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The Secrets of Mastery – Or, the Mastery of Secrets

By Irene de Vette
ART TIMES May 2006

Faint fragments of violin runs from a remote room infiltrate the concentrated silence in the Reuning & Son workshop in Boston's Back Bay. Bent over their benches, four violin restorers don’t seem to notice the music, so completely absorbed are they in their own universes, which revolve for now only around wood. More specifically, the meticulous measuring, gouging, measuring, scraping, measuring, gluing, and varnishing of the wood of fine musical instruments. The restorers strive for perfection in every square inch.

It is not always this quiet in the workshop. On other days, they might listen to the latest Kanye West album, or to the radio, or, less often than you would expect in a violin workshop, to classical music. This morning, the luthiers, as practitioners of their craft are called, have been listening to a complete opera, which ended a short time ago. “We’re recovering,” says luthier Jesse Daniele, explaining the silence.

Reuning & Son, a renowned violin shop, has since 1994 been housed in a stately Columbus Avenue building with mahogany-paneled walls and Persian-carpeted oak floors. The firm caters to the needs of the large musical community of the East Coast. Director Chris Reuning (the son runs the business now) travels the world to hunt for extraordinary violins, violas and cellos to be restored by his employees, all passionate stringed instrument experts, and sold to discerning musicians.

On a busy day, nine people crowd the workshop, with its particular pungent smells of wood and varnish. A lot of work hangs over their heads, literally. Rows and rows of violins and violas hang from the ceiling, waiting to be repaired or restored.

The violin business is soaring. Musicians today pay thousands of dollars for an exclusive instrument, considered as an investment in what may well be a lifelong attachment. Although there are good new violins, customers generally prefer older instruments. The most wanted come from Cremona, about 44 miles Southeast of Milan, Italy. The small province town became the epicenter of violin mastery when the Amati family set up shop around 1550, and had its golden age in the 1600s and first third of 1700s when the Stradivari and Guarneri families engaged in fierce competition.  

The secrets of these master instrument-makers remain shrouded in mystery; the sound of their instruments remains unsurpassed. A Stradivari instrument – there are about 650 surviving – sells for millions of dollars today.  To the general public these are better known by the Latin name Stradivarius, with which he signed his instruments. Insiders call them simply "Strads".

Jesse Daniele’s u-shaped cubicle has two wooden workbenches. On one, his current restoration project, an 1870’s Venetian violin, is laid out in pieces on a rectangular red mat, illuminated by a flexible-necked desk lamp. He keeps only the utensils he needs at hand. His other tools, such as chisels and calipers, hang in neat rows on a tool rack in front of him, or are stocked in drawers behind his back. The violin's label, which Daniele has carefully removed, rests between plates of Perspex.  “Varagnolo Ferrucius, Fecit in Venitus Anno…” is legible on the label; the date has been scraped off, as is often done in an attempt to pass a violin off as older than its actual age. But for someone who has studied the craft as Daniele has, an instrument’s style characteristics and geometry place its origins in a certain area and time.

When the 5’-5” Daniele is not restoring violins, he is busy with his latest project, a new violin based on the 1709 “Engleman” Stradivari. So far, he has put about 40 hours into the instrument and he is halfway done. Daniele, who is not yet 30, needs to hurry, since he wants to show his skills to his maestro on his visit to Italy next month. From 1997 to 2000, Daniele was one of the 12 students of Renato Scrollavezza, who is considered the nestor of contemporary Italian violin making, at the famous Scuola Internazionale di Liuteria in Parma.

Daniele says he fell in love with the violin as a five-year-old boy, when his mother let a recording of a Mendelssohn violin concerto blast through their California house. “It was exhilarating,” says Daniele, who speaks as carefully as he works. After taking years of violin lessons, he made his first violin at age 15, when he was employed at a woodworking shop. He has been improving his craft ever since.

Daniele says he learned a lot from “a genius,” by which he means his Reuning & Son workshop neighbor, Chris Edel, 41. With a ponytail, a beard and wire-rimmed glasses Edel looks like he could have been a Grateful Dead member replacement. In fact, Edel toured as a bass guitar player in a rock band in the eighties. As a former physics and industrial design student, becoming a violin restorer had never crossed his mind. He got into the profession by chance when he got a job in an instrument shop. He took lessons in violing restoring, but he acquired much of his skill by “being around violins all day,” he says.

