Ariane Todes talks to violin makers about their craft

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I came across this on The Strad website in the blog of Ariane Todes. Interesting read...   AB

As part of the recent London International String Quartet Competition, I chaired a panel discussion with makers John Dilworth, Andreas Hudelmayer, Kai-Thomas Roth and Tibor Szemmelveiss. Here is a transcript of the conversation we had.

AT: Why should a player think about buying a modern instrument?

AH: It comes down to what playing power you get from your money and in my experience if you’ve got the typical budget of somebody who hasn’t just won the lottery then you will get a lot better playing instrument if you choose a good modern maker than if you go for what’s in your range in old instruments. You will need a big budget to find something that plays very well in an antique.

JD: It’s not to be underestimated, the business of making an instrument for a player. The player has the chance to direct what happens on the bench and specify what kind of instrument they like and want in every way and choose the right instrument for themselves. And they can have a relationship with the maker that can go right through their whole career and know that they can always go back to the person who made it if there are any difficulties.

AT: How does the relationship with players work?

K-TR: The relationship with the maker is the biggest plus point apart from how the instrument performs because the player can come back for the lifetime of the maker and you always have the person who has at the heart of their interest to keep that instrument performing at the best of its possibilities. I offer all my customers to come back for adjustments. Not all of them do, but those that do profit from it, and I profit from it because you learn every time you adjust your own instrument or you look after the instrument with the player because you learn about individual needs and ideas that players have. That is one big difference as opposed to old instruments that you buy from an auction house or a dealer. Of course they offer certain things as well, but a maker who knows his instrument inside out can probably suggest a lot of more when you change.

AT: What should a player do if they want to commission an instrument?

JD: Come to me, none of this lot. But seriously, visit as many makers as they can and make contact with players who have new instruments, find out where they come from. The nice thing for me is always word of mouth. Nobody commissions an instrument on some recommendation they’ve read third hand. In orchestras they spend a lot of time talking about each other’s instruments and if someone appears with a new one that seems to work really well they’re soon all talking about it. It’s the same within the student community.

AT: One of the things that is often said about new instruments is that it takes so long to play them in that you don’t know what they’re going to end up sounding like compared with old instruments where you already have an idea. How do you feel about that?

TS: New instruments do need some time to be played in. It’s not only the instrument that is developing but the relationship between the player and the instrument. They learn about it and experiment with it. In my experience the first year is very critical after making an instrument. In the first year I do adjustments every third or fourth month. If the instrument needs any attention I do soundpost adjustments and if the seams have come apart I glue them together. And after each session we manage to improve and discover something new and better in the instrument and that’s part of the process, to learn about the new instrument and the different expressions that musicians can produce.

AH: It always sounds as if the playing in process is finite but you can never decide when an instrument is finished playing in. A new instrument will settle in the first year and will need a lot of adjustment but this is not something that’s unique to new instruments. In my experience the basics of the sound and the playability of the instrument need to be there from the first minute and it should never be an excuse if something doesn’t work in the beginning, ‘Oh, just play it for ten years and it will be fine’. That’s just a big excuse. But yes, you should be prepared to come back to the maker regularly, certainly in the first three to six months. I try not to give instruments out for more than a few days before they’re a few weeks old, because then already a lot of the settling has happened and I will have adjusted it many times. But sometimes I have to give the instrument out earlier which means the musician will have to come back. It’s important that the musician comes back realising that it’s a normal part of the process, that it needs to be taken care of, rather than thinking the instrument isn’t good any more. If you have a Stradivari and one day you find it doesn’t sound as good as it used to, there are very few people who would decide that Strad was not a good maker. You immediately go back and see if you can get it adjusted and the same applies to new instruments. Whether that’s in the first year when that needs to happen a lot more, or later on in life, occasionally you might still need to have it adjusted. I think it’s very important not to blame the instrument and to go and get it looked at.

JD: I wouldn’t want to over-emphasise it as an issue. I have a foot in both camps: I do a lot of restoration of old instruments and I make new instruments and when you’ve finished a restoration of an old instrument it takes just as much playing in again as a new instrument. People worry about this playing in of new instruments more than they need to. A lot of it is a hangover from previous generations of violin makers. We’ve learnt a lot in the last 20 or 30 years and what is being done now in the field of violin making – this may sound bragging – a lot of solid advances have been made, in terms of going back 200 years and reclaiming what was being done in Cremona then. New instruments today function much better and play in much better, and have a more mature sound in the beginning, in general, than instruments that were being made earlier or later in the last century.

KT-R: I say to my customers that if you don’t substantially hear in the instrument what you want to hear in it from the beginning it’s not going to suddenly miraculously develop. It has to be there. If it’s not there it’s not the right instrument for you. That’s a reassuring statement, rather than saying, ‘If you don’t quite like it then you’ll get used to it and eventually it will work for you.’ That is leading them up the garden path.

AT: What do makers learn from classic instruments?

