Friday March 16th 2018. A retired Master of Science living in Brekken 30 km east of Røros enters the stage during “Storveis underveis” of Vinterfestspill i Bergstaden (VIB) for a discourse about violin making with the music expert Erling Dahl jr.
This is my official entry into the enigmatic universe of violin making – in part an unsolved enigma of advanced resonance technology, but also a universe filled with sensual euphony. The unsolved enigma of the Cremona master violins implies a potential for astonishment, curiosity and imagination, perhaps also a dream of solving this enigma once and for all. My enthusiasm was also tied to the idea of making instruments myself – instruments that would be highly demanded and played by eminent performers because of the tone qualities of the instruments, performers characterized by their dazzling technical skills and abilities to create beautiful timbre and to interpret the very best of classical compositions for the great community of music loving people.
What could then possibly be my contribution to the wonderful world of violin making for the pleasure and inquisitiveness of other people? In short, I have so far made five violins – and particularly the two latest have attracted much attention from several internationally known violinists. Violin no. 4 has been lent out to Olga Pak, art director of the Berliner Camerata, violin no. 5 to Joakim Røbergshagen, an extremely promising, young performer associated with the Konstknekt project managed by VIB in co-operation with professional instructors from the Berliner Philharmoniker.
Johann Sebastian Bach, Double concerto in d minor, BWV 1043, Largo ma non tanto, Berliner Camerata. Soloist 1. violin: Olga Pak, playing violin no. 4 made by Gunnar Borgos. Soloist 2. violin: Oganes Arustamov, playing violin no. 3 made by Gunnar Borgos. Video: Stig Aspaas.
Pablo de Sarasate, Gypsy Airs, Berliner Camerata. Soloist: Olga Pak, playing violin no. 4 made by Gunnar Borgos. Video: Stig Aspaas.
The Cremona enigma
There is good reason to revitalize the title of this article – The Cremona enigma – as an expression of the status violin making has even in our modern and mechanized times, 300-400 years after the great Cremona masters made their violins. There is a line of steadily refined violin making techniques throughout the historical development of stringed instruments from the 15th and 16th centuries to Amati, Stradivarius and Guarnerius. The period around the turn of the 17th and 18th century has been regarded as the golden age of violin making.
One might wonder if the great masters of Cremona solved the enigma once and for all since their instruments are still found to be the most attractive ones. No violin maker after them has so far succeeded in making violins with an equal tone quality and playability – only nearly. Their instruments have been, and still are, the reference for the most perfect and noble violin tone ever to reach the human ear. No one has since been able to demonstrate for us or make us conscious of a more noble, tonal objective for a violin – not in any era from the time of the masters and to this day.
Advanced scientific methods and technology have been applied in modern analysis of the instruments of the old masters. Yet, a fully efficient method to recreate instruments of the same high quality has not been presented – just to some degree given us a description of the old master violins. In retrospect it has therefore seemed a little frustrating that the old masters of Cremona never left behind complete and detailed specifications of how they made their instruments.
The characteristics of a good violin
Most musicians agree that master violins have some qualities in common. All strings are even and respond easily to all types of bow pressure. Among other things this means that the instrument will have the same good tone quality in all available frequencies. The tone will be loud, full-bodied and resonant, preferably also with a dark and hoarse tinge (timbre). Above all the instrument should be rich in overtones, and in this aspect shapeable or ductile. The violin should be devoid of grating or jarring sounds – furthermore it should be characterized by an overall clean tone quality.
Quite often soft tone quality is in opposition to volume and power, cf. Amati violins and other aged Cremona instruments whose sound volume may be limited compared to newer violins with a potentially louder sound. The tone quality or timbre is on the other hand often dazzlingly beautiful. The difference originates from the fiber tension of the materials used, particularly in the belly and the back. In older instruments this tension will diminish as a consequence of a natural degradation process. Proportionate to the amount of use and care many experts will claim that the old Amati, Stradivarius and Guarnerius violins will lose their power of tone over time. The Stradivarius and Guarnerius master violins are not good because of their age, but old – and with long and active lives – because they are good, and probably have been so for a long time. However, owing to the supplied vibration energy of active usage and physical-chemical influence the resonance energy will decline over a long time period.
