The last secret of Stradivari II

The weaving of the Veil

The Cremonese way

So, if on one hand the Cremonese masters are to be considered the paragon of violin making, we should diligently study their approach and methods. But if, on the other hand, we have to accept that a vital part of their knowledge has got lost in the adversity of times, there is obviously a problem. Part of the solution may be brought about by awareness of this situation. This in contrast to the majority of modern makers, happily working in the belief that they are part of a long and unbroken tradition. But, at the same time, asking themselves why they keep groping for a seemingly unattainable standard set over 2 centuries ago. 

Violin making in the 19th and early 20th century

A closer look at what happened between say 1800 and 1940 may be helpful. Without any pretension to be complete, I would suggest three major forces to focus upon: 1) the 19th century’s unshakable belief in progress as the only way of development: 2) J.B. Vuillaume and 3) the rise of German violin making as the dominant school well into our 21th century.

Progress of the 19th century

Without reaching out into the philosophical, it will be clear that the normal approach to old stuff in the 19th century was either discarding and disregarding it completely, or trying to adapt it to prevailing needs and/or fashions. We can anyhow safely rule out the possibility of them studying the old thing and trying to understand how it functioned in its own time and circumstances. Early music had to be born yet. So, what could have remained of the last traces of understanding old violins, had a good one and a halve century to firmly fall into oblivion.

Baptist Vuillaume

Not so the old violins themselves, thanks to Tarisio, Vuillaume and Paganini. Paganini with his Guarneri (“Cannon”) irresistably stated the case of (re)using old Cemonese instruments. He was a customer of Vuillaume, on whom the commercial potential of these instruments was evidently not lost. With the result that Vuillaume was the first major dealer to have acquired a palpable position in old Cremonese master violins. I have no qualms to call Vuillaume a genius. Not only for his early appreciation of the importance of the Cremonese School. He was a devilishly adept maker of copies and an outstanding maker in his own right. He diligently studied the old masters, adapted them to contemporary use, and missed an important point, blinded by the then omnipresent believe in progress as the only way of development. We come to speak of that later in more detail.

On the other hand, if ever there was to be elected a patron of the guild of shady violin dealers, Vuillaume would for sure be on my short list. He really eschewed no means to fortify his position in the old master violin trade and make the best profit out of it. One of the clever things he did, was weaving the veil of exclusivity and unicity, and of the almost divine status of the makers. His strategy has proved solid, and is adhered to faithfully to this time. Prices have since risen into the unbelievable. Having been helped along not a little when the indefatigable Hills took hold of the torch, to be handed over to i.a. Rembert Wurlitzer.

They, and the majority of modern dealers, maintain the basic approach as created by Vuillaume. And the veil of uncritical reverence has become so solid by now, that it is almost impossible to lift. Mind you, this situation is considered normal nowadays. One of the major differences with the 19th century being, though, that we are now rather less sure about the progress that may have been made since the high-days of Cremona.

The German tradition

Important though the goings-on in Paris may have been, a third force emerges in the course of the 19th century in the form of the German, more precisely South German school of violin making. If not qualitatively it was anyhow quantitatively going to be dominant at the outgoing 19th century. It is here that the German aptness for organization and mechanization came into full bloom. The first step was the creation of a perfectly standardized system of Heimarbeit. Workers at home specialized in the making of one part of the violin of fixed model and dimensions. These parts where then put together in large violin factories. It ended up with a highly sophisticated system of mechanization, set up in even larger factories. Most of this development took place in what is now the Czech Republic, Klingental e.g., and got lost in the atrocities of the Second World War. At least as important was the founding of the Government School for String Instrument Making in Mittenwald in 1858. I feel completely safe to state that modern day violin making is unimaginable without it. The quality of the school training got an enormous boost by the reinstatement of a guild like system, whereby the pupils had to work with an officially certified master as apprentice for years, before they were allowed, again after a thorough examination, to settle as an independent maker. The thoroughly trained violin maker became a recognized German export product, even more so when Mittenwald started to accept pupils from abroad. It is not hard to see how the German approach quickly became the undisputed back bone and standard of modern day violin making world-wide.

