Christoph & Raffael Sprenger, Violin makers, Switzerland


Workshop history
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History of violin
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1. Origin of the violin

Stringed instruments first were recorded in Europe in the medieval ages. By “stringed” we refer to instruments played with a bow. This instrument was the "fiddle" of the minne-singers. But it didn’t have much in common with a violin. It was in the 15th century when, slowly, the family of gambs and violins developed.

In the times of the renaissance, which had a large impact on all the arts, not least in the construction of instruments. The violin as it is known nowadays was built in the early 16th century. In this climate the viola and the cello also emerged. 

Everything that is explained about the violin and its structures can be referred to the whole family of stringed instruments. This group of instruments has been developed in order to satisfy new ideas of sounds that emerged in these times in Italy. Gradually, it took the place of the gambs and violas that preceded them.

It was with the Cremonese makers working in this environment that the violin and its family reached its zenith, and although technical innovations have been applied through time, the ground plan and its basic form are still used today. 

In Italy, which escaped the war of thirty years, violin making reached an enormous upswing. Andrea Amati lived in Cremona between 1535 and 1611; he became the founder of the world’s most famous school of violin-making. It is not a certain institute, which is meant but a special local characterisation of all different centres of violinmaking; the art of painting has known a similar effect. So, there are for instance the school of Brescia, of Cremona, of Milan, but also the school of Naples and many more.

Afterwards, violin making expounded over the whole continent of Europe. But it was Cremona that was home to the most famous of all violin makers: The families Amati and Guarneri, Antonio Stradivari, the families Ruggeri and Bergonzi. For more than 150 years, violins made by Stradivari and Guarneri have been the most desired concert instruments.

2. Why old master instruments sound so good 

The decline of violin making began in the second half of the 18th century. Caused by a permanent growth of the demand for instruments the violinmakers were forced to produce more and to produce faster. They used varnishes that dried more quickly but which could not reach the quality of the elder ones. Still, every violinmaker and every enthusiast for violins regrets the disappearance of the old Italian, the so called classical, varnishes. So, there are some violin makers who try heavily to reconstruct old varnishes; they invest plenty of time for their experiments.

Many negative influences for violin making result from the pollution of our environment. It is known that in earlier times, rafts transported all the chopped trees. The river Po 250 years ago - a pure river - cannot be compared with the polluted waterway it is nowadays. The same fact is valid also for nearly all stretches of water. Because of the fact that wood is a material with high absorbency, all substances dissolved in the water penetrate the wood. During the process of drying out, all these substances remain in the wood. In addition during the whole process of later working by the violin maker, this negative influence cannot be corrected.

But the environment is an important aspect not only as far as wood is concerned. All substances, which are used to produce varnishes are natural produce. The so-called pore filler consists of propolis which is produced by bees. The colouring of varnishes consist of natural colours, the solvents are natural ethereal oils. All natural substances that are used in violin making nowadays are not comparable with the substances of earlier times; unfortunately, they have lost their purity.

The ideal materials that were used in classical violin making and the very positive effect of the aging process resulted in the completeness of all classical instruments made by Italian masters.

3. Restoration of masterpieces 

Is the sound of these instruments nowadays the same as it was in Stradivari’s times? Certainly not. The majority of musicians would decline instruments with an original sound of those times. It is absolutely clear that they wouldn’t be played in concert by a soloist (except in baroque music). The instruments would not have such a variety of sounds and they wouldn’t have the ability to reach the most distant rows of a concert hall with sufficient clarity. The fact that they can be played in concert today is owed to the violin makers. Much know-how and manual skills and plenty of experience are necessary in order to restore the tone of an old instrument again and again.