The significance of the great masters for the violin makers of today
A fundamental concern for any violin maker of today is whether to, and possibly how to, recreate the tone qualities of the master violins of Amati, Stradivarius and Guarnerius. This is evidently a practical matter related to inherited and obtained knowledge about the processes behind the instruments, but in our time it is also a question of modern scientific analysis. Are these violins similar in their qualities – alternatively do they have similarities of tone and usage that are sufficiently specific seen as an instrument group for an approximately unambiguous scientific analysis? Additionally, we also have a descriptive problem finding words to describe a state that is nonverbal in its nature – the ideal/perfect violin tone, hence the ideal/perfect violin.
Furthermore, there are no two physically identical Stradivarius violins around, for that matter neither are there two identical violins. We know that outline, curves, plate thickness, material characteristics etc. vary within a certain scope. On the other hand it has been discovered that a tonal adaptation of all parts of the instruments has, with very few exceptions, been accomplished according to an almost identical template in all the elite violins of the golden age of Cremona. The same goes for angles and rigging principles. This tells us something about the requirement for know-how as well as an awareness regarding acoustics and resonance qualities to succeed as a violin maker. Here we may be at the heart of the necessary basic knowledge.
And even if traditional violin making is a conservative business, it may probably be supplemented, rationalized and simplified by applying available modern technology. Modern technical precision tools can for example be utilized for the tonal tuning/adaptation of the instruments. The most widely used method is based on laser technology rendering a representation of the vibration qualities of the plates as so-called holograms based on photo interferometry. To utilize this technology in a meaningful way, it is assumed that one is able to interpret and apply the information in a useful way. Thorough knowledge as well as experience is required.
Making a good violin
This is the great ambition for any violin maker. During the centuries a multitude of theories and research has been presented trying to explain this, but no one has been able to bring the ultimate truth to light. Neither am I, even if some apparently think I am on my way.
Today there is a myriad of “schools” and trends of violin making, some more prestigious than others, and they are found nearly all over the globe. They communicate their theories and findings in both open and more exclusive forums. In addition, there are dedicated associations and societies forming communities of interest among violin makers, professionals and amateurs. Owing to the fact that good violins – original Cremona instruments in particular – are extremely highly valued, there are still communities that keep sensitive knowledge and discoveries a secret.
Strictly speaking, traditional violin making is founded on pure craftsmanship. This means that modern tools have been used only to a limited degree. The prevailing point of view is that you can and should make violins by applying the same methods as the great masters of Cremona faithful to a 300-400 years old tradition. This means that you will experience a special nearness to important parts of the process.
Several conditions must be fulfilled if you are going to succeed as a violin maker. Intimate knowledge of the materials used is an absolute requirement together with extensive knowledge of the instrument’s entire tonal system/range. What is important is to understand as much as possible about the instrument’s functionality as determined by a countless number of factors which are separately essential, but which must also be adapted to each other (as parts of the whole) – a complex synergy effect of a high number of factors tied together in an ingenious system. The most important of these factors should preferably be under your control.
We know that the building materials of a violin are important, and the same goes for all parts of the instrument. Nevertheless, and with good reason attention has been concentrated on the material qualities of the belly and the back. It is not difficult to realize that the belly in particular has a crucial function inasmuch as it constitutes the instrument’s resonance membrane itself, and this should obviously have good working conditions.
Bel canto – beautiful singing
The physical ideal of a violin is defined in accordance with Stradivarius or Guarnerius violins both in a geometrical and functional as well as an esthetical sense. These instruments are valuable because of their potential as a reference source for a tone quality that has been the objective for all later violin makers in retrospect, and ultimately important for all violinists to entice from their own instruments.
The obtained status of this violin tone is also a philosophical issue in addition to a practical and scientific one, and it is associated with the question if there exits a tone quality that leads to an almost timeless sensual delight. It is nothing less than sensational that the tone ideal that Amati, Stradivarius and Guarnerius created in their violins 300-400 years ago has not been substantially changed or challenged. If we accept that the ideal violin tone really exists as an objective and universally recognized element, an approach in a more everyday philosophical sense may be appropriate.