The violin Edel is working on today can barely find space on his workbench, which is chockablock with gauges, scrapers, planes, rasps, pencils, jars and boxes. The window-side bench also holds an alchemist’s laboratory of bottles in various shapes and sizes containing natural glue, resin, linseed oils, and spirits to make varnish.

Edel is doing some smaller restoration jobs after having worked on a 1780 Cremona Storioni violin for four months. Completing that job "felt sort of like losing a friend,” he says. He had to graft a new piece of wood onto the inside of the instrument's back, and do this in the least invasive way. Edel says he spent an entire day in the wood room adjacent to the workshop, looking for a piece of wood of similar quality and grain pattern.

Only the individual skills, decisions, endless practice and experience of a single maker can lead to a great sound. Mass-produced violins that are cranked out by the hundreds in China are notorious for their abominable sound. Although a good violin still depends on the hand of a skilled maker, modern violinmakers are at a loss compared to the old masters of the pre-technological age. While today's violinmaker needs to know everything about geometry, technical drawing, the physics of acoustics, chemistry, and music history, a lot of knowledge died with the fading of the ancient guilds with their secrecy oaths, when Italy’s economy collapsed in the late 18th century. Research in this area is still young, because there used to be enough good violins to go around, says Thomas Sparks, director of string instrument technology of at Indiana University’s School of Music, who has studied the Cremonese craftsmen for more than 20 years. Now, with more musicians who can afford quality violins, the demand for true masterpieces is rising.

The quality of wood makes for almost half of the sound of a great violin, Daniele says. The lighter, the stronger, the less dense the wood, the better the sound. It is often said that the wood Stradivari and consorts used is the key to their excellence. They used alpine spruce cut during an age of very cold weather, which made the trees grow slowly, resulting in really fine wood. Sparks says the old tree cutters knew when the tree would be at its lightest, in wintertime, producing methanol and dropping saps and sugars.

That the old violinmakers used great wood is definitely not a mystery. “There were violin makers during that time that got every measurement wrong," says Sparks. "Every measurement wrong. There was Carlo Testori, who made the worst violins in the world. Great sound. It has that definite Italian core sound, and it’s a very-much-wanted violin.”

Daniele once made a violin from a piece of wood that was given to him. The violin turned out well, but it did not have the sound he had in mind. On his trip to Italy next month, Daniele plans to buy some new wood himself, spruce from the Austrian Alps for the top, and Yugoslavian maple for the back, ribs and the curved head of the instrument. The wood needs to be seasoned, dried for at least ten years, to make it even lighter, before it can be used in an instrument.

In the past weeks, Daniele has transformed two pieces of wood into a top and a back plate for the Engleman copy. For the maple back, he cut a wedge of wood diagonally in half, the wood pattern mirrored as you open the two parts up like a book. Once those two parts were joined together, Daniele used a scribe to draw the outside shape of the violin onto the wood and cut it. Using a gouge, he then started arching the plate on the outside, and hollowing it on the inside, continuing with a more subtle thumb plane and finishing off with a scraper. He did almost no sanding, since sandpaper crushes the wood, rendering the surface dull. While scraping, he constantly needed to measure, weigh and tap the wood, to find the right pitch. The various locations on the plate all have specific thicknesses, and an overall too heavy plate inhibits the top and back plates from vibrating freely.

Before finishing the plates, Daniele made the rib structure. He started by making a walnut mould of the Engleman shape, defining the measurements with an antique Cremonese point measuring system and a compass. After having placed six structure blocks around the mould, he attached the ribs, made of thin slices of maple, on the outside rim. He then lined up the ribs with thin strips of wood, reinforcing the joints between the front, back and ribs.

When Daniele is done with the spruce top of the Engleman, he will cut out the F-holes that will let the tone in the air column mix with the outside airwaves. He has just inserted the purfling, two wafer-thin strips of darkened pearwood, flanking a poplar center line that define the outline of the violin. Its function is not merely aesthetic; it protects the plate from cracking all the way through if the violin cracks at this most vulnerable edge.

