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Talking of Stradivari cellos (see previous post), I heard Julian Lloyd Webber play the Barjansky cello in a concert at the Theatre Royal, Winchester a couple of years ago. It was an unusual programme because apart from the music, which was wonderful, it included a question and answer session.

I asked Lloyd Webber why he didn’t sell his Strad and play one by a modern British maker. That would have two beneficial consequences, I suggested. First, it would help talented young cellists to understand that they could make good music even if they didn’t have a famous Cremonese instrument to play. Second, it would be a huge encouragement to modern violin and cello makers.

He responded to this potentially irritating question in a gracious way. He conceded that I had a point, but explained that he had been playing this particular cello for many years and that it had become so much a part of him as a musician that he couldn’t imagine being without it.

It was easy to see the force of that argument, but I didn’t want to let him off so lightly. So I followed up by asking whether, if he were to play the Barjansky and a modern cello behind a curtain, listeners would be able to tell the difference. While Lloyd Webber thought about this, the audience answered for him. ‘Oh yes,’ several people called out before he had a chance to speak.

I found this response both annoying and depressing. Annoying because it’s impossible to believe that any of the audience who seemed so certain about the superiority of the Strad had ever tested their belief in the sort of experiment that I outlined. And depressing because it reminded me of the difficulty that modern makers have in obtaining recognition of the quality of their instruments.

To challenge people’s assumptions about what makes a stringed instrument sound good, I made this trapezoidal fiddle. As you can see from the photographs, it bears little resemblance to the great instruments made in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, it’s a copy of an experimental violin invented by the french physicist Félix Savart around 1820. Heron Allen mentions it in Violin-Making: as it was and is. Rather more usefully, there’s a fairly recent book about its construction by Ronald Roberts (Making a simple Violin and Viola ISBN 0 7153 6964 4) which contains plans and a full set of measurements.

 

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Several violin players have been amused and interested enough to try it out and have been surprised by how well it sounds. I’ve been meaning to make a decent recording of it being played so that others can judge, but never quite got around to it. However, the other day I took it to my friend Tim Richards, who is a bowmaker in Frome. Tim says that he hardly plays these days, but I persuaded him to try it out in his workshop. As he did so, I switched on my Edirol recorder and captured a few snippets. Beyond normalising the levels, I’ve hardly done any editing and you’ll have to put up with some background noise and a bit of conversation.

 

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Now I’m not claiming for a moment that the sound made by this Savart violin is the equal of a fine traditional instrument, although I’ve heard many ‘proper’ violins that sound far worse. Nor am I saying that violin makers are wasting their time by paying so much attention to plate thicknessing, plate tuning and arching, although the fact that a flat-topped box-fiddle produces such a violin-like sound does make one wonder whether these things are as important as generally thought. What I am suggesting is that, before offering the opinion that old is better than new or that violins made by Stradivari or Guarneri sound better than those made today, it might be a good idea to ask ourselves if there’s any evidence to justify this view or whether we’re simply repeating a hoary old myth.

Of course reliable evidence is hard to come by. This page on Wikipedia mentions some of the attempts to evaluate the sound quality of different violins, although many are flawed in their experimental design. If you’d like to try for yourself, click here to compare a brief passage from the Tchaikovsky violin concerto played on Stradivari violin with the same passage played on a modern instrument. But don’t congratulate yourself too heartily if you get it right; tossing a coin would give the correct result 50% of the time.

In a recent and much better experiment, experienced players were asked to compare several different violins, including 2 made by Stradivari, 1 by Guarneri del Gesu and 3 by modern makers. The players wore welder’s goggles and tested the instruments in a darkened room so that they couldn’t be influenced by the visual appearance of the violins that they were playing. There’s a detailed account of the methods and results in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, available here. If you don’t have the stamina to wade through a scientific paper, here’s how the investigators summarised their findings:

We asked 21 experienced violinists to compare violins by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu with high-quality new instruments. The resulting preferences were based on the violinists’ individual experiences of playing the instruments under double-blind conditions in a room with relatively dry acoustics. We found that (i) the most-preferred violin was new; (ii) the least-preferred was by Stradivari; (iii) there was scant correlation between an instrument’s age and monetary value and its perceived quality; and (iv) most players seemed unable to tell whether their most-preferred instrument was new or old.

