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Category Archives: baroque instruments

Several years ago, while  trying to photograph a baroque cello that I had just completed, I hit on a way of accenting the curves of the scroll and pegbox by using a dark background and a couple of angled light sources.  I was rather pleased  with this discovery and took a series of photographs, a couple of which you can see below.

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But I was even more pleased when the cellist Steven Isserlis and the art director of Hyperion Records wanted to use one of these photographs for the cover of his recent recording of the Beethoven cello sonatas. The CD isn’t due for release until January 2014, but you can hear excepts here. I’d like to be able to add that Isserlis is playing the cello on the cover, but in fact he’s playing the Marquis de Corberon Stradivarius of 1726, on loan from the Royal Academy of Music.

 
 

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A few weeks ago, I dropped in on the Tartini ensemble during a rehearsal in St Mary’s  church, Penzance. They were preparing for a concert of music by Dietrich Buxtehude and Jan Adam Reincken. And a very interesting and exciting concert it turned out to be:  music by two composers whose work is heard less often than it deserves to be, with brilliant performances on period instruments by the ensemble.

Here’s a photograph taken during the rehearsal.

It was also the first outing for the baroque violin that I wrote about a couple of posts ago.  After the rehearsal, Pamela Rosenfeld played this adagio by Tartini on it, accompanied by Nigel Wicken on a chamber organ.

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Patrick Gale, who commissioned the baroque cello that I completed earlier this year, spoke  about why music was important to him in a recent broadcast on  BBC Radio 3.  If you missed his  brief and amusing  talk,  you can listen to it  here for the next few days.

Back in May, I wrote about making a baroque violin, a loose copy of the Charles IX violin of 1564 by Andrea Amati, now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. After it was completed, and while still in the white, it went off for a short trial by the violinist who had commissioned it and, having been approved, came back to be varnished. Varnishing is now finished and the fiddle has been set up again just in time for its new owner, Pamela Rosenfeld, to play it in the Buxtehude festival in Cornwall later this month.

Below are a few photographs of the completed instrument.

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This has nothing to do with instrument making, I know, but it has been such a wonderful year for bluebells in Hampshire that I couldn’t resist posting this photograph.

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I’ve also been enjoying making a violin. I say making, but completing would be more accurate. The instrument was started many years ago by Pamela Rosenfeld while attending the Cambridge courses on violin making that were run by Juliet Barker. Unfortunately, it was never finished because Pamela became ill. Having seen Patrick’s cello, she contacted me, wondering whether I might carry on where she had left off. She presented me with a complete rib structure around an inside mould, and a neck and scroll that had already been roughed out and various bits and pieces, including a bridge blank and boxwood pegs. We chose a nicely figured one piece back, decided on the wood for the front, fixed some details and work began at the beginning of March. Here are some photographs of the instument as it progressed:.

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And here’s the instrument more or less completed but still to have proper strings fitted and, of course, still to be varnished. It’s loosely based on the Charles IX violin by Andrea Amati, made in 1564 and now in the Ashmolean museum, Oxford. It’s set up in the baroque manner with a light bassbar, low bridge, short fingerboard and simple tailpiece, but the neck is morticed into the top block in the modern way – a compromise that should make it easier for Pamela to play. It’s very light – under 350 grammes – and I’m hopeful that, with gut strings and played with a baroque bow, it will prove to be responsive and lively.

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A couple of posts ago, I wrote about making a pair of tailpieces for two violinists who wanted to change the way their instruments were set up. The violinists, Pamela Rosenfeld and Liz Gregg, are members of the recently formed Tartini Trio who specialise in music of the baroque period. Naturally, they’re keen to produce an authentic baroque sound and, having already switched to gut strings and baroque bows, wanted to take things a stage further by fitting baroque bridges and tailpieces. Over the Easter holiday, Pamela and Liz visited me and let me hear the sound they were making. Very generously, and without rehearsal, they let me record them as a duet playing the Bourée from Handel’s Water Music. The primitive recording (made in my workshop with nothing more than an Edirol digital recorder propped up on the work bench) doesn’t do them justice – but even so, it sounds pretty good.

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Making Patrick’s cello led to a request to make tail pieces for two violins belonging to musicians who play in the same ensemble. They wanted to modify the set up of their instruments to produce a more ‘baroque’ sound and, as a first step they changed to gut strings. The obvious thing to do next, is to fit a lighter tail piece and I was delighted to make two out of a scrap of bird’s eye maple that I had left over from the fingerboard of the cello. I roughed out the shape on the bandsaw and then planed, carved and scraped them to their final shape before staining them. The weight ended up about 7 grammes, which is probably about half the weight of the ebony tailpieces they will replace. It’ll be interesting to see how much difference they make to the sound.