Further, there are repairs which are necessitated due to accidents and damage; the violin is a very tender instrument with a high tendency to get cracks if it has been dropped. Moreover, damage can be caused by air that is just too dry, which happens most often with new instruments; unfortunately these cracks caused by dryness are more common because of central heating and air conditioning

4. Making new instruments

In the course of the centuries, the workshop has not changed a great deal. There are still the same tools that were used by the old masters: the carpenter’s bench, saws, small and large planes as well as chisels made of wood just like those used for sculpturing. Moreover, blades and stencils, also brushes for varnishing and above all large knives for woodcarving are still in use. Still, at Sprenger Geigenbau, there are tools in use that were originally used by founder Fritz Sprenger.

For the violinmaker, wood is the most important material; it is only natural that the correct choice of wood is vital in order to achieve the best quality of sound. Wood that is too heavy because of its specific weight cannot be used – although it looks perhaps marvellous. It is also because of this aspect that mass-production of violins has to fail: these days even with modern, computer-controlled machines; the works is too mechanical, without any consideration for materials used. Mass-production will never fulfil the fundamental aspect, because each piece of wood needs to be treated differently, even when the wood is chopped out of the same trunk, the single pieces are very different of each other. At the lower end of the trunk, the wood is generally harder than at the top, also, parts which grew in the sunshine obviously differ from parts that grew in the shadow.

Two sorts of wood are the most common in violin making: spruce for the belly and maple for the back and the scroll. The fingerboard consists of ebony, which is a very hard wood. The pegs and tailpiece are mostly made of ebony, jacaranda or boxwood.

The finest wood of maple comes from Bosnia, the most adapted spruce comes from central European countries; it grows at an altitude of about 1000m above sea level. The wood of the ebony comes from Africa – it is wood of the date palm.

The most common kind of construction is the one with the so-called inner form. The ribs are adjusted to this form. The ribs, which are about 1.2 mm thick, are bent over the bending iron. Then, they are fixed with some glue at the top- and bottom-block and at the corner-blocks. The back and belly of the violin are sawed out with its exact outline. This whole process happens according to the precise pattern of the stencils. The stencils can be taken from an instrument, so for instance from a violin made by Stradivari or Guarneri; perhaps, they are changed a little bit with a small, personal peculiarity. The belly and the back, which have been cut out are arched afterwards.

Therefore, nothing except the ribs is bent or pressed, everything is worked out of a solid piece of wood. When the outer arching has been finished the insides of the back and belly are gouged out. The thickness of belly and back is not the same for the whole violin; its wood is between 2.5 and 4.5 mm thick. The violinmaker has to adjust his work to the character of the wood. This is an essential advantage over violins that are made by machines. After carving and preparation, the back is fixed to the rim of the rib. The f-holes are cut out of the belly and then the bass-bar is adjusted and fixed. In order to find the form of the f-holes, the violinmaker focuses on classical examples – perhaps also on his personal particularities. Next, the inner form has to be detached from the ribs; afterwards, the belly is fixed on the rim of the rib. Finally, the back and belly are put in and the edges are rounded. With that, the body of the instrument is finished.
The scroll is cut out of maple wood, which should - if possible - match the back and ribs. When the scroll and the so called peg-box has been worked out, the fingerboard gets adjusted to the neck. Then, the complete neck is fitted to the body, which obviously is a working process that has to be carried out with high precision; it has a large impact not only on the instrument’s technical playing possibilities but also on its sound. Now, the white instrument is finished. It is now only its varnished dress that is missing.

5. The varnish

The three most important functions of the varnish are the following:
1. It should protect the instrument from the negative influences of weather and dirt
2. It should raise the instrument’s possibilities of sound
3. It should emphasise the wood’s natural beauty

Most violinmakers strive for the development of an ideal recipe for varnishes. Indeed, the varnish has a large impact on the sound. A soft varnish and an insufficient undercoating have a tendency to deaden heavily the sound of a violin. If the varnish is too hard or brittle, in contrary, the sound becomes shrill and penetrating.

To sum up, one can say that an instrument, which is badly or incorrectly built cannot become a masterpiece just because of an excellent varnish. However, a good instrument can be ruined because of a miserable varnish.




The pictures do not have any relation to the topics.

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