They go on to say, “These results present a striking challenge to conventional wisdom”. I couldn’t agree more.

 

Click on thumbnails below for larger images.

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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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The British Violin Making Association held its annual Maker’s day on 3rd March in the Old Sessions House in Clerkenwell, London.

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It was noisy, crowded and hugely enjoyable. I only managed to take a few photographs, but I hope they’ll give a flavour of the day.

 

Andreas Pahler (in the maroon apron), who founded Alpentonholz, brought some fine tonewood to sell.

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More than 40 makers of violins, violas, cellos, viols and bows were showing their work.

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Christopher Jones, who plays in the Gildas Quartet, tries out a violin – one of mine, as it happens.

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Stephen Thompson displayed four beautiful violin and cello bows.

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Emma Alter, violist and bowmaker, plays a pochette made by Mike Lavelle, with one of her own baroque bows.

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Click on a thumbnail for larger views.

The cello that I’ve been writing about over the past few months isn’t far off completion. I always string instruments up before varnishing to be sure that they sound as they should. If adjustments are necessary and the top needs to come off, it seems better to do it before any colour or varnish is applied. This one was played by several decent cellists and I’m glad to say they had no complaints about the sound – a good response across the strings, although there’s a rather fierce wolf between F and F# on the G string and, to a lesser extent, on the D string too. It may prove necessary to fit a wolf note suppressor but I’ll defer judgement on that until it has been strung up again after varnishing. One of the cellists however, was helpfully critical about the shape of the neck – he thought that I had left it a touch too wide. So I reshaped it before starting to varnish.

Here’s the instrument strung up in the white:

And here are a couple of photographs after a few coats of varnish.

My cello is making progress, even if rather slowly. I’ve just closed up the box, which is a step that requires a lot of clamps to hold everything in position while the glue sets.


And here’s the problem: where to find enough clamps. One solution is to buy or, cheaper, make spool clamps for the job. But these clamps are less than perfect because the force they exert operates at the edge of the plates rather than directly over the ribs. For clamps that put pressure in the right place, you have to buy a set of the dedicated cello clamps made by Herdim®, which, I’m told, are easy to use and work well. Unfortunately each of the Herdim® clamps costs about 15 Euros, so getting equipped with the 40 or so that are needed for a cello is quite expensive.

Partly out of meanness and partly because I enjoy making my own tools and jigs, I devised this alternative. The photographs make it fairly clear how the clamps are constructed and instructions are probably unnecessary. But perhaps a few details will be helpful. The clamping force is supplied by a wing-nut on 6mm studding. I made at least half of the clamping length out of aluminium tubing so that the clamps were as light as possible. It’s important that the aluminium tubing has an internal diameter only very slightly greater than the diameter of the studding so that the upper part of the clamp slides smoothly, but without play, over the lower part. The clamping pads are mahogany but, of course, any hardwood could be substituted. When making these pads, it’s a better idea to work a rebate into a length of cross grain mahogany and then saw it up than to craft each one individually. The pads are lined with cork that has been glued on in a profile that puts the pressure directly over the ribs. I used polyurethane glue to set the tubing into the clamping pads and to cement the studding into the aluminium tubing but I should think epoxy would work equally well.

The same principle also works for shorter clamps. The one below is designed for crack repairs. Shallow cleats are temporarily glued either side of the crack, which the jaws of this clamp can grip to close the gap.

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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Watching varnish dry is a famously dreary activity. I’ve been passing the time thinking about ways of photographing the cello. Here’s one attempt.

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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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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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