26 August 2011

Violin-making: copying VS making originals

This article describes the two existing today general methods of making violins, compares the two and addresses the issues.
The two methods are: 1. Making copies. 2. Making originals.

You have certainly heard expressions such as "made after a Stradivari model", "copy of a Stradivari violin", "copy of a Guarneri",
"copy of an Amati"... This mean that a violin represents a copy of either an original violin actually made by Stradivari, Guarneri or Amati or a copy of the original violin in a poster, that is, it's photograph. 19th century makers used the original violins, the 20th and 21st century makers usually use the posters. Copying is the common method of making violins from the 19th century onward and is still the pre-dominant method. Maker's usually go with the demand, and as there is a demand for copies - just in case a player can't afford an original Stradivari - there is an ample supply.

Another method of making violin is producing originals. There is a handful of makers who actually know - or attempt to know - why the violin has this and not another shape. Some of these makers produce their own patterns, change them at their will and make great instruments. Players love these violins for their character as well as for their tonal and other qualities.

Making original violins, in order to be successful and serve a better purpose, needs to be based on the primary sources and on the surviving masters' instruments but not only on the surviving instruments because these are mostly modified. Primary sources related to violin-making are extremely scarse and insufficient, so we are talking here about sources on everything connected with European art and crafts. This knowledge preserves the original culture and produces good instruments. Consequently, such makers do a good service to the culture of violin-making and, we could say so, to the culture as a whole because this knowledge preserves the culture, not just its product - the violin. IMHO, that culture is worthy of preservation. Actors reviving and performing theatrical pieces in the manner they were performed when Moliere was alive are doing a valuable work. Musicians performing Middle Age, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic music in the manner this music was heard in its respective epochs are doing a valuable work. You might disagree, but violin-making put on the same track is a better, more responsible violin-making : both, toward the culture and towards the craft of making violins on the soil where it originated and evolved.

So some say, "culture is not inherited, it is acquired", however it takes one's lifetime to acquire that culture. It can be difficult to become aware of that culture for a person who never lived in a country with a different culture but - speaking for myself only! - moving to Japan helped me to become aware of my inherited culture of which I was not fully aware before going to the far Far East.

The violin is striped of its cultural status (which it probably never had but this is another problem - the problem of sync between the fast pace of globalization and the slow adaptation of the human psych), a copy can be produced anywhere and today most factories are placed in the cheap Far East which makes it very difficult for the young European violin-makers to even start their careers as violin-makers. At least, more than a few violin-makers told me this.

I am not criticising the copyist approach but I do communicate to the younger violin-makers that they better be aware. An alternative to copying is tough but it is not impossible and is worth the effort. It may take time to learn the underlying tissue of european cultural influences and traditions, absorb them and transform into something usable in violin-making. European languages skills, tons of patience, ability to travel to museums and libraries across Europe, analytic mind, eager desire to learn, organizational skills, ability to work fast, courage to undertake experiments and readiness to learn from mistakes, an ability to play instruments and knowledge of music are indispensable skills, plus - craftsmanship, craftsmanship, craftsmanship.

Sometimes people suspiciously ask, "why do I care?" Visit my website to learn why. If the reader happen to be that violin-maker I am referring to above, do not hesitate to provide a feed-back.

 Picture: a 10 minutes sketch of a violin scroll. Free-hand drawing on hand-coated, hand-tinted paper.

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