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A few years ago, I wrote about pochettes after learning about them from my friend Michael Lavelle, who had just made one. It was a copy of the famous Clapisson pochette made by Antonio Stradivari in 1717, with an intriguing variant – it had an owl’s face instead of a scroll. That instrument was bought by a musician from Belgium, which encouraged Mike to make another, as shown below.

 

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Pochette 2

 

Mike’s second pochette is now looking for a good home. If you are interested, send me an email (info@finelystrung.com) and I’ll put you in touch with him. The price, which includes a bow and a case, is £850.

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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.

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.

Violins are difficult to photograph but, thanks to Michael Darnton’s book on violin making, I’ve recently got better at it. As far as I know, the book isn’t published (or even finished) yet, but some chapters are available on-line. There’s one on violin photography which, amongst other good advice, mentions the ingenious technique of using a glass jar or tumbler to stand the instrument on while it’s being photographed. This is less precarious than it seems and has the great advantage of holding the violin vertically upright in a way that’s nearly invisible.

 

 

Previously, I’d used this stand, which is fine for displaying instruments but much less good than the glass method when it comes to photographing them.

 

 

Here are a couple of shots of a recent violin. They’re still not very good – the lighting is uneven, shadows are visible on the backdrop and the camera is positioned a little too high – but they’re a substantial improvement on anything I managed before.

 

 

The violin is based on an instrument made by Carlo Bergonzi in 1736 but I’ve made it three-quarter size for a violinist who, following an injury to her shoulder, can no longer play a full size fiddle comfortably.

 

A few days ago, my friend Michael Lavelle, surgeon, cellist and luthier, dropped in to return a plane that I had lent him and to try out the cello that I have been writing about recently. He brought with him a beautiful pochette, a copy of the famous Clapisson pochette made by Antonio Stradivari in 1717, that he had completed last year. Mike’s instrument has an owl’s face instead of a scroll.

He tells me that these instruments were used by dancing masters in the 18th and 19th centuries, presumably because they were so much easier to carry around than a full-sized fiddle. They’re held, not under the chin, but between the left chest and elbow and they’re played mainly in the first position.The name ‘pochette’ obviously comes from the French word for pocket. In England and Scotland they were known as kits or kit violins – which is probably a diminutive of pocket violin.

There are a few pochettes in musical instrument collections. The Burrell Collection in Glasgow has one, which can be seen here, but it’s not nearly as attractive as the Clapisson. And I believe that the V and A in London and the Edinburgh University Collection of Historical Musical Instruments have examples too.

Not many modern makers however, seem very interested in pochettes, although Owen Morse-Brown is an exception.

Mike hinted that his pochette might be for sale so, if you are interested, email me at info@finelystrung.com and I’ll put you in touch with him.

Below are a couple of photographs of my last instrument of the noughties, a copy of a violin made by Guarneri del Gesù in 1742. It’s very slightly smaller than the original with a body stop of 190mm, and a string length of 320mm. I think it’s going to be a powerful instrument but it will be a few weeks before it gets a proper trial because the violinist for whom I made it recently broke her right arm – unpleasant enough for anyone, but doubly unfortunate for a string player.

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.

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