Ever since 2003 ,the first Sweetwater Music Festival held annually in Leith /Owen Sound , artistic director Mark Fewer gave a nod to regional violin makers by including a showcase for new string instruments.
When it became clear in 2018, that Mark Fewer was taking on the Stratford Music Festival and would have to hand over AD for Sweetwater , we five “original” luthiers decided to collaborate on a baroque violin as a Thank You to Mark and a teaser for all our musical curiosity.
But what is a baroque violin? In the second half of 17th century the violin was the most popular instrument in Europe. However measurements or even construction methods varied. While the most active centres traded and influenced each other, different cities all used their own calibrations. Just as an example in my own home town of Speyer, the locally agreed on foot measures approx 11inches. It is marked on the “Altpörtel”, the entrance gate to the town.
None of us luthiers were likely going to be commissioned with a baroque violin, so to share the work was very enticing. We wanted to follow a 17th century aesthetic and technology, hear it together and possibly meet it again down the road. We set some parameters:
We would have a wide fingerboard -not just a veneered facade on a modern neck; baroque style bridge and fully gut strings; slight bass bar and sound post; high arches with deep fluting early 17th century fashion; We abandoned the idea of going back to the earliest- almost renaissance violins. The varnish would be “non antiqued” -aging by play and wear.
The neck would have to be nailed with square nails, Mark Schnurr had a black smith friend in mind ,since we didn’t want to pull them out of old buildings.
By October 2018 we had settled on the model: Everyone owned a poster of the elegant 1649 Alard by Nicolo Amati. John Newton, who probably has the most affinity for- and practise with baroque music mused about string length and body size, when the suggestion arose of scaling up slightly 110% ( from 347mm length to 350mm).
There is a bit of fear connected with creating an instrument that will not project enough in modern performance ,especially when played in spaces, that are not supportive.
As for the material we all had experience with and trust in Canadian wood, which ties the instrument to our Grey/Bruce County environment. We chose maple with a density of.58 out of Lou Currah’s loft for neck , ribs, back as well as fingerboard – tailpiece borders and a piece of Engelman spruce for the top. All in all Canadian material.
In November we met at David Prentice’s shop in Flesherton. His uncluttered space allows for generously sized pieces of Suzette’s Godin’s amazing artwork to live and be shared. He showed us one of his many tricks on the cell, using it to project an image of a sound hole to resize and draw. We distributed the wood and figured out a possible sequence. Since David was leaving for Mexico, or possibly first for a trip to Italy at year’s end, he was tasked with scaling up the model and providing the mould and rib structure before departure.
Greg and myself were send on our way with the rib structure to cut out belly and back in early January. Greg worked the back, I got to sculpt the beautiful Engelman spruce donated by John Newton.. At this point we established the arching heights,17.8mm for belly and 17mm for the back. We pre cut the yet un shaped edges with 3mm overhang and 4.25 -4.5mm height to give Mark Schnurr the room needed for an even and graceful purfling, fluting and the final edge work.
While edge work would often have been done after assembly of the instrument we deviated from the sequence: Transporting the neck and rib structure without mould between the workshops would have been hazardous. Not only was Mark was a bit reluctant cutting the purfling last on a cooperative instrument, I had never yet finished thicknessing and sound holes without the fluting established.
It was Marks turn to visit and pick up in Paisley, check out our tools and other work in progress in January.
John Newton, who had moved from Keady in Bruce County back to Toronto, took on the challenge of carving the scroll and providing the neck complex including the decorated fingerboard ready to nail according to baroque practice. John ended up fabricating the attractive matching tail piece as well.
Many mails had to fly between us to establish neck length. Eventually we agreed on 127- 3mm shorter than modern standard, fingerboard /nut width (ca 27mm- 3-4 mm wider than modern) and neck angle as the neck would be nailed from inside to the finished rib structure through the top block , while the wedge of the fb could lift the neck angle. We ended up with a modern elevation of 27mm, a decision supported by Roger Hargrave’s excellent article ”period of adjustment”. Both John and David were travelling in Italy at the time. John went to see the Stradivari Medici tenor viola in it’s original fit up in Florence.
In early March Greg and I picked up the plates at Mark’s workshop, South of Flesherton. Mark had delineated the margins with an impeccably flowing final overhang, purfling and fluting. It is always stimulating to experience a different approach in an active workshop . We could lay a bow on Mark’s VSA prizewinning Strad copy, put our heads together and enjoyed a wintery hike at Hoggs falls.
From here the work flowed easily. Carving the arch, sound holes and graduating is a luthier’s favourite process.
We were exchanging notes and showing stages . Mark suggested for me to nudge the sound holes “North “, which I managed, barely. The collaboration felt joyous all along. The instrument bears our marks with a lot of inspiration from Nicolo. Stop length, by the way, ended up at194mm.
Additionally I had lovely material on my hands and easily achieved a low weight with strong stiffness: Finished top at a weight of 63g, with bass bar at 12 mm Mode 5 was 347 Hz F# and Mode 2 175Hz . The others had joked that I needn’t fit a bar, just bend a strip of spruce perpendicular to grain. Well- I let Mark Schnurr fiddle with reducing the bar to his likes: Ultimately the bar at 7.5 mm height M5 had gone to 305Hz with an M2of 165 Hz . The belly now weighed 61g.
Greg finished the back at 101.5 g the M5 peak lay around 378Hz, with M2 at 200Hz.
Mark Schnurr , who initiated the project took on the assembly of the instrument. He would pull it together not only stylistically by doing the purfling, edge work and varnishing, His job plainly was to make it into a violin, adjust it sound wise, fit it up with baroque bridge ,tail piece and gut strings.
With the square nails forged Mark had the adventurous task of attaching the neck and generally not buggering it up. ( cockeyed neck not an option)
By June the violin had tanned sufficiently and Mark layered on an even amber coloured varnish.
and then we didn’t hear until on August 22nd a message from Flesherton landed in our mailbox:
“Hey all, Just a heads up. I strung up the Amati today and took it over to David’s for a “test”. Sounds pretty darn good ,and I don’t think I could be happier.Thanks again all. Mark.”
“A great result. It was exciting to hear it. Sounds like a modern fiddle in sheeps clothing. See you all soon. David”
The Monday before Sweetwater weekend had us track down possible wooden cases to hand over our gift. An air cushioned modern suspension case was out of the question. Let the violin be subjected to the wear from play and case, though John cringed at the roughness of the antiques.
We opted for a naked wooden trunk and as I moved the violin in the case to demonstrate the necessity for a swaddling cloth, I inflicted its first scar on the back before a label was even installed.
Saturday after the luthier showcase the gift fell into Mark Fewer’s capable hands -a genuine surprise.
Super gratifying for the makers was the first performance the next day with visiting baroque violinist Adrian Butterfield playing it alongside incoming artistic director Edwin Hudzinga in the Vivaldi Gloria. The violin sparkled in the Roxy Owen Sound, which is a former cinema and adapted performance space. And so it will find occasion to ring out in the future.