Perspective: The Soul of the Violin

So many times I get asked the question, “What's the difference between a mass produced violin versus one that is handmade?” The below passage is something I like to refer to because it eloquently describes my thoughts about what I do for a living.

The following are excerpts from a book titled, The Violin written by Sourene Arakelian (1887 - 1979).

"In lutherie, rules are no more than distant stars giving out too little light to show up the luthier's path. The art of lutherie is therefore dominated by empiricism. The aim of this brief booklet is simply to acquaint other luthiers and connoisseurs with the conclusions I have arrived at through long practice in constructing, repairing, and improving the tonal quality of violins.

Every violin carries with it something of the soul of the luthier who designed and made it, through the application of his own special knowledge and personal touches. Clearly, therefore, lutherie is an entirely individual art, and the manufacture of violins in factories can never supersede the craftsman luthier and his art. A production line in lutherie leads to mediocre results. It is like several painters collectively painting a portrait. Collective work in lutherie ought to be regarded as forgery. Inscriptions stuck inside violins declaring them to have been 'made in the studios of' or 'made under the direction of' are merely fig leaves to suppress the word 'factory', because that word is so suspect amongst those who deal in violins.

A production line with standardized processes does enable beginners' violins to be sold at very low prices, but however hard these factories try to improve the tonal quality of their products, they do not and cannot achieve satisfactory results, because a violin made in a factory by many workmen will always lack the soul of the lutherie - that creative spirit which carries us away in lutherie just as in painting, sculpture, and all other arts.

The living organism, which is a violin, is capricious and fragile like the human body and, like the body, can suffer from infirmities. When that happens, an accurate diagnosis must precede treatment of the malady. Hence the most important part of a luthier's work is in his mind. Thinking about a particular adjustment often takes longer than carrying out the adjustment itself, for if a luthier carrying out a repair gets his diagnosis wrong he risks killing the violin as surely as a doctor might help to kill his patient.

In order to establish the reason or, more often, the reasons why a violin is not as sonorous as it should be, the luthier must be able to both play the instrument and to have a cultivated musical ear. Without these capacities he will be unable to analyse the faults in the violin's tone, which, once analysed, can be diagnosed. Unhappily, luthiers nowadays are more likely to be good sculptors, good cabinetmakers, and generally good craftsmen rather than musicians. That is a pity, for someone who endows a violin with its tone ought surely to be able to distinguish different nuances in that tone, if he is to progress in his work as a luthier.

Nowadays, the number of violins of impeccable workmanship and an external finish surpassing even that of the classical Italian school is legion. The typical product of the Testore family with its irregular shapes and often half-finished workmanship, compared with most modern violins, looks like an old cart beside a modern limousine, but when we go to compare them for tone, we soon find out that appearances can be deceptive.

Does the difference lie in some secret process? Surely not. The quality of the classical Italians was founded on the traditions of their corporation of luthiers, compounded of talent and practical experience and the tonal quality of the wood they used (quality difficult to find nowadays) as subsequently improved by aging.

People have sought to unveil the 'secret' of Stradivarius for a long time. In recent years in America, businessmen and dealers have spent enormous sums of money in order to unveil this 'secret'. Costly experiments have been carried out in laboratories which have been scientifically laid out and equipped with apparatus designed to analyze and locate the source of sound, with the participation of celebrated violinists, but no useful results have emerged.

In any case, why should one want to unveil only the secret of Stradivarius when in his time there were many other luthiers whose violins rivaled those of Stradivarius? Why not seek to unveil the 'secret' of Maggini, Amati, Guarneri, Montagnana, and the rest? Would it not in general be more sensible to look for the 'secret' of the whole of that celebrated period of lutherie? I think not. It seems to be that we ought to recognize what kind of a 'secret' it is. It is the 'secret' of Titian, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, of pure art, of the creator, and of genius. It is a 'secret' which one can neither unveil nor standardize nor duplicate in the interests of commercial exploitation."