Inside-the-Shop are informative articles written by Kevin Smith, Luthier of The Violin Shop
San Diego | San Diego County | Southern California
Influence Between Schools of Violin Schools
Cupping your hands against the large pane of glass, the world fades behind you. The hot sidewalk, dark business suits, office buildings and traffic exhaust drop away as though you’re traveling through a wormhole in time. Squinting, you’re pulled through the glass, into a less hectic time that hasn’t changed much in 300 years. Through the glass, five feet in front of you, a hand reaches to a tool board, hesitating in front of a set of gouges hanging from nails. Pulling one off the board, he checks the curve and starts carving deep into the side of a scroll he’s cutting out of maple .Sitting next to him you see a person with what looks like small curls of wood squeezing out from between her fingers. Then you catch the glint of a plane so small it would fit in a sparrows’ egg. Held firm in a strong hand, the finger plane peels away spruce as she shapes the arch of a violin top.
Past her, the bench goes on for at least another 30 feet; a chair every 6 or 7 feet with sets of tools hung correspondingly along the wall. The wall on the other side of the room is just the same. Most of the workers are sitting with instrument parts left and right. Someone is standing at a community bench in the middle of the floor peeling huge curls of wood from a clamped block with a 20″ jack plane. You hear the chortle of a laugh bouncing around the high ceilings and off the banks of windows that flood the room with light.
Violin making school. Step inside and you’ll see 30 people sitting at benches, focused like there’s no tomorrow. Dedicated to a dream they carried with them the first day they walked through the front door with only a couple of tools in their backpack.
A little time goes by and the benches and walls tell the personality of each student. Personalities that will be stamped on each instrument they make.
On one bench a half made violin lays open, wood shavings everywhere, the tool board in immaculate order. Another has tools scattered across his work, wood chips spilling from the bench to the floor, pictures of Baroque musicians pinned to the wall. Across the room you find a tool board that makes you wonder if a violin maker sits here or a tool maker. Exquisite knives with adjustable blades, finger planes custom fit to his hand, gouges with handles turned for personal preference. Then you look at the violin on the bench and know it’s both. Beautiful work.
At the end of four years they’ll walk out with their own distinctive style. And each instrument made will bear it’s own unmistakable mark of individuality.
Still, all the instruments by all the makers from that school will have a certain underlying “personality” as well. They’ll have the “personality” of those teaching and directing the school. Just like the makers from a different school will work with the stamp of where they learned.
The differences are much less than they used to be though. Now information is so pervasive and widespread that there’s a global uniformity never before seen. Competition and excellence is higher than it’s ever been.
But if you could step back 300 years, you’d find small towns sitting 20 miles apart with distinctive styles easily recognizable. Different parts of a country produced instruments with very different characteristics. But you could still tell which country they were made in, just like the individual bearing the traits of their school. So with the different national characteristics combined with the different local characteristics, someone well studied is able to track down who made what, where, and when.
Here’s a very broad example. From the mid 17th century, the German influence affected southern Italy, leaving central Italy virtually untouched. To illustrate, here are a couple of Germanic traits and the way they traveled:
The first trait is one of the more easily recognizable traits. It’s the Germanic top and back arching’s of old. You don’t see it made anymore, but Jacobus Stainer set the trend. He lived between 1621 and 1683 in the small Bavarian village of Absam in Tyrol (western Austria between Germany and Italy). The arching looks like a figure 8: very full with a sudden drop, almost a step, down to the edge of the instrument. Stainers’ instruments had the tendency, but those who copied him exaggerated it to the detriment of the sound.
The second tendency was also from Stainer. It was in the f-holes (sound holes), once again exaggerated by those who copied him. The easiest way to spot it is to look at the upper and lower wings of the f’s: wings are the broad flat section of wood between the stem of the f-hole and the lobes (the round holes at either end of the sound hole). The wings seem to bend all the way around toward the lobes.
Now these stylistic traits were copied in the entire Tyrolean area. And since it filled the needs of the market, the influence traveled with luthier’s who passed through Tyrol and landed wherever they set up shop.
Since all roads lead to Rome, and Tyrol was at the crossroads of early violin making, there is a distinct north/south influence of Stainers’ (and hence Germanic) traits. The instruments of southern Italy in the 17th, 18th and 19th century have these distinct influences. Central Italy, on the other hand, was left virtually alone from this influence because the traveling violin makers were all headed to the big city. And they left us with the all time high water mark of violin making unchanged; the grace of Stradivari’s arching’s left intact to produce that rich, powerful sound.
Now, I feel like I need to qualify my comments on Stainer so I’m not misunderstood. Stainer was copied for a good reason. First of all, he was an excellent craftsman. On top of that he was innovative and served the sound of the time period well. He was making instruments at a time when gut strings with no windings were state of the art. Instruments were set up for a warm soft sound. It mixed well with harpsichords and woodwinds and was best heard in churches of polished stone with a high reverberation. His instruments were designed with those qualities in mind, and were in fact state of the art. Excellent. I’ve seen a few of his violins and they’re gorgeous, as are many of the instruments influenced by him. And the sound is beautiful, although not very strong.
As for the modern violin makers, musicians should be grateful for the information age. Because there have never been so many excellent instruments made at any other time in history. And just in time too, as the old instruments are becoming more fragile while the number of players is increasing.
When pegs are set in a scrolls peg box, they’re usually done with the smallest possible size. The reason is so when the peg holes wear and become “out of round”, the holes can be reamed out slightly and made true again. After truing the holes, new pegs are often needed. After a long period of use, often a hundred years or more, the holes have been trued so much and become so big that new wood needs to be grafted in. This is called bushing the peg holes. The holes are once again trued, but this time you cut boxwood bushings to fit instead of pegs, and you glue them in. After trimming the bushings down, retouching and over coating, new holes are carefully drilled, then reamed out to about a 2% taper, to which you fit the new pegs.