violas, four cellos and 136 violins, with another unfinished when he died on July 31, 1966.
“He was a cut above other fiddle makers,” Taylor said.