Violins of Distinction
By “Awake!” correspondent in Canada
AMATI, Stradivari, Guarneri—these are names of master violinmakers of the past. Their works still speak to us in tones of such excellence that they have stood for many decades as the criteria of violins of distinction.
Attempts have been made to copy their instruments. Some have succeeded as far as appearance is concerned, but when played, alas, their “voices” give them away.
Notwithstanding, there are today a few violinmakers of exceptional talent who pursue their art with the fervor and pride of an Amati, a Stradivari, or a Guarneri. Come with me to visit one in British Columbia, Canada, and you will meet an artist who indeed makes violins of distinction.
Before we go, let us understand that this is a violinmaker who creates his own distinctive instrument, not one who simply copies other patterns or models.
One thing may strike you as you look around the modest cabin he uses as his workshop: There are just two violins at different stages of development. As he describes these to us you can sense that each one he makes is imbued with the personality of an artist to whom exactness, perfection and beauty are paramount.
What Type of Violin?
“I have recently completed one for a professor at a university” he tells us. “You see, I make violins on order for the special use of the customers, as a violin is made with its intended use in mind. I will make one especially for chamber music, or perhaps for solo or concert playing, or again, for orchestra—whatever the musician will use it for.”
Violins made for chamber music are built so they will have a mild and soft tone. Orchestra violins, on the other hand, are constructed to have a clear and strong tone, one harder than the soft voice of chamber music. Concert or solo violins need a full tone, which our violinmaker describes as being ‘darker’ than that of the orchestra violins, and not as hard.
And how is the desired tonal quality obtained? He draws our attention to the degree of arch on the top piece of a violin he is making. He explains that a higher arch allows for a larger amount of air in the violin box and this produces soft, romantic tones, whereas a shallower arch produces vibrations that give clearer and stronger sounds, such as would come from an orchestra violin.
Do you notice the supply of wood used for making violins? It is stacked neatly over there in the corner. Observe that it is arranged so air can get around each piece, and that it is in a dry spot protected from dampness. It takes about six years for the wood to dry naturally. So some of it has been there for a long time.
As we examine the type of wood used, we learn that the sides, back, bridge, neck and scroll of the violin are made of maple. But the top, the sound post and the bass-bar are made of spruce.
His supply of maple came from Europe where it grew in mountain forests about 1,500 feet above sea level and in limestone soil. This means that the wood has finer grain because of slower growth. It was cut during winter when sap movement was at a minimum. The best maple he has seen came from the Balkans. The spruce comes from Canada’s west coast and is of excellent quality.
Even the varnish is important in creating a violin of distinction. Our host tells us that he still makes his own, designing the varnish to suit the particular type of violin. He uses mastic, juniper gum, shellac, putty made by bees, other resins, alcohol and color. He believes that the varnish should be applied in thin layers and should dry quickly. Can you smell it?
Naturally we cannot expect to see a violin made before our eyes on this one visit. In fact, our host tells us that he usually makes only three violins a year. Not much in quantity, but very high in quality.
Exactness of Construction
Look at the back piece of the violin that he is showing us. This back may look rough right now, but, then, he is just starting to shape it. Notice that it is divided into squares, all neatly marked out by pencil. If you were to count them, you would find about two hundred. This helps him accurately to graduate the thickness of the wood as he shapes the violin back.
First, using a gouge, and then a tiny plane, and finally a scraper (he does not use sandpaper), and starting from the edges, the back is shaped to the desired thicknesses. After doing the outside of the back, he will then do the inside of the piece. The finished product will be two millimeters (about a thirteenth of an inch) in thickness at the edges to six millimeters at a point in the middle that is 195 millimeters (about 7.7 inches) down from the top of the violin back. This point is known as the vibration center. A micrometer is used to measure the thickness of each square as the work gradually moves toward the vibration center. Does not such attention to detail and exactness fascinate you?
