(text for a talk I gave at the Galpin Society conference 26th July 2013)

  • some violin pics here

  • a page I have just started on violin books etc.  here

  • and below, some documentation (and ramblings) on the 2013 Stradivari exhibition in Oxford

From the 13th June 2013 the ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM in Oxford is hosting a remarkable exhibition of instruments by ANTONIO STRADIVARI. This exhibition was organised through the enthusiasm, huge knowledge and sheer hardwork of Jon Whiteley, and Charles and Peter Beare.

See the Ashmolean website for details.

reviews of the exhibition:

in the Gramophone Magazine  here.

Strad Magazine: review by Philip Kass

It is open and it is amazing! 21 stunningly beautiful instruments by the most imaginative maker ever, who opened so many possibilities within these simple forms, plus some of his tools & drawings brought over from the museum in Cremona.

(The Ashmolean is a 3mn cycle ride from my workplace!)

There are luthier demonstrations (details below), and  lectures by Curtis Price touching on issues of authorship and authenticity, Jon Whiteley on the ‘secrets’ of Stradivari, Tony Faber on ‘the mystery of Stradivari’s inimitability’. I will give a lecture on violin-making Saturday 6th July at 11am, with lots of pictures, and perhaps instruments and bits of wood.

The picture above is of a detail of ‘Le Messie’ from the permanent collection at the Ashmolean. I am posting photos of the exhibition here

Having to talk to people about instrument making and the qualities which Stradivari brought to the craft has led me to start to write and re-write a few soundbites, short reflections and rambles.

Readers of this, please comment and contribute in the box at the bottom of the page!


It is worth remembering when thinking about Stradivari, that he had his own historical context to work with: the violin-shape as we still know it had arrived 150 years previously, refined largely (but not only) by Andrea Amati in Cremona. To Andrea can be credited the general use of the inside mould method of construction, which gives a certain consistency of proportion from one instrument to the next ( which in turn permits a rapid evolution within that form).  Andrea’s sons Girolamo and Antonio evolved the shape further, and by then the specificity of the instrument’s shape and role was firmly established: at the beginning and during the course of the 17th c. , music had started to appear which exploited the particular timbre and singing qualities of the instrument, and its potential for virtuosity (like for example Monteverdi’s Madrigals, also purely instrumental music by Merula and others); one can spot  links between the evolution  of the music and of the instruments.

Stradivari possibly learned from the grandson of Andrea, Nicolo Amati, starting from a very strong grounding in a craft which was still steeped deep in the obsession of the Italian Renaissance with architecture, sculpture and rhetoric. He was clearly very fluent with the use of tools from an early age, and from then on tirelessly worked and experimented until his death at the age of 93.

Context too

Seen from my perspective as a maker 300 years later, he was someone who within the simple forms and materials of the violin or cello, saw possibilities opening out before him, and knew how to realise them. The subtlety, organic and tactile quality, balance, liveliness at every point and proportion are a pleasure and an inspiration, and most importantly, these qualities  do translate directly into sound, this is the whole point of the things.
 He is one of few makers who went into another realm of realised possibilities: whereas most of us work within a room of our personal views and conditionings, he seems to have opened the door into a very interesting garden. This is easy to perceive, seeing and hearing his results, but not easy at all to do oneself!   A secret?
The view which I have just expressed is of course a  romantic one, and it could do with balancing out! I have just read an article by Oliver Webber which -around a project of re-creation of ‘Monteverdi’s violins’-  highlights some of the problems, prejudices and partiality of a ‘progress’ ideology when it comes to history. Here is a quote from his article:
(…) we need to study carefully the evolution of the violin – and to understand it as such. It is vital to recognize that we are not dealing with simple “progress” towards modern “perfection ; instead we are looking at an instrument which has at each stage adapted to suit the prevailing musical style (and which in turn has influenced that style ).  In some ways this is very similar to Darwinian evolution: each species adapts to its environment but also influences that environment, creating a stable but flexible ecosystem.(….)
History of history?
The Stradivari influence is not new: there are violins by the 18th c. London maker Daniel Parker, clearly inspired by Stradivari’s work, which were made around 1720, well within Strad’s lifetime. So as a maker, one is not so much influenced by Stradivari, but by his compound influence on ten or fifteen generations of makers, musicians, historians, collectors, myth makers and story tellers!  (edit in progress)
A question which is asked a lot is: ” Why can’t one replicate the things and get good results that way?” The 19th c. makers especially in France pushed that idea almost as far as it could go, with a mixture of skill, reverence, homage, mass production, positivism, ruthless business sense (with a soulless exploitation of the workforce) . I think that there is an issue which is almost a moral one: does one want to capture something which has been done, (with the consequence that to capture, one has to trap or stiltify the ideas and energies) or to try and attempt to bring to life,  from the possibilities afforded by personal limitations, shapes, materials, and actual time spent (this of course includes influences, trying to learn from what has been done, as well as dialogue with musicians, colleagues etc.) ?   Are these two attitudes in a binary opposition?
The fact that these instruments have happened, (the  Cremonese making of the 16th to 18th century, Stradivari in particular ) is to me a source of joy: the clarity of purpose they still show 300 years on, a miraculous expression of the possible.

