The legacy that started it all: Michael Lewin remembers his uncle Bob

On a sunny morning in July Michael Lewin invited Caius Lee to his home to share a story close to his heart: that of his uncle Bob and how his legacy started it all for Young Sounds UK.

Michael Lewin is Young Sounds founding trustee, having set up the charity in 1998. Caius, born one year later in ’99, is our newest board member and first ever Alumni Trustee, having been supported by Young Sounds as a teenage organist.

Michael Lewin (founding trustee) and Caius Lee (Alumni trustee)

My Musical Journey
, along with 19 other young musicians supported by Young Sounds over our 20 year history, features in our anniversary project My Musical Journey.

How it all began…

The story begins in the early 1910s, when Robert Lewin, as a young boy, was given a violin and fell in love with the instrument. But this is Michael’s story to tell…

“I’m in the fortunate position of being the founding trustee of Young Sounds.  My interest in music probably started from my earliest years, with my father always playing ‘Classical’ records whenever he could.

I subsequently became involved in the domestic reproduction of music, through running a specialist Hi-Fi shop.  Our concern was providing equipment for ordinary people who wanted to have their music in their homes, reproduced to as high a standard as possible. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had a career largely playing music to people! What could be better?

Bob’s story? Well, My father had been given a violin at age 13 but he’d never taken to it in the same way as his younger brother, my uncle Bob, who had been given a violin at the same time.  My grandfather was a very strong-minded man. Both my father and Bob were very bright and should have gone to university; however my grandfather made them leave school and start work. My father was put to work in a shoe shop but Bob wasn’t having any of it. He wanted to play the violin. So he left home at 17 and started playing wherever he could earn a living. By the time he was 19 he was playing in the pit of silent films and leading a small orchestra, as well as playing in the Cinema cafe before and after the showing.

During the Second World War, as Bob wasn’t fit for military service, he joined the fire service. During this time he taught himself to play the viola and began collecting and learning about the Bows for both violin and viola.  He was the Leader of a local orchestra and played in several Trios and Quartets. But bows became his speciality; he gradually built up a national reputation, to the point where nearly all the auction houses in London would consult him and take his advice. My sister accompanied him to auctions, to bid for him because of his standing as an authority. He was not only dealing in violins and bows but also wrote the monthly Sales report in the Strad magazine.

About two years before Bob died, he asked if I would help him to sort out his affairs. He’d lived on his own for many years and his flat was more than a bit dusty!  I knew a little bit about Bob’s life and his musical career but he kept a lot secret, including details of his own personal collection of instruments. He had a steel-lined room in his flat in which he kept some of them. He also had a number of bank accounts: he would go to a local bank, open an account and say: “I don’t want any interest, I don’t want any charges, I just want to use your safe to store some of my violins”.

At Bob’s request, I took him to a lawyer who asked him what he wanted to do with his instruments. There was dead silence! Eventually Bob looked at me and said, “You don’t want them, do you?” He didn’t really want to let go of them: he wanted to take them with him! However, as my sister, Vivienne, had worked for the Philharmonia and administered the Martin Scholarship Fund, I asked him if they could be used to create scholarships for young musicians who needed help to develop their talent?  He said “Yes”. That was the only thing I remember him ever saying yes to.

After Bob died, it transpired that he kept no list of the banks in which he had stored the instruments. In 1999 Fiona Bruce did a television programme about me hunting round London looking for the violins. After a lot of searching we think we found them all. There must have been about 70 violins and about 200 bows and one very valuable Grancino cello.

Bob died in March 1998 and we had a charity set-up by July. I was told it was probably the fastest charity ever to have been created from scratch.  We had the first sale of some instruments at Bonhams auction in November and raised almost half a million pounds. All we knew then was that we had some money, that we needed to find more money, and that we had to employ somebody to administer the charity and to fundraise.  Vivienne became our first Administrator. We didn’t really look beyond that. We received our first applications in the autumn of 1998, made our first Awards in the spring of 1999 and gave our first Robert Lewin scholarships later that year. 

Over the years, as our fundraising increased, we slowly sold off the remainder of Bob’s collection. After 20 years the charity has established itself in a place where neither I, any member of my family, or Bob himself, could have ever imagined.  It’s wonderful!

I’d like to think that Bob himself would be amazed at what we have achieved, as a direct result of his bequest.

Michael Lewin, 2019

Interested in the instruments and bows that were in Robert Lewin’s collection? You can read about the collection here.

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