Victor Salvi was known as the “Lord of the Strings” for making exquisite harps that are the toast of the world’s concert stages.
The Chicago native knew the instrument from crown to pedals — how to create fine harps, play them and sell them.
As a performer, he played with the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Orchestra under legendary maestro Arturo Toscanini. As a businessman, he owned Salvi Harps of Piasco, Italy, and, since the 1980s, Lyon & Healy Harps, the Chicago instrument maker.
Mr. Salvi, 95, died Monday, according to Lyon & Healy, whose offices were closed Thursday and Friday in his honor.
He came to the harp naturally.
His father, Rodolfo Salvi, a harp restorer and violin-maker, immigrated to Chicago from Viggiano, a center of harp production in Italy.
His brother, Alberto Salvi, was celebrated as perhaps the greatest harp player of his time, hailed in the 1920s as a “weaver of dreams” and “wizard of the harp.”
“The kid was a genius,” Victor Salvi told an interviewer in 2006. “He was making $1,000 a night until the Depression.”
Victor Salvi earned to play at 10, when his feet could barely brush the pedals. His teacher was his sister, Aida, who performed at a Chicago opera house. She saw the commercial potential of the instrument and introduced harp-playing at the old Bismarck Hotel, now the Hotel Allegro, according to Wenonah Milton Govea, author of the 1995 book “Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Harpists.”
Mr. Salvi attended Marshall High School on the West Side. At 16, he won a national musical competition that brought him scholarship offers from six schools. But he didn’t feel ready for a university and decided to attend Wright Junior College on the Northwest Side, according to Govea.
During World War II, Mr. Salvi played with a U.S. Navy band at Great Lakes Naval Station in the north suburbs. It was tough to find parts or repair experts in those days, so he studied the mechanics of the harp.
After the war, he toured and played on radio programs. He also performed background music for the play “Antony and Cleopatra,” starring Talullah Bankhead.
The first time he played for Toscanini, he was lucky the maestro was myopic, he later told Bloomberg News.
“The rehearsal was due to start at 10, but I woke up at 10,” he said. “The rehearsal was at Carnegie Hall, and luckily I lived on 57th Street, so I just ran down the road pulling on my clothes as I went. Fortunately, I didn’t have any music to play at the beginning of the piece, and Toscanini was so short-sighted he didn’t even see me come in.”
He once told The New York Times, “Playing the harp in orchestras, you get a lot of measures of rest, time to think about how the instrument is constructed and how it could be improved.”
That sense of the instrument and its possibilities won him acclaim.
“Victor Salvi was a visionary, creator, innovator, philanthropist, musician, with a generous and gracious esprit,” said Ann Yeung, president of the American Harp Society, a University of Illinois music professor who teaches the harp. “Salvi Harps embody Victor’s example in life of effortless elegance and modernity, instruments with distinctive voices and sophisticated and sensuous designs.”
Mr. Salvi began building harps in the 1950s and returned to Genoa, Italy, to produce them, employing artisans working with the finest European spruce and white maple from Northern Michigan. Salvi harps are known for their ethereal sound and appearance. One, presented in 2006 to the Duke of Wales, was “coated in 23-carat gold and adorned with a carving of the Prince of Wales’ feathers, as well as Welsh symbols such as a daffodil, a dragon and a leek,” the London Telegraph wrote.
His breakthroughs included improving pedals so they can be pumped in a fluid motion, according to the Victor Salvi Foundation, run by his widow Julia, which organizes competitions and gives scholarships to young harpists.
In the 1980s, Mr. Salvi bought the harp-maker Lyon & Healy, established in Chicago in 1864.
“I am very sad,” said Siobhan Armstrong, who chairs the Historical Harp Society in Kilkenny, Ireland, where the Celtic harp is the national symbol. “His is a most venerable name in the pedal harp world, founding, as he did, a company which built so many superb pedal harps.”
“I am president of Camac Harps in France,” Jakez Francois said by email. “But my first harp was a Salvi when I was young student, and I have deepest respect for him.”
Mr. Salvi also established the world’s only harp museum, the Museo dell’Arpa, in Piasco, which hosted the recent exhibit “The Harp, from the Congo to Chicago.”
His funeral was Thursday at San Giovanni Battista Church in Piasco.
In addition to his wife, the Telegraph reported, he is survived by their son and daughter and also a son and a daughter from a previous marriage.