In late March 2020 we returned from a long visit to the Yukon expecting workshop life to start full tilt. Instead the pandemic initially held off repairs and service work and allowed me to catch up and finish instruments, to clean up and dig through archives.
When in late spring I received an inquiry about a cello, I was ready for a new project to focus my attention. Together with the cellist I discussed the possible models. It turned out that I had an opportunity to go to the outside of the spectrum and make a large/ long instrument.
After much comparison, I mapped out a 1740 Montagnana against a Tecchler outline and opted for the latter :David Tecchler Rome 1725.
My husband Greg had copied this outline more than 30 years ago, when working at Hieronymus Köstler’s shop in Stuttgart.
I was intrigued by the position of the sound holes in the beautiful long C bout and pleased with the resulting stop length. Rome, a centre of string manufacture at the time produced mostly bigger cellos, while the Northern Italian cellos were trending down in string length. But this particular 1725 outline with a string length of only 405mm keeps within the range for modern string manufacturing.
At the time the only Tecchler cello I knew about was played by Denis Brott, a magnificent 1706 example with a long stop and many characteristic features. Denis Brott initiated the Musical Instrument Bank of the Council for the Arts Canada in the 1980s and was granted lifetime use of this favourite cello.
Just then I learned that Denis Brott was caught badly in the early wave of Covid infections while travelling in Europe. It was not the time to approach him. With herculean effort Denis made a recovery and he kindly responded to my query for photos in late August.
I had no illusions of copying the style of the scroll. For all I knew the 1701 head I looked at to draw my template might have been by another maker. I simply didn’t like the typical extra turn in the volute very much. On top of that, I had chosen a neck block of generous width and was not going to narrow it across the “eyes”. If ever I have the opportunity to study Tecchler’s hand, who knows -it is an interesting proposition to me now.
The process of bending the rib structure and determining the outline, rough arching the plates and shaping the head kept me busy while rooting for more information on the arching.
For the practical aspect of handling a lighter rib structure I used a flexible mould for the first time and bent on the mounted drawing, leaving rib heights between 118mm to 122mm. Those heights were suggested by luthier friend Philip Reisacher and were ample to allow for later trimming depending on arching heights.
Again I ignored Tecchler’s feature of joining the ribs without chamfering the C rib ( a Germanic construction characteristic), mostly out of fear it would look awkward without practise.
Meanwhile I had prepared the set of wood, before deciding on the model My deeply wide flamed maple though great quality, wasn’t particularly close to the “oppio” maple used by Tecchler. His backs were often joined as a mock single back with the flame going across one way instead of book matched.
The more I searched for photos of Tecchler cellos, I was struck by a characteristic A shape of the body outline and bold sound holes at the margins of the plate and width of breast in excess of 110mm. My main challenge and my fascination would be to shape the top arching around sound holes set close to the outside. All I had was the outline with position and shape of the ff holes. I needed to understand the essence of the architecture.
Few Tecchler cellos are not cut, especially in the top bout, which to some extend emphasizes the “A” shape I am attracted to . Christophe Landon, who has dealt with many Tecchler cellos, recently set up a rare uncut 1705 T. cello for modern practise (preserving the baroque neck separately), but leaving the original outline untouched. He tells me the instrument is 79cm long.
Phillip Kass dug up this following photo, which was particularly fascinating. The wide set sound holes almost slant back. Professional portraits of instruments omit reflections, while this photo shows what I was after: the sculpting of the arch.
Cellist Denise Djokic pointed me to the two Tecchler cellos in Rochester NY . Steven Doane plays a 1704 Tecchler. His student and now fellow prof Guy Johnson kindly send me a series of arching perspectives of his 1714 instrument. His artist picture on the cobble stones in Rome in front of the Tecchler workshop joined my gallery above the workbench during the year.
Help in form of some measurements as well as chats came from Jimmy Dugdale of Domenico-Dugdale luthiers, who look after the Rochester Tecchler cellos.
I favour a wide purfling and tried to imitate a 1.8-2mm purfling strip out of a wide beach centre and stained maple.
While I rough arched the plates and defined the outline, I had to mull over the warnings connected with Germanic arches. “ Don’t leave the breast too wide, it will mute the inner strings”; Or: I am copying Tecchler, but will use a more “ modern” arching. Of all the features to imitate, I was convinced that the genius of this maker lies with the arching. I did not want to let go of it.