AH: The best of the classic instruments are the best-sounding and aesthetically very good aims for us to match but at that point I’d like to emphasise that it’s the best examples of that period of making that we hold in high esteem and often it’s applied to anything that’s old and Italian. I’ve come across lots of old Italian violins, some even with relatively famous names, and there’s nothing to recommend apart from the name. Unfortunately there are many more of those instruments than those that we are keen to copy. It’s important for people to remember that not everything that is old and Italian is worth copying.

JD: The reason why a lot of old instruments are good is that they’ve been worked and reworked and developed for the whole of their lives. They might have started off as something relatively crude but because they had value generations of restorers and makers have refined them, tuned them and adjusted them, and eventually they find their voice through the work of succeeding generations of players who put their energy into them and restorers who regraduate and adjust them. Everything we do we have learnt from Stradivari and Amati – there’s no getting away from that. They were the best at what we all do and they remain the best and I don’t think there’s anyone among us who would claim to have reached the consistent level of achievement of Amati and Stradivari, but it’s always a target.

TS: What we learn from the traditions are not only the good things but also the mistakes the makers made. They made instruments for a different purpose and through those different ways of expression, arches, shapes and sizes, we all learn different sound ideals. If you know the musicians and their demands, they can pick and choose what sort of model we take and reproduce. In the last 20 years we are not only discovering the tradition that Stradivari was part of, but we are also adding new ideas to what they were doing and trying to improve according to the new demands of musicians.
AH: We mustn’t forget that now we have more advanced technology with which we can analyse what is going on with those instruments that we particularly like and measure all the good-sounding instruments. They don’t all behave in the same way but we can observe all the differences that you can’t see and you can’t measure with normal workshop tools. We’re starting to get much more insight into how they behave and that’s the first step in actually getting close to reproducing what they do. It started seriously in the last few years and in the next ten years we’ll see enormous progress in that respect. We’ll be able to copy particular instruments in the way they play and sounds and also the way they feel and what feedback they give the player and that is particularly exciting.

AT: Does technology inform your making?

AH: It has started to inform my making. One of the instruments I have worked okay but not fantastically. I analysed it and made choices through comparison with analysis I had done on Strads and it helped me decide what to change. I’m not claiming it sounds like the Strads I measured, but it sounds a lot better than before. That wasn’t pot luck but the first step of what we can expect.

JD: When I said earlier that I was bragging that we are a better generation of makers than the one that preceded us it’s just that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants. We have much more information and scientific analysis available to us – the varnish, the acoustics – we are getting real hard information. There is communication between different schools, different countries, different investigations. Previously things were kept secret, there was no facility to share these ideas, but in the modern world they are being shared. Everybody’s benefiting and there’s been a general lifting of the quality and understanding of what we need to do to make a good instrument.

AT: How was Stradivari able to reach his standards without any of these tools?

JD: You have to realise that historically he was already the beneficiary of 200 years of development in the same town. The violin as we understand it was born in Cremona. The only ones that survive are those by Andrea Amati in the 1560s. Stradivari didn’t start making his best instruments until 1700 and in that intervening time there were three generations of Amati family members who were all developing their ideas and working closely with making instruments for people and getting feedback from people. There was a great orchestra in Cremona, which apparently Mozart was a great fan of: he commented favourably on the quality of the violinists in Cremona. There was a strong feedback loop which is what we’re striving for today. There was a very intense period of development focused entirely on that city in North Italy and fortunately there was one initiating genius, Andrea Amati, whose work is just unprecedented – there’s no other maker of that period with his skills and genius. And then another outstanding genius comes along in the same city, Stradivari, which was a stroke of luck, who was able to take Andrea Amati’s work a quantum leap forward. Those circumstances are never going to exist again, but it gives us something to aim at.

KT-R: We mustn’t forget the throughput through those workshops. It wasn’t one person making three violins a year. There were lots of people working in the workshops. There was a lot more going on in those workshops than we generally imagine because if one looks at the suggested numbers of Stradivari instruments then at the pace we’re working at it would have been impossible for him to have made them in one lifetime, wouldn’t you agree, John?

JD: Well he wasn’t having to answer the phone all the time.

KT-R: That leads to the difference. We are lucky to be in an age of very open communication. We’re probably the first generation of makers who don’t keep lots of secrets from each other because we’ve learnt that by sharing what we know and working together, having workshops where we make things together and associations that exchange knowledge, conferences, books, publications, and The Strad. The Strad posters have been around for 20 years and at the time were a new thing. All of a sudden a lot of makers who may have trained at a reasonably good school but don’t have regular access to the best instruments, through the work of people like John and Roger Hargrave have access to these instruments, indirectly, but that information is all of a sudden available. That happens on all levels, with the internet, with a worldwide discourse that a generation ago didn’t exist and that helps us a lot today.

TS: It’s not only us who are learning. For example in the last ten years wood dealers discovered that dealing with instrument wood is very good business and they’re learning a lot from us what we’re looking for. The wood that we’re supplied with is getting better and better. Working together with all the people in the trade brings benefits to us all.

AT: How do modern instruments work as investments?

