When someone asked me recently what I was doing in the shop I said I was working on entering into Stradivari’s mind. Similarly, when I was studying the “Harrison” Strad at the National Music Museum as part of a reproduction project, I found myself telling an interviewer that I was trying to absorb the soul of the instrument. What is this soul?
When experts are trying to determine the maker of a violin they look not just at the basic dimensions and shape, but the sense of proportion and line, and the hand revealed in the details of technique and tool use. The hand, in turn, reveals the soul of an instrument – the personality of the maker -which is not just the sum of the details, but the way they relate to one another. It reflects the inner understanding, conscious or not, of the maker as all the pieces come together.
Making a copy of a specific instrument is like going for a lesson with a valued teacher. A colleague once spoke of copying an instrument as showing up for work with the master, only 300 years late. Lessons help us question our assumptions of technique and habit and encourage us to try something a bit different, under the supervision or inspiration of a respected master, not to emulate their work, but to unleash our own potential in order to realize our own character more fully. I am not Stradivari and my character and personality is quite different from the person I see in his work. This makes copying his work a challenge and somewhat uncomfortable for me. My nature is to work quickly and allow each instrument to develop its own character.
Strad’s work, by contrast, is more disciplined and consistent, particularly in the 1717 period when most of the work was done by his sons and assistants. It is constrained by well-thought-out design and production practices, but constrained nonetheless, and my instinct is to work with more freedom. I find that the discomfort and challenge that I feel in copying his work is part of my continual exploration and growth.
This week I am finishing the outline, laying the purfling (black and white inlay inside the edge of the top and back), and shaping the edge of the VSO violin. This process will be covered in the next blog post. This edge work, along with carving the scroll and “f” holes, are the elements where the personality and hand of the maker are most clear. It is not just a case of getting the design right, it is how it is executed: how the inner personality sees the work and how it guides the hand.
There is something very harmonious yet bold and self-assured one can admire in Strad’s work. As with a fine painting it is not necessary to understand this subtle character in order to feel and be moved by its power and rightness. And taking advantage of this potential in the violin is not just getting the design right, but inhabiting, insofar as possible, the personality of the master.
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