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26 September 2011

A little essai on violin-making

My 72nd and 73rd violins,
The Hague, September 2011

2012 will see my 20th anniversary in violin-making. While thinking of making something special for this occasion, I thought to share a few words about the secret craft shroud in mystery. The craft, or rather its object - the violin - have been the source of inspiration to writers and poets, painters and movie directors. However, what was the source of inspiration for the makers who created the first violins some time in the 16th century? What is the source of inspiration for making new violins apart from music and violins already created?

There are many ways to make a fine violin and it finally is the matter of personal choice from which sources to draw one’s inspiration. Obviously, the sources can be the violins themselves. One problem is that original Stradivaris are not generally accessible consequently posters of Strads (or Guarneri) became the practical source of inspiration. Another problem is the fact the old instruments are no longer in their original state. The wood has shrunk or got naturally worn out, original parts such as necks, fingerboards, bridges, tailpieces, sound-posts and strings have been replaced by the more modern counterparts. Yet another problem is the fact that attribution and integrity - that is whether all parts of any given old violin are made by the same maker or not - in many cases can be notoriously difficult to ascertain. In this respect, 19th century luthiers such as Jean-Baptist Vuillaume were in a privileged position: they had access to the famous italian violins which at that time were barely 100 years old or a little older and many were mostly in their original state. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Those 19th century luthiers modernized most of the 17th-18th century instruments without leaving any documentation whatsoever. Violas and cellos suffered the most and not much remain intact of original violins either. This, making copies is very much a colloquial expression. In reality, a successful "copy" relies on a huge amount of memorized statistical data about surviving instruments and years of practical experience. In fact, some makers do not call their instruments "copies", but "inspired by Guarneri" or something of this sort.

Violoncello piccolo (aka viola pomposa)
made for Sergey Malov,
September 2011, The Hague
Being aware of the problems described above I chose the way which, I believe, is closer to the sources which nourished the cultural foundations of European civilisation. I mean the primary sources which inspired many European artists, musicians, music instrument makers, composers, painters, architects, philosophers - for thousands of years - till the French Revolution. These sources are a strange mix of ancient Arab, Roman, Christian, and above all, the Greek ideas. This mix actually made the European culture distinct from other cultures and it also created its music and musical instruments including the violin. The influence of these source can be seen, felt, experienced in the surviving culture around us and in classical music. I do not exclude the violins from my list of sources because they are a cultural heritage too, but I do not limit my source of inspiration and information by violins alone - no matter how remarkable they are. Instead, I try to see the violin with the eyes of a craftsman of the 17th-18th century, from beneath, rather than from the top. Thus, it is the different vantage point that I chose. Why? I trust the cultural foundations of European art and music and music instruments merit to be aware of, merit a study, mastering and practical use in the craft of violin-making. This vantage point can be easily understood by most artists working with the visual media as it is not uncommon for them to assimilate the history of art in order to place their creativity in the context, but it is also the artistic foundation for many a remarkable musicians. I am happy to see a few luthiers working on the same path. Of course, this path may not be the main-stream but when it draws the attention of young luthiers to the sources of culture rather than just to its product - the violin - it is a desired outcome.

Why and How?
It is easy to say, “I chose a different vantage point!” WHY I do this is probably clear. All of the philosophy apart, it simply helps to create better instruments. Another question is HOW