The varnish on the baroque cello eventually got hard enough to let me string up the instrument again and send it off to its new owner, Patrick Gale, who lives in Cornwall. Patrick is best known as a novelist but he’s a keen and talented musician too and I hope he will be pleased with cello and the sound it makes. He tells me that he taking part in a series of programmes on amateur music-making that will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 later this year. Unfortunately, although he mentions this cello on the programme, he doesn’t get to play it.

Before parting with the cello, I took a few photographs. There are 3 below and more in Gallery.

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I’ve made a start on the varnishing, aiming at a warm honey colour for the finished instrument and trying to bring out the figure of the maple to its best advantage. At this time of year in England, there isn’t much sunlight and unless you have access to a drying cabinet, which I don’t, it’s necessary to leave a long time between coats. Still, it seems to be going fairly well, even if fairly slowly. The photographs below were taken outside on a rare sunny day. (Click on a thumbnail for a more detailed view.)

The cello is now finished, although not yet varnished. I made a short fingerboard and a tailpiece out of bird’s eye maple, turned an endpin out of boxwood to match the nut and saddle, fitted a baroque bridge and strung it up. It’s always an exciting moment when one first tries it out. Will it sound as good as one hopes or will it be a disappointment?

Fortunately, it has turned out well, producing a warm resonant tone with an even response across the strings. I’m no cellist, but the person I made it for has tried it and we’re both pleased with the sound that it makes. Almost inevitably, there’s a ‘wolf’ – on this cello it’s somewhere between f and f sharp on the 3rd string – but I don’t think it will prove to be a serious problem.

Of course, it was necessary to unstring the instrument to varnish it but, before I did so, I took a couple of photographs.

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The front, like the back, is made from two book-matched pieces – but this time of spruce rather than maple. Here they are, joined and cut out and being roughly shaped.

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The arching has been completed and the position of the f holes sketched in place.

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The hollowing of the inside is now finished.

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Blocks have been glued into place so that the bass bar can be fitted. They’re a temporary scaffolding and will be removed later.

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The next stage of fitting the bass bar.

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Below is a photograph of the front being glued onto the instrument.

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The starting point for the back was two pieces of nicely figured book-matched maple.

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I glued them together and cut out the outline roughly on the band saw. Then followed quite a lot of hard work, finalising the outline and establishing the arching – at first roughly with a gouge, but later smoothly and precisely with thumb planes and scrapers.

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Here a channel has been cut for the purfling.

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After hollowing the back to a thickness of around 6mm in the centre and 3.5mm at the edges, the weight of the plate had been reduced to 630 grams and the tap tone had fallen to somewhere between C and C sharp and I was ready to glue it to the rib and neck assembly completed earlier.

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After the clamps have come off, it begins to look something like a cello.

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Unlike modern cellos, which have their necks morticed into the top block, baroque cello necks are simply glued and nailed. I say ‘simply’ but it’s a slightly nerve racking business partly because there’s little opportunity for later adjustment if the neck position isn’t absolutely right but also because, if the neck splits as the nails are driven in, a good deal of work is wasted. You drill pilot holes first, of course, but even so…

The first step is to prepare the neck and carve the scroll and pegbox.

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Then the partially completed neck is glued and nailed onto the top of the rib assembly. As the photograph shows, this is done upside down.

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It has been a shamefully long time since I wrote my last post and I apologise to anyone who has been waiting for  news of the cello. Although it has been progressing well, I became so absorbed in making it that I didn’t have enough energy left over to write about it. However, I did keep a camera nearby and I’ll sketch out the various stages of the instrument’s construction in photographs. Here’s the rib structure complete, with the corners trimmed.

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The top layer of the mould has been lifted off, exposing the inner sides of the ribs so that the linings can be glued into place.

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The lining of the C bout is morticed into the corner block

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And here is the rib structure complete and removed from the mould. I’m in the process of trimming the blocks down to their final size.

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A friend of mine, a writer by trade, but also a talented amateur musician, has asked me to make him a cello. He plays in a baroque ensemble and his current instrument, which has a modern set up and metal wound strings, doesn’t  make the right sort of sound for music of that period.

Although I was delighted to be asked, I’d never made a baroque cello before and I needed to do some research before starting. It turns out that accurate information is hard to come by. Any number of books and websites will explain some of the differences between a baroque and a modern instruments: the lack of an end pin, the shallower neck angle, the broader and shorter fingerboard and the lower bridge. While this is all correct, it’s not detailed enough to be of much use to a would be maker. However, I’ve found out most of what I need to know through the generosity of an experienced professional cello maker who has made lots of instruments in the baroque style and who patiently explained what’s required.  Thanks to his advice, I  feel confident enough to make a start.

I’m going to re-use the three layer mould based on the Stradivari Forma B that I made for my last cello. Here are the corner blocks (willow) being glued into position.

And here they’ve been shaped, ready for the ribs to be glued in place.

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