Millimetres Make the Difference in Sound

Millimetres Make the Difference in Sound

Peter Erben performs his craft with patience, emotion and precision. The violin maker stays true to form in emulating the old Italian masters.

Dragon’s blood?  No joke. Dragon’s blood.

Dragon’s Blood, Peter Erben explains, is a main ingredient in the thick tincture in which he just dipped his bristle brush. He assures us, however, that no mythical creatures were harmed in the extraction of this exotic essence. Dragon’s blood, we learn, is the resin of a plant which grows predominantly in Socotra. Botanists refer to the formative plant of the eastern Somalia archipelago as Dracaena cinnabari: the vermilion dragon tree. And the characteristically rust red colour from its resin may never be missing from Peter Erben’s colour palette.

Although his piece is nearly completed, the artist dabs the viscous substance on in gentle, almost loving strokes. He has dedicated some three months of his life to the masterpiece – why rush now? Though it may seem merely aesthetic at first glance, this step of the process actually contributes to later sound quality and must not be underestimated. As the violin maker sands and varnishes, sands and varnishes, sands and varnishes any newly created instrument body up to ten times, he simultaneously refines the instrument in a number of ways: he coats it with a protective layer, brings out the fine grain of the wood and gives it its shiny fox fur colour. Last but not least, he decisively influences its sound quality.

As a matter of fact, quite a few experts speculate that the superb sound of the most famous violins in the world has quite a bit to do with Antonio Stradivari’s treatment of wood. It is said that the greatest violin maker of all time concocted the ideal mixture for violin varnish. Thanks to this varnish, the sounds came across neither too severely subdued nor too loud or shrill; instead, they were brilliant, clear and full like angels singing. Peter Erben predicts that by contrast, a bad varnish has the power to ruin even the best instrument. No wonder master violin makers guard their personal formulas with the utmost secrecy. Even so, former master class leaders in Riva and Ascona reveal common ingredients: resins such as amber, myrrh, frankincense, bow rosin, „bee glue“ propolis and various essential oils. This explains the heady scent that pervades the workshop in the Maxvorstadt borough of Munich.

It is located on the third floor of an old building on the corner of Augustenburg and Gabelsbergerstraße. Students can be found eating fast food on the ground floor while the first floor feels distinctly nonchalant. A good violin is in no hurry to come into the world. In return, it lasts for generations. Stradivarius have almost 400 years under their belt though they never fail to enthral even the most modern concertgoers. (They have also been known to waste away in collector’s safes, but that’s another story.) While Peter Erben holds his latest piece up to a ray of light like a taut twine which reflects a luminous flame, his son Martin (who followed in the footsteps of his father as a master violin maker schooled at the prestigious state institute for musical instrument craftsmanship in Mittenwald) breathes life into the sound post of a restored violin from 1790. Italians elevated the dowel as if by divine intervention. They whose Amati and Guarneri families of Cremona were crowned the undisputed royalty of violin making christened the sound post as „anima“ or soul. Martin pinches the tiny wooden dowel using a „sound post setter“ between the violin top and back plates. The doubly curved tool with both a pointed and flat end looks remarkably like something swiped from a dentist’s office.

If he were to adjust the sound post by even a fraction of a millimetre, Martin explains, it would immediately and significantly alter the instrument’s articulation. In simple terms, the musicians‘ articulation changes the violin’s speed and corresponding reaction of the bow. Does it require more effort or make it easier to play? „Soloists often love a crisp sound,“ says Martin as he peers through one of the narrow, f-shaped sound holes. Researchers have found that these openings which are typical of stringed instruments such as violins, violas or cellos are conducive to sound quality. The sound post is set by Martin’s standards though he gets his father’s once-over for good measure. Even in times of nanotechnology and laser measurement, nothing beats the trained eye of an experienced violin maker! We ask these two whether their hands tremble when restoring such valuable pieces. After all, it is not uncommon that they handle instruments worth hundreds of thousands of euros. Fear dissipates quickly, the father and son reply. Reverence and respect last a lifetime.