The definitive shape, size and esthetic look of the stringed instruments were laid down during the period from the last half of the 16th century to the middle of the 18th century. This was precisely during the era of the great Cremona violin makers. At the same time a musical trend was formed particularly associated with bel canto in Italian opera – a singing ideal where the expressiveness and flexibility of the voice were combined with beautiful timbre. These were some of the singer’s means to characterize the substance of their performance. The expression bel canto means a style of singing characterized by beauty of tone, and it turned out to characterize the vocal expression of the time, likely also the instrumental accompaniment style. It should not be ruled out that this ideal turned out to characterize the ideal violin tone too.
However, it must be pointed out that other expression needs and a more varied tonal expression gradually came to characterize the instruments and music history beyond the beautiful bel canto music. Yet the bel canto style is an important potential of expression of any modern elite violin.
“The first song I ever heard….
….. was my mother’s song by the cradle” the Norwegian poet Per Sivle wrote in his well-known 1877 poem. He hardly knew his mother who died when he was about two and a half years of age. His fate was harsh, and eventually he became the only surviving child of three twin couples. His feeling of a lack of a mother identity and a basic attachment to his mother gradually grew stronger. 18 years old as a result of his yearning he had a beautiful dream about his mother on her deathbed. The poem is inspired by Sivle’s vague memories of the subconscious vocal contact he had with his mother.
One might ask why the wonderful tone of e.g. a Stradivarius violin has pleased our ears for more than 300 years. The theory has been launched that this may be the answer – the attempt at adapting the violin tone to the vocal contact between a mother and her child as an expression of a strong and life-giving affiliation. Beautiful singing undoubtedly has this effect – and it is timeless in character. This is a well-known fact for everyone who has listened to Barbara Hendricks singing Schubert’s Ave Maria or Mozart’s Laudate dominum.
I think this may be an indication of the significance of our early perceptible past, possibly even the attachment to our maternal origin through the simple vocal communication of the mother and child relationship. This is actually a universal, biological phenomenon and a condition for surviving the early phases of life for all creatures that communicate by means of sound. This gives a special dimension to the significance of sound and music, perhaps also to our preference for the timeless, beautiful violin tone.
The complementary relationship
Most musicians on a high level – perhaps even most musicians regardless of level – have a strong emotional relation to their instruments, a relationship characterized by love, dependence and mutual musical upbringing. The instrument makes its demands of the musician for optimal performance, especially the musician’s intonation, technique and musical expression. Of course, the musician makes his/her demands regarding the playability of the instrument. This adaptation has a dualistic and dynamic character that may change over time in the same way as a relationship between humans.
Based on this we can clearly state that two identical violins do not exist, just as little as there are two identical performers – identical twins included. Primarily this is a consequence of the fact that every violin is built from materials that once were parts of living organisms, and where none of the parts are anatomically identical. This is due to genetic and environmental variation concerning the accessibility of materials. The different parts are also processed in different ways as materials e.g. with regard to storage, preservation etc. and adapted to the instrument in different ways (to form a whole). Moreover, the instruments are formed by their co-existence with their partners in the same way as the musicians are formed by the distinctive character of their instruments. In this way there is an infinite diversity of violins and complementary relationships, among other things adapted to various musical genres/styles and different male and female performers. The ideal relationship between a musician and his/her instrument therefore requires an active adaptation process if it is going to be a successful, happy match. During a long life together they characterize each other – for better or for worse.
We return to Vinterfestspill 2018 and Joakim Røbergshagen enters the stage. With my violin no. 5 in his hands and accompanied by Wolfgang Plagge he plays Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Camille Saint-Saëns in front of an enthusiastic audience. That way at least one of my goals for my violin making can be realized – by contributing to beautiful classical music.
(English version/translated by Stig Aspaas)
Wolfgang Plagge and Joakim Røbergshagen during Vinterfestspill i Bergstaden 2018. Photo: Kristine Schjølberg / Form til fjells