AH: Modern instruments seem to be holding their value and increase in value over time, but I wouldn’t think of buying a new instrument as a financial investment. If you buy or commission from a good modern maker who is sought after you can be fairly confident that the instrument will hold its value and that you will be able to get your money back. I think that is quite important to reassure people that this is not lost money, but I wouldn’t want to exaggerate either. If you want a financial investment, if you’re lucky you’ll find a young genius maker who hasn’t been discovered yet whose instruments’ prices will soar. You might find that a good investment, but that’s not the approach that I would take. If you’re thinking of investing in instruments, if you look at the same price bracket as with old instruments, you wouldn’t really expect any more than that either. Although they do appreciate a little over time, you still have to calculate in the commission of the salesperson, and over time the differences aren’t very big.

JD: That’s absolutely true. To compare like with like if you’re looking at an old violin from a dealer or auction house that is a relatively comparable price with a new violin, it’s probably not a sensible thing to consider as an investment either. It may be old but it may not be by a well-known maker and it’ll probably be reconstructed out of several thousand shards of old wood that have been glued together repeatedly and you face the problem of knowing how much repair work will have to be put in continually. To have £10,000 to spend on an instrument what you would get from a dealer in terms of an antique instrument it would be a fairly low-grade instrument, not one I would consider a huge investment potential. Equally with a new violin, if a customer asks if it is a good investment, I say, ‘No – you’re paying a fair price for a tool of your profession and if you treat it well it will return its value in what you get from it professionally and when you pass it on to someone later on you’ll get a fair price for it, but you’re not going to make a huge profit from it.’ But neither are you likely to make a huge profit from an 18th-century violin you bought for £10,000 from a dealer, because they are simply not in the same league as the Stradivaris and Amatis that get the headlines and do appreciate.

Audience member: I’d like to ask about the varnish. That seems to be one of the challenges of modern making.

TS: We talk about varnish too much. It plays an important role in how attractive the instruments look but we know even 150 years ago there were makers who were able to produce a varnish that was able to fool the experts, not only the players, so it is possible. The question is what price you pay for imitating old varnish because not only do you have to reproduce the varnish but you have to do the ground and the colour of the wood, and those things need time and you do some harm to the instrument. So you have to find a middle way of making the instrument look attractive but not damaging the instrument. That’s the secret of new making.

KT-R: I don’t like to induce any kind of distress to the varnish or the appearance of the instrument. The great makers of the past also made their instruments look new when they were first made. I probably lose a few customers because they find it a little less attractive when the instrument is fully varnished but there’s an argument to be had for that because that’s how they all started off.

JD: I’d like to volunteer for that argument. Varnish is one of the areas that has benefited from scientific analysis – there has been a lot of serious and reliable work done and we are all in a better position to make varnishes similar to the Italian ones. We have a huge amount of information and the fact that the great period of violin making in Cremona did coincide with the end of the use of the particular kind of varnish. In the period from 1750 until – we might venture to say – the end of the 20th century, people were using a harder varnish that was more commercially viable, easier and quicker to use, but was not the varnish that the classical Cremonese makers used. What we’re making now is a much softer, kinder sort of varnish, which I do sincerely feel has a less inhibiting affect on the instrument, and allows it to speak more freely. I think it’s a very important thing.

Audience question (Euan Murdoch): Do you as makers recognise the changing aesthetic of players, because clearly there has been a change in the perception of the universal sound. How does that affect you as makers?

KT-R: What we use as our sound ideals at the moment are much more 19th and 20th century than it ever is from the Baroque period because the kind of very focused and symphony orchestra-led tone that we now expect from bowed string instruments was something that was developed in the mid-19th century and is something very different. Some of us make Baroque and modern instruments and know that there is quite a palette of sounds to be had from those instruments. I would look at it as us being in the service industry where we have to supply what the customers want from us and we have to know about different aspects of this aesthetic and help both our Baroque and Renaissance customers as well as the most modern sound ideals.

Audience question (Peter Cropper): We’re always going backwards. Is nobody going forwards and saying we can make a 21st-century violin. Strings are developed every year, there’s always something that is louder. Why not instruments?

KT-R: The 19th century was keener than we are at the moment. I speak for myself but we aren’t that keen to reinvent the wheel, because we have something that works pretty well. Of course we get involved with the new strings and the new technology, but if we wanted to reinvent it much further it would be a different instrument.

JD: The form of the violin we accept as a given and it works pretty well. The refinement that has happened to it in the last 200 years has been in the fittings, the strings, the playing technique, and we respond to that. There’s a lot more tension on instruments than there was and we make our instruments to cope with that, to respond with the brilliance that people need. But the older instruments have also been manipulated by the restorers to provide that response as well. We lost a few hundred years of development, but we’ve caught up. I know I’m not capable of this great vision, but there’s the possibility that we’re on the brink of it and of course there are lots of people making electronic instruments and whacky metallic-blue violins with triple necks but that’s outside our present discussion.

Audience question (Seppo Kimanen): We’re here for a string quartet competition and I’d like to hear what is your conception of selecting the models for a string quartet.

TS: The ideal quartet selection would be a Strad and a Guarneri as violins, a Gasparo da Salò or Maggini for the viola and probably a Venetian model for the cello.

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