He will add a bassbar, a reinforcing strut, fixed inside the front directly under the line of the G-string that transmits low frequency vibrations from the string to the body of the instrument. 

After “fitting up,” or putting the parts together, including the fingerboard, the neck and the carved scroll, the sound post, bridge, nut and saddle, and pegs, the violin is ready for varnishing. Daniele needs to apply about five layers of antiqued varnish, to give the instrument the look of an old Strad.

These attempts to make a violin look old spark questions about the modern day craft. Can a violinmaker do more than merely copy the old masters? This question becomes even more relevant since there are so many international schools, where students all learn to make the same copies, instead of the distinctive styles of the older regional schools. It’s a very controversial issue, Daniele says. According to acoustic laws, the given measurements turned out to be simply the best, and leave room for only small variations. And, also importantly, the instruments are used in a traditional field of music.

Daniele calls himself an “interpretive artist” rather than seeing himself as a mere copyist or craftsman.  He applies the methods of the golden-age makers, but remains sensitive to the specificity of the wood. He allows himself small variations from the old measurements if it adds to the sound. 

Mastery takes a lot of time and practice and is best achieved by studying older violins, Daniele feels.  “When I started to study the different styles, it was like a whole world opening up to me,” he says.

Working on the greatest violins as they do, Daniele and Chris Edel have learned that mastery is not the same as perfection. A computer could easily design an instrument with great accuracy and precision in measurements and execution, but this produces a “cold and sterile” sound, Edel says.  He only has time to make one “loose copy” violin a year, using old measurements to guide him technically. Small imperfections bring about an emotional response. “The violin is an extension of the human voice,” Daniele says, and the sound is a reflection of the personality of the musician.

When Daniele is finished with the tuning, he will play his new instrument himself for a couple of weeks, “to let it get used to being a violin.” The violin will get better in the hands of a fine virtuoso taking the violin over all the places it can vibrate, he says.

It is easy to grasp what Daniele means by “an extension of the human voice” when Korean violinist Jin Hee Kim, 29, starts to play. She is helping her student, Eui Jin Chung, 26, pick out an instrument, together with Peter Jarvis, salesman and violinist of Reuning. Hee Kim is dressed in jogging pants, a sweater and sneakers, but as she strikes the first note the projection of a soloist in a full concert hall comes to mind naturally. “This one speaks really quickly, doesn’t it?” Jarvis says.

The five instruments that are laid out on a table for Hee Kim to appraise all have different color, referring not to their different shades of brown but to their individual voices. Peter Jarvis is considered the indispensable ‘ear’ for Reuning. He is fluent in the specific vocabulary used to describe the characteristics of a violin, its color and the power of the sound, and the way it responds to fingers. An analogy with wine springs to mind: it takes a well-trained nose and palate (in this case an ear and an eye) to recognize, describe and enjoy quality.

The play of Hee Kim sounds best on the oldest and most expensive instrument of the five, producing a warm and subtle sound. “Surely money talks,” she says, laughing.

Hee Kim’s playing doesn’t reach the ears of Daniele, who is too engrossed in his Engleman. He says he is extremely curious to learn what Scrollavezza will say of his violin. His illustrious teacher, who would always look over Daniele's shoulder, yelling at him when he got it wrong, once told Daniele: “La perfezione non essiste, ma ti porto vicino." (Perfection doesn’t exist, but I will bring you close to it.”)

The formula for mastery, according to Sparks, sounds pretty simple: “If you restrict yourself to the perfect measurements, and use good wood, and the correct varnish, then you’ve made yourself a Stradivari.” Daniele is working on it, day in and day out.

(Sources: Jesse Daniele – Reuning & Son Jesse@jessedanieleviolins.com -- (617) 262 1300; Chris Edel – Reuning & Son -- (617) 262 1300; Peter Jarvis – Reuning & Son -- (617) 262 1300; Thomas Sparks – University of Indiana – (812) 855 75 65 – thsparks@indiana.edu; Jin Hee Kim & Eui Jin Chung (No contact information)

(Irene de Vette, a Dutch Cambridge-based free-lance writer, is a Boston University Graduate Student in Print Journalism).

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