Back to the sound post. The small piece of wood is a good example of the complexity of violin making. Essentially, the instrument is composed of a limited number of parts. A body spanning slightly more than 30 centimetres in length consisting of those womanly curved front and back plates and frame (ribs); a neck with scroll at the top; the bridge over which four strings are stretched – one recognises the instrument already. Nevertheless, it requires more than 500 steps for queen of the concert hall to develop its full, soul-stirring sound. Fingerboards have hardly changed since the golden age of violin making in 1600-1750 when Stradivari and others set the standard. „The size of the fingerboard matters much less than precision!“ emphasises Peter Erben, a former judge of the Violin Making Competition in Cremona. To illustrate his point, he inserts a newly finished violin top plate in a gauge. At its widest point, the tool does not even span four millimetres. The strings, however, exert a pressure of more than 10 kilograms. Then again, the soul aids in resistance: the sound post transfers some of the pressure from the top to the back plate.

In addition to the artistic precision of the craftsman, violin making also depends on the quality of the material. Peter Erben builds the top plate of his violins out of 300 year old South Tyrolean spruce. To do so, he personally trudged into the forest and chopped down three trees in 1989. It was shortly before Christmas during the waning moon! Talk about dedication. The native Franconian firmly believes that the earth’s satellite affects the sap and mineral intake and with it the density of trees. The back plates are made of old Bosnian maple. The wood is stacked in a type of transitory storage space. Covered by a glass display case, it is enthroned by literature on the subject. One can easily imagine the former home with its creaking parquet flooring which was once used to provide violin lessons for children in Munich’s bohemian society.

Today in place of fashionable furniture and expensive paintings, there are three cinema seats in the lobby and dozens of fiddles lining the wall. The area to the left of Peter Erben’s workspace houses related tools: bowmaking chisels, neck chisels, carvers, several planes in all sizes imaginable – that is, if various examples of fingertip dimensions can still be considered „size.“ Machines play virtually no role in the workshop. The watchmaker lathe that journeyman Dominik uses to set mother-of-pearl inlays in cello pegs is one of few such devices. Believe it or not, the most sophisticated technical device may very well be the CD player with its variable tunes: Django Reinhardt is set to follow Anne-Sophie Mutter in the music lineup.

Sounds penetrate from another room. Instrument craft is followed by sound tests. No violin sounds optimal after it is first assembled. It is for this reason the violin makers are the first to play the instrument. They listen closely to pick up on skewed sounds. This is followed by fine-tuning. Peter Erben was born to a businessman father from Bubenreuth in the centre of Franconian string and plucked instrument manufactory in 1952. He spent his childhood playing in his father’s shop and eventually with the instruments in it. He now chisels apart a violin which was recently glued together to ablate thin layers of wood here and there. Every shred changes the sonority. It’s a game of patience, a delicate and gradual path to perfection; the act of re-gluing is a like something taken from the pages of an alchemist textbook. Peter Erben says he produces the natural adhesive which includes isinglass, the dried swim bladders of a sturgeon species.

Teatime is somewhere in between all the goings on. Dominik sees to the butter pretzels after having added mother-of-pearl peg inlays to an aged cello and gathers the whole group together. Journeyman Ruben Defendi sets his renovated fingerboard aside. Peter Erben removes his spectacles, closes the pot of glue and sets the violin down to dry. In order to attach the neck to a showpiece he is restoring at precisely the right angle, a steady hand must not be compromised. That also means a rumbling stomach must not interfere. Later on, the strings cannot be angled too steeply lest the violin begin to screech! The breathtaking sound this instrument is instead capable of emitting can be heard unexpectedly with a slight tap. A blissful customer gladly accepts his repaired instrument from the hands of violin maker progeny Carola Berbuer and gives an impromptu solo. Ode to Joy, what a profession!


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