The Instrument Makers Research

Musical instrument making, especially of stringed instruments such as the violin, represents a tradition with a long history in Europe and America. The earliest instruments in Europe– the harp (or lyre) and the lute–were introduced from Asia. These instruments were primarily used to accompany singing before the Renaissance. Beginning in 1532, German and Spanish composers began writing music specifically for violins. In the middle of the sixteenth century, violins and their relatives were made by craftsmen who perfected the violin-making technique still in use today. The construction of a violin depends upon an important acoustical phenomenon. The function of its body in forming the characteristic timbre is not confined to picking up the vibrations of the bowed strings and to radiating them from a broader surface. The instrument adds timbre to the sound.

The first great violin makers, Gasparo Bertolotti (1542-1609) and Giovanni Paolo Maggini (1580-1632), lived in Italy. Almost at the same time, the city of Cremona became the world center of violin manufacture for a period of about one hundred years. Of course, the grand master, Antonio Stradivari (1640-1737) made violins for many years, continually altering his pattern. The Germans and the English began making violins in the mid-seventeenth century. France became known for its wonderful violin bow making. The violin developed first as a chamber musical instrument but was widely adapted for orchestra and nearly every other genre of music across Europe, including various folk genres.

Violins came to America and were often used in the earlier years as accompaniment for church music. About 1800 the first violin was manufactured in Bangor, Maine. This marked an increased interest in music around the state, not only in church, but also in singing schools which were organized in many towns throughout Maine. The Violin Maker’s association in the State of Maine was established in 1916 for the purpose of encouraging and promoting the art of violin making and was said to have been the first of its kind formed in America. It only lasted for nine years, but one of its members was the pioneer violin maker Leander M. Nute of Portland who made more than two hundred and seventy fine instruments prior to his death in 1925.

Today there are fewer but no less dedicated stringed instrument makers in Maine. Pauleena MacDougall is interviewing violin, violin bow, guitar, mandolin and harp makers around the state, from South Portland to Presque Isle. In addition, we will be inviting some of the instrument makers to the National Folk Festival in Bangor in August 23-24, 2003, to demonstrate how the work is done. Below are some excerpts from an interview with Jonathan Cooper, violin maker from South Gorham, Maine:

PM: Is there a difference between the German way of making violins and the Italian?
JC: There are differences. A lot of the differences have to do with the way you think of the building process. When its all said and done you’re making something that’s almost precisely the same as far as most people would tell. But there are big differences in the way an instrument sounds. I mean, I have my own theory as to why–the German attention to perhaps, detail, and the German attention to engineering and their very precise way and perhaps the Italians more doing things a little more individualistically, more of a flair to what they do. For me the big difference is the Italian is much more individual, many people would say its perhaps, looser, its not done on the same level of precision although I don’t think it has to be. But you could find German makers who are not quite as precise and Italian makers who are more precise–it goes back and forth.
PM: So there’s no real distinct style difference–more of a gradation?
JC: Nothing that a violin maker–violin makers would discern the difference–nobody else would. Musicians to an extent would know the difference. I happen to like the idea–and I have been at it quite a while now, but I’m still finding there’s just a lot of insight to be had as to what the frame of mind was when a person was doing it originally. This is important to the sound and the way the instrument comes out. I’ll say one thing, the Italians were really the people who in many ways perfected this as we see it now. And the Germans had great success in the mass production–their methods in producing instruments filled a huge need almost at the beginning when the violin was invented it became very successful as an instrument and there was an enormous need for it, and you couldn’t do it with two guys working in a workshop. You couldn’t produce the volume–you’d have to have a violin maker for every hundred people. It just wouldn’t work that way, and it was expensive. The Germans and the French came up with some very good methods for making very good instruments on a large scale. And I think that’s one of the big differences. The Italians never got into commercial production. Their industry always stayed sort of as a one person shop sort of thing and where the Germans would often have whole cities making violins.
PM: Very interesting. So after you left Italy, where did you go?
JC: I worked in Germany for a while, in Hamburg. And then I was there for almost a year but then I came back to Maine. I lived in Portland and had a shop in Portland.
PM: And were you in Portland a long time?
JC: That would have been 1983-84 when I had a shop there. I had a regular retail violin shop. Doing repairs, selling strings, making some instruments, until I moved to my current location in 1990. And in that time I changed what I do from being diversified and doing repairs and things to just making violins. And that’s all I’ve been doing for awhile.
PM: How did you develop your market for your violins?
JC: Mostly by word of mouth. You know, you make an instrument for one person and then another person sees it. I knew people from when I was playing so I would show it to them. It’s really not a very big world, it’s a small world and you pretty much know a lot of people in it. So I often would either someone will call me and want–they know something about one of my instruments and they’ll be interested or I will make instruments just to make them, since I want to make them, and then I’ll consign them to different shops around the country. Who then resell them to somebody else.
PM: So, you don’t do any advertising at all, or you do a little?
JC: I do a little bit. A couple of very small ads but I just recently started running, but its not–its mostly that you know everybody. I did a lot of dealing in old instruments and so most of the people in the trade who have shops throughout the country know me, so that helps, because I know who these people are, from dealing with them and I know they’re interested.
PM: Let me ask you a little bit about the process. I guess starting out with wood. What kind of wood do you like and are there a very limited number of woods that you use, and where do they come from?
JC: That’s a good question. A lot of the materials that we use now were figured out many years ago. So in terms of the materials that you use, we are not experimenting. We’re looking at the quality of the materials and the kind of materials. You can see by looking at old instruments that are successful and sound good you can get a certain amount of knowledge as to what works and what doesn’t. Primarily we use maple for the back and sides for violins, violas and cellos.
PM: Do you know what kind of maple?
JC: Yes, its often figured, and often has a recognizable what you call curl to it or pattern which is the way the wood grows. No one knows exactly why, some people say it is genetically that way based on the fact that you’ll find a lot of trees in a certain area that will have that figure. I think that may actually have been more ornamental than anything else because for tone I don’t think it helps any either way, its sort of an indifferent kind of thing. We tend to use wood that has a certain specific gravity or weight because a musical instrument has to be both strong and light. It can’t be too light, it can’t be too strong. So by the time you get to the point at which you’ve got the instrument finished, those are within very close tolerances. So there are species of maple which grow all over the world that have been tried or seen, some come from China and other places that are too heavy. But the wood that we predominantly use is maple that comes from south Germany, Yugoslavia, Bosnia was one source of it. I use maple that comes from the United States for some instruments.
PM: Where in the United States?
JC: Maine. I’ve got wood in Maine. About six or seven years ago I got a whole tree which produced a lot of wood. A violin maker does not use a lot of wood, the wood in a violin is 10-15 inches long and an inch thick and you’re using that much wood every month. So you’re going through about 14 board feet of wood a year. Guys will nail that up in two minutes.
PM: Right.
JC: Our demands aren’t great. They’re very specific so the wood is quite expensive and it has to be very highly selective.
PM: What species of maple?
JC: Red maple, its hard to know unless you go out and see the tree standing with the leaves on and you know where it came from. You can do the more detailed analysis of the wood which can be done, but when you are looking to buy wood, or looking to acquire wood, I usually just hold it in my hand and look.
PM: Do you purchase wood from people who specifically sell wood to violin makers?
JC: There is a specific industry that produces wood for violin makers. And it runs the gamut from a very sophisticated operation in southern Germany that has been supplying wood to the trade for the past three hundred years from certain areas, all the way to a perhaps buying 2 or 3 pieces of wood from a violin maker who died and saved his best wood until he was dead. And sometimes I will literally–I mean I’m always looking at wood. I’ve gone into the woodworkers’ store in Boston to get some drill bits and they sell wood and I saw some wood standing in the corner, which I bought. It wasn’t cut for the purpose of making violins and out of 10,000 board feet that they cut up there is just one board that was cut the right way and is the right kind of wood–at $1.20 a foot I couldn’t pass it up–you know vs. $200….
PM: Okay, so you mentioned spruce. The spruce is for the top.
JC: The maple is for the back, sides and scroll, the spruce is always for the top. Why they chose spruce– I can see some reasons why–you see it in instruments that predate the violin and my suspicion is–well, the obvious reason is the top has certain structural requirements because it has sound holes and you need wood that is very strong longitudinally. Whereas maple is has flexibility on both axis. Spruce has become the choice, and spruce again, you want it to be fairly light, it has to be clear also. We use other species in violin making, such as poplar sometimes for violas or cellos. Sometimes I’ve been using sycamore, lately, American sycamore. There is some experimentation but not much.