Ashmolean Strad Poster large

Michael Kearns and myself from Oxford Violins assisted by John Milnes have helped to set up a ‘working’ violin-making workshop (artfuly designed and realised by Clare Flynn and Paul Evett from the Ashmolean ) in one of the exhibition rooms.

We will be  providing fiddle-making demonstrations.

Thurs 20 June from 14h

Thurs 27 June at 14h

Thursday 4th July 14h

(Saturday 6th July at 11h  Lecture)

Thurs 11th July at 14h

Thurs 18th July at 14h

Saturday 27th July at 14h

There is a very well put together catalogue for the exhibition available from the museum, with truly excellent articles by Carlo Chiesa, C+P Beare, Jon Whiteley.

Also, the recent catalogue of the permanent collection, an absolute treat which can be got here

It was compiled by John Milnes with an array of specialists, including John Dilworth, Michael Fleming, Tim Baker, Linda Sayce etc. with great photography by Tucker Densley.


7 thoughts on “INSTRUMENT MAKING”

  1. Yes, a really wonderful series of photos. I envy your craft Bruno, beautiful work.

    The Cold Harbour sample recording was great as well, looking forward to hearing something released, and will definitely come and hear you live when you play next.

  2. Two thoughts:

    1. What kind of garden? This reminds me of Ingmar Bergman saying of Andrei Tarkovsky, “He is working in a room, on the door of which I am only knocking.”

    2. On the idea of copying. Copying the work of the masters, as a method of learning one’s craft, seems to be better respected in the Far East than in the West. The idea is that by copying even the posture of the master one will eventually understand – inhabit – his state of mind and thereby enter into one’s own ‘secret garden’ of creativity. But if the ‘master’ is no longer with us, but only exists in his products, then what is there to copy? One is perhaps then in danger of creating mere counterfeits.

    3. On the use of copper for making cutting tools. I’m told that somewhere in North Devon or Cornwall, pre-Iron Age copper cutting tools such as chisels have been excavated, which are most certainly made of pure copper, and yet have been treated by some unknown method so as to be almost as hard as steel. We no longer know how to harden copper to that degree. We have lost that technology, and of course we no longer need such technlogy because we can use steel instead, which is much better anyway. But the point is that technology changes. A particular technology will arise out of a need to overcome a limitation, and if we, in this epoch, no longer have that particular limitation, that the corresponding technology will be completely redundant and will be discarded. And skills are not like knowledge in books. Skills must be passed on from one worker to another, and if they are not – if there is an interruption in that ‘lineage’ – then those skills will probably be lost forever. There is no such thing as a repository of skills as there may be a repository of knowledge in a library, or a repository of art in a museum. Skills exist in individual human hands or nowhere, …and as much is lost as is gained.

    1. Thanks Paul!
      The notion of lineage carries within itself the risk, anxiety and likelihood of interruption! The active interrogation of objects, whether texts (musical scores for example) or actual objects is itself a lineage. The Eastern traditions (which I know little about) are not only bound by a direct transmission: e.g. Gagaku music had been lost for hundreds of years and was reinterpreted from scores, re-becoming a tradition…
      I tend to question purity of action a bit: it is easy to have an over romantic view of the directness of process and gesture, and to underestimate micro-adjustment and experimentation, and the creative use of frustration and dissatisfaction. In the instrument making world, there is a master-pupil lineage which is still current today, but waning: it is one derived from the French and German ideas stemming from mass production and repeatability. As a pendant to this dead end, the interrogation of objects and the dialogue with colleagues and musicians is what we have, and it has been really quite active and I think fruitful especially in the last 20 years or so, starting about 50 years ago with an Italian maker who moved to the USA called Simone Sacconi.

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