When he explains how the top piece is fitted, we expect something similar to the way the violin back is made. But notice the special care that has to be given to the arching of the top. It graduates in thickness, from the edges toward the center third of the top, being the thickest at the spot where the bridge is mounted.
We soon come to realize even more that, besides the matter of fidelity in building and fitting its component parts, each step in the construction of a violin is filled with acoustical meaning. The top piece certainly illustrates this. When the top has been finished inside and out and struck lightly, it should give a vibration tone of F#. But after the f-holes are cut out, its vibration tone is changed to C#. The addition of the bass-bar alters the tone again. The bass-bar is a piece of spruce that is glued just inside on the top piece of the violin at the upper edge of the left f-hole, and runs along under the G string. It serves to produce a stronger sound on the G string as well as support for the left foot of the bridge. When it has been installed on the top piece, the vibration tone is changed again, and this time to E.
The f-holes, which allow sound to escape, must be made with the utmost of care and be exactly the right size. If they are too small, vibration tones are locked within the body and the sound is muffled. If cut too large, a tone too thin and shrill is produced.
Even the design of the bridge can disrupt the violin’s distinctive and harmonious voice. Our host tells us of an experience with a musician for whom he made a violin and who decided that he wanted a different design on the bridge of the instrument. Instead of returning it to the violinmaker, the musician took it to a repair establishment in a big city. Immediately, the violin lost the special tone that made it a violin of distinction. This tone was restored only when the foreign bridge was replaced with one that allowed for its complete acoustical harmony with each of the other components of the instrument. “You see,” he emphasizes, “every part is acoustically important.”
Checking the Vibrations
When the violin is finally finished and the strings are tuned, the vibration tones must be checked. Our host demonstrates how this is done. First he explains that there are twelve different vibration tones on the top of the violin and twelve on the back. All these must work together in harmony. For instance, inside the edge of the left f-hole at the bass-bar, the vibration tone should be A. Just inside the curve on the outside edge of the left f-hole, the tone should be G, one tone lower than A. The violin is made each step of the way with this acoustical harmony in mind. Indeed, the violin has aptly been described as a symphony of harmony.
After explaining this, our host reaches for a box of tiny glass tubes. He rubs his thumb and forefinger in some crushed alum, and after placing the end of one of the tubes on a testing point of the violin, he gently strokes the tube from top to bottom. As his finger and thumb caress it, a sound is produced as if the violin were being played. A faint glow of satisfaction appears upon his face as the sensitive ear of an artist recognizes the sound of pure fidelity. With this method he can ascertain the vibration tone he is working to attain at any appropriate spot in the violin’s construction. Yes, indeed, a symphony of harmony.
‘True in the Fifth’
Are you curious to know what is the most common fault with improperly made violins? Let us ask him.
“I have found ‘true in the fifth’ to be the most common,” he replies.
“What is that?”
“‘True in the fifth’ means that the first and fifth notes of any chord harmonize. If it is not true in the fifth, the violinist encounters difficulty in playing, and must adjust his fingering on each separate string to compensate. Keep in mind, too, that the four strings on a violin are tuned in fifths.
“To avoid this error, great care must be exercised in attaching the neck of the violin to the violin box or body, and in gluing the ebony fingerboard to the neck. The neck must align perfectly with the center line of both the violin top and back. It must be set in at such a slant that the end of the fingerboard at its highest point is twenty-five millimeters (about one inch) lower than the highest point of the violin top. Otherwise, it will not be ‘true in the fifth.’”
I will have to think about that one. How about you? But it is time to leave now. As we do, we thank the violinmaker for his time and hospitality. We may not know how to make a violin, but our knowledge has been considerably enhanced. We are convinced that it takes an artist to produce a violin of distinction; he needs to be very knowledgeable and to understand how each stroke of the gouge, each caress of the plane, each touch of the scraper, each component of the violin, will affect the final tone of the instrument.
One cannot help but be impressed with the acoustical laws originated by the Great Creator, laws discovered by man, and captured in a box by a man of skill and art. The result is a violin of distinction.
[Diagram on page 21]
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