Mass-produced instruments won’t suffice for serious musicians. Leading violinmaker Helen Michetschläger tells Abi Millar about the traditional techniques involved in hand crafting a high-quality violin
Three hundred years ago, an Italian artisan named Antonio Stradivari was nearing the end of his career. A master luthier (violinmaker), who crafted over a thousand instruments during his lifetime, Stradivari set a new standard for what a violin could sound like. Widely described as ‘bright’, ‘sweet’, or ‘brilliant’, his instruments were more than a match for a new era of concert-going – their dulcet sound carrying easily through a large concert hall.
Little has changed today, in terms of what musicians prize. Many of today’s most renowned violinists still play Stradivarius instruments (‘Strads’), with some reaching as high as $16m at auction. What’s more, in a world of rapidly changing tastes and technologies, the art of violinmaking may appear curiously timeless. Around 160 luthiers have set up shop in Stradivari’s native Cremona, using very similar methods to the old masters.
Helen Michetschläger, one of the UK’s leading violinmakers, has been applying these methods – albeit enhanced with modern technologies – for the last 40 years.
“I think in many ways, a lot of makers from the 18th century could walk into a modern workshop and get going,” she tells me, speaking over Zoom from her workshop in the suburbs of Manchester. “Likewise, if we could go back in the past, we would probably find that a lot of things haven’t changed an enormous amount. We’ve probably got more tools, but on one level it hasn’t changed at all.”
Arguably, instrument-making is one of the few crafts remaining in which a maker can eke out a decent living. While mass-produced instruments do exist – think of every tinny violin ever scraped in a primary school orchestra – serious musicians need the kind of quality that comes with hand-crafting, and they are willing to pay good money for it.
To cite one example that’s close to home: last year’s ROSL Annual Music Competition Winner, Eleanor Corr, has said she will devote some of her prize money towards the construction of a new instrument.
Michetschläger herself has made over 300 instruments over the course of her career, not just violins but cellos and violas (she has never made a double bass). Her clients range from front desk orchestral players, to teachers seeking high-end instruments to lend to their pupils, and they live as far afield as Louisiana, Norway, and Hong Kong.
While mass-produced instruments do exist, serious musicians need the quality that comes with hand-crafting
“Factory-made instruments can’t reproduce the input of someone who’s got the experience,” she says. “A violinmaker will have been thinking quite hard about what makes a good-sounding instrument, and responding to each individual piece of wood.”
Born in London to an Austrian father and a British mother, Michetschläger discovered a knack for making things early in life. She also loved playing the cello, and experienced what she describes as ‘a moment of the blindingly obvious’ when she visited a violin repairer’s workshop aged 16.
“I was always good with my hands, so making instruments seemed like the ideal combination of everything I was interested in,” she recalls. “I went to the Newark School of Violin Making when I was 18, and I set up my own business when I left college at 21.”
In those days, there were few jobs out there for enterprising young violinmakers, meaning self-employment was the only option. Undaunted, Michetschläger found somewhere to make instruments, while focusing on building up her contact book. Gradually, she began to sell her work and forge a reputation in the field.
“I moved to Manchester about 15 years later when I met my husband,” she says. “It was a good career move, because you have a lot more musicians on your doorstep in a big city with two professional orchestras, a Conservatoire and a specialist music school, than you have in the countryside.”
Since then, Michetschläger’s career has blossomed. As well as crafting six to eight instruments a year, she has gained some clout as an authority on varnish. (Her book, Violin Varnish: notes and articles from the workshop of Koen Padding, was published in 2015).
She has also developed her own models for small-sized instruments, particularly small violas for talented children, and has offered extensive support to younger makers via the charity she chairs, RAB Trust.
A typical day in her workshop begins with a singing practice, followed by an extended stint on her latest instrument. Although she does occasionally see customers, most of the time she works in solitude.
“I’m one of those people for whom lockdown was not so bad because I’m usually by myself,” she says. “Quite often, people who make instruments work on their own, and so you have to be able to stand that. I have a nice space – it’s a purpose-built workshop overlooking the garden, just behind the house.”
When approached by a new client, the first thing she’ll discuss with them is the sort of sound they want, and what model would work best to achieve that. She’ll also take into account size considerations, particularly when it comes to cellos and violas.
“The received wisdom, which is partially true, is that a larger viola sounds better,” she explains. “But if you’re a small person with small hands, there’s a limit to how large a viola you can play. So a lot of my effort has gone into making smaller violas that sound really good, while being physically comfortable for the player. Players often say that this was the first time they could go directly to the music – they weren’t fighting with the instrument first.”
Some other considerations, although essential to the overall quality of the instrument, are too technical for that initial conversation. Varnish is one. Although Michetschläger will consult with the client about the colour, the complex trade-offs involved in getting the varnish right are very much the maker’s domain.
“Most violinmakers will say that varnishing is the hardest part of the whole process,” she remarks. “It’s the first thing the player sees, so if it doesn’t look right, it’s quite off-putting. It also matters acoustically – if the consistency is wrong, it’s like putting the instrument in some form of straitjacket, so that it can’t vibrate as freely as it should. You want the varnish to be tough enough that it won’t wear too readily, but not so tough that it inhibits the sound.”
Another consideration is the choice of wood. It has been hypothesised that one of the reasons a Stradivarius violin sounds so good is that he had an especially fine wood selection to play with – the cooler climate at the time led to slower tree growth with denser wood and superior acoustical properties. Whether or not you buy that, there’s no question that natural variations can impact a violin’s sound.
Most violinmakers will say that varnishing is the hardest part of the whole process
“There are standard woods that you use, but they vary in density, stiffness, weight and so forth,” says Michetschläger. “And then when you’re making the instrument, you’re thinking about the shape of the arching, how thick it’s going to be, how stiff it is. What does it sound like when you tap it? What does it weigh?”
For an experienced violinmaker like Michetschläger, many of these factors are intuitive. However, depending on your leanings, instrument making can be as much a science as an art. Some makers are now taking an interest in physics, employing various scientific techniques for evaluating the speed of sound in wood.
“They’re using those techniques to analyse the work they’re doing, and then to modify what they do in the light of what they’ve discovered,” says Michetschläger. “The range of how much that’s used is enormous, from people who don’t use a single thing, to others who have a laptop permanently plugged in on the workbench and various bits of equipment connected to that.”
Affinity for science, however, is not necessarily a quality that distinguishes a great violinmaker from a merely adequate one. Michetschläger thinks the important aspects are dexterity, musicality and an ability to learn from your mistakes.
“There are some very good violinmakers who don’t play an instrument, but you do need a good ear and to be able to understand what players are looking for,” she says. “You don’t have to be a superlative craftsman, but you do have to be reasonably good with your hands and to make things that don’t fall apart. You’ve got to be fairly skilled at doing marketing and accounts and talking to your customers. So you need a reasonably wide range of skills.”
From one perspective, she is a little concerned about the future of the profession, insofar as fewer young people are coming up for training (“don’t get me started on crafts not being taught in schools”). However, she is heartened by the ways the craft is developing, particularly in relation to techniques like high-quality photography and 3D scans.
“It’s now 40 years since I left college and the standard of work has improved beyond all recognition,” she says. “When I started, there were hardly any good photographs of anything – if you wanted to know what a good instrument looks like, you had to see it in real life. But you can now put an instrument through a scanner and create a 3D version that you can turn around on a screen. It’s almost like having it in your hand.”
The gilded age of Stradivari may be long gone. However, this century is shaping up to be an exciting time in its own right for violinmakers, in which traditional craftsmanship and modern technologies come together in ingenious ways.