Everything moved online. I was able to watch Dominique Beauséjour-Ostiguy playing a 1704 Tecchler cello on loan from Canimex at the virtual Kingston cello competition in 2020, Steven Doane giving online classes featuring the 1707 cello’s face more than his own, and excerpts of Guy Johnson’s 2014 Tecchler celebration project.
Hieronymus Köstler didn’t have any measurements of the 1725 Tecchler , but another was in their care in 2020. So I peppered the workshop with a slate of measurement requests, from arching heights, edges to possible gouge size for the channel, considering arching templates even. I knew full well that measurements are sometimes a matter of interpretation and a time consuming endeavour.
Soon after- in late June, I received a reply, that a parcel is on its way and it weighed 35kg: Plaster casts- a treasure worth waiting for! Whether pandemic or weight, the parcel seemed untraceable for weeks. Finally in late September a very special delivery arrived.
Imitating the back arch didn’t give me any trouble though the Tecchler cello in Stuttgart had a longer top bout and therefore different proportions.
It was a pleasure to delve into the channel having the real thing right next to me. Since on the plaster cast the edge had sunk in, I had to guesstimate the arching height, but I was relieved to find, that there was flow and tension to the cross curves and long arches, nothing like the boxy “Germanic” arching templates I had seen.
The belly arch however was a challenge to my own practise. On photos the centre portion looks rather flat and I was relieved to find that again the plaster cast showed a resilient arching. My task was to integrate the extreme stretch between the sound holes and to understand the subtleties in the architecture of the arch.
My 1725 outline too measured a distance of 116mm between the top holes.
I wanted to be careful not to create a high plateau, that responds wonderfully originally, but could be prone to sinking. In practise I have dealt with sound posts of a reverse slant -almost impossible to adjust or get the right tension, sometimes loved and played by professionals with access to frequent adjustments. The Joseph Hill I reimagined earlier is another classic cello, where the deep cut into the C bout and the abrupt recurve concept works. The arch as a whole stands up to the pressures.
I managed “to flatten the curve” of the centre cross arch and draw the sound holes proudly off to the margins.
What threw me was the shape near the lower sound hole lobes high up on the arch, triangular like a sting ray. Even with the plaster casts right next to me, my inclination overtook my intention to dare and follow. Before I knew it, the cross arch below the bottom corner became more barrel shaped, the sound holes wandered in somewhat. Ultimately I reckon the top arching ended up both higher and rounder than any Tecchler original.
I have seldom enjoyed carving out cello plates as much. Not only were the plates extremely responsive, the nodal points were close enough to the edge, that I could reach them with my small hands. Again I graduated the top as well as the back in an A pattern. John Newton made me aware of Jeff Loen’s collection of thickness graduation maps, which highlighted typical schemata.
Once the body was assembled it was certainly the hugest I ever made. I even came down to the shop one night to check out, if it fitted into a standard case. With the varnish drying fast, I soon strung it up and regained my confidence. Not a monster, but a great presence.
While tanning takes a bit more patience in the winter, varnishing without sticky humidity all around is a treat. I do know to stay away from red or orange to the very end, but with encouragement was daring and dipped deep into the orange pigment. You see how little left over varnish throws a glow with an antique instrument, but originally they would have had the swagger of colour.
I did have to ask myself, why make a Tecchler especially without access to an original? Or why not take up all the features I did know about ? I had heard a few prominent cellists swooning over Tecchler cellos, yet hadn’t come across a modern copy. This tension set up the curiosity. The original features radiated confidence and some immedeate recognizability.
David Tecchler was successful and renown even in his own lifetime. He was born near Füssen, a centre of instrument building North of the Alps since the Renaissance and his style is definitely influenced by the region. We can not pin down all the formative steps for this luthier travellingthrough Italy, but when he arrived in Rome in his 30ies, Tecchler was a confident and independent maker. The Rome of the early 18th century was a cultural magnet attracting artists, painters and architects comparable to today’s New York. The Spanish steps for example were built in 1725, the year of “my” outline.
The pandemic seemed to lock everyone in place, which ironically enabled me to better reach out to musicians, fellow makers, including people I hadn’t met, while hunting for the third dimension.
I am intrigued with this cello maker. Once it is possible to travel again, it would be a worthwhile voyage to explore the cellos I learned about within my geographical reach. To see, turn, photograph, hear measure perhaps even play one or the other of these expressive instruments.