On the other hand, it is as easy to see how this strictly regulated training system inevitably lead to strictly regulated violin making. For all those examinations for one you need solid standards to judge by, needn’t you? But, the one conspicuously absent standard is sound: make a violin to the best of your abilities and someone will turn up who likes it. In German: für jede Geige ein Ohr. The standards all have to do with geometrical properties, workmanship, aesthetics etc.

“Lack of uniformity”

At its worst there is only one way to do a job properly. And here is where the old Cremonese masters steered a completely different course. Let me try to explain. On more than one occasion I have seen their work being described as “possessing a disconcerting lack of uniformity”, or wordings like that, whereby of course is meant “geometrical uniformity”. Interestingly, though, this statement tells us as much about ourselves as about the old masters. The lack of uniformity is all too obvious, but why disconcerting? I would earnestly propose the following description: “possessing an exhilarating lack of uniformity”. Why, it must be great fun to be able to work that way, wholly unconcerned about the odd mm, or the perfect following of prescriptions whatsoever, and at the same time turning out highly esteemed violins. That is to say, highly esteemed as tools for musicians.

Geometrical freedom

The first thing we can learn from the old ones is in fact that geometrical freedom forms no obstacle to good sound. On the contrary, geometrical freedom is seemingly the only way to good sound. I mean the kind of freedom resulting from understanding the true goal and the means to it, rather than working along set rules. Assuming that we ended up with geometrical freedom as the new standard, what might the practical interpretation look like? Let us start with the observation that the unruly aspect of the old masters’ work was evidently not the result of lacking woodworking skills. So we have to assume that their seeming unconcern with uniformity was deliberate. Their creativity clearly flowed from another source. At this point comes in the observation that, probably from the earliest times on, the old masters were violin players as well, some of them recorded as professionals. Would it be too far-fetched to suppose that, apart from Rolls-Royce like standards for woodwork and finish, their primary concern was with sound and playing characteristics? Though there might be hesitations to say “no” to that question, the reality is, that a primary concern with sound and playing is the only way to understand the geometrical results.

A more detailed look might help to clarify this point of view. The list, for instance, of characteristics that were allowed at least a play of some millimeters is long: absolute height of the arching, exact outline of the violin, symmetry in almost every aspect, placing of the ff, contour of the long arching (about the cross arching we come to speak presently), dimensions and, consequently, weight of pegbox and scroll, height of ribs. A play of up to several 0.10ths of a mm is normal for rib thickness, edgework, arching symmetry and plate thickness.

Choice of wood

So far what comes easily to the mind. Not to mention the choice of wood, the merrily jointed unmatched pieces. This observation having been made, what are the consequences? In the first place that the old masters were not interested in repeatability like we are. We all have documentation, up to several bookshelves. The copying router is a normal tool, and who is without computer? We are preoccupied with mms or 0.10ths of them: we are, briefly, interested in repeatability. Why so? There is always the odd violin you run into, the glorious sound of which you want to copy. There are the venerable old masters whose sound is, or is told you is, the apogee of violin making. In these circumstances the modern logic is to copy such an instrument, in order to repeat the result. And that is in fact what most modern makers are doing. But, as we may infer from the foregoing, to the old makers the acoustical result was clearly not attained by painstakingly following geometrical forms or prescripts.


So, if we set ourselves to copying the measurements of an old violin, we are trying to copy the essentially unrepeatable. Even worse, we try to copy something that definitely never was meant to be copied and even cannot be copied. And this without even a word about the notorious non-uniformity of wood. This may seem a somewhat bold statement, but let us consider e.g. the rather erratic distribution of thicknesses in front plates. In my eyes any attempt to copy this property must be in vain. The irregularity is so detailed that even Sisyphus’ task seems viable compared to having to copy that exactly. Apart from that, the irregularity differs markedly, and so within one maker’s work, from one violin to another, so that we may safely consider it a property pertaining to individual instruments. On the other hand, the general idea of front plates is quite clear: uniform thickness all over. The way in which creativity instead of geometrical perfection is the essential means to this kind of irregularity, will be clarified in the next article.