It is remarkable that Vuilluame’s instruments attain such a consistently high level given the number of different skilled hands are at work in his shop. The attention to detail in his work is both subtly exact and thoroughly artistic. This photo of the delicate bass f hole of a viola that passed through my hands shows this admirably. The way it flairs from the 2 soundholes and hits its widest at the notches before perfectly tapering toward the other soundhole is done with total command. I also love the sculptural fluting of the outer edge of the f hole (lower,bottom edge in photo) Notice that the top flairs up from the purfling to the edge of the f hole to highlight the living,organic shape of the arching. Also to be enjoyed is a small taste of his handsome varnish….
This is an image looking into the corpus of a cello through the endpin hole. The scale of the cello helps us see what is essentially the same story with all string instruments. That is the relationship betwwen the bridge and the bass bar and the soundpost. The bridge is bearing down on the delicate spruce top with the immense strain of the up-to-pitch string tension. This force is concentrated at the 2 feet of the bridge….without support the top would collapse. One could make the top thicker but that would be a poor tonal solution because the spruce top needs to be thin enough to stretch as it resonates… The key is in how you support the load. Although the arching does provide some support it is the bass bar and the soundpost that are the real structure within…..but the true genius of the design is that they also act as conduits to spread the resonance throughout the entire instrument and bringing all areas of the body alive.
The bass bar ( which is glued on the inside of the top on the left in the photo) is made from a piece of spruce with perfectly straight grain ( to improve resonance) that matches the grain width of the top. This bar sits 2mm under the bass bridge foot and spreads the bass vibrations out through the whole spruce top ( while also keeping the top up). It doesn’t sit straight north to south but is glued in at an angle that mimics the taper of the instrument as it narrows from lower bouts to upper bouts.The soft, pliable spruce of the top vibrates widely and is most responsible for the richness of the lower register. There is much that goes into the fitting of the spruce bar exactly to the surface of the curving top – if the bar were glued in and not fitting exactly the delicate top will contorted to fit the bar. Once glued in the bar is carefully shaped – leaving more mass under the bridge are and tapering to the ends. I give much thought to the shape/mass of each bar …..many things are considered…Higher arching neeeds slighter bar …stiffness of the top …neck angle etc…The key is to have all the support that is needed and no extra that would hinder full resonance.
The soundpost is on the right in the image. I start with the cut off end of the bass bar so that the spruce is identical and plane it to an 11mm round dowel ( the bar is also 11mm wide as it is glued in) and matching the grains of the topp as close as possible. Then the post is carefully cut on each end to match the inner curves of the top and back> With a soundpost setter I insert it in the instrument and cut/fit it to bring it out toward the F hole until it fits perfectly on both surfaces (using a dental mirror to see the far side) at a place a little south of the bridge and 2mm inside the bridge foot – the bar is als fit to be 2mm inside the bridge foot.
The post transfers the energy from the treble foot into the hard maple back which delivers the higher, clear upper registers…and of course there is overlap and overtones in between. The post is not glued in….it is cut to snugly fit the topography of top and back….It can fit tightly ( the thin plates will swell to accomodate a tight post) ….tighter tends to wake up and add power….looser tends to reduce excessive brightness etc….
The post effects the sound so dramatically that the French use the term ame ….or the soul to describe it.
Most old instruments eventually need to have the top block replaced. Often (as you can see in this picture) the old block is skimpy and as it wears and ages it doesnt handle the strain of having to remove the neck. In this case I needed to remove the neck because the button ( the semi-circular extension of the back ) had broken and needed to be reinforced.
Then when the top is glued on I will carve the mortise for the neck as if making a new insrtument. Now the neck can be reset at the higher ,correct angle and it will endure the immense strain of being up to pitch more securely with a solid new top block and strengthened button.
This fine viola was made by Helmuth Keller as a copy of Gaspar da Salo in the early 1970’s. The Brescian makers are justly famous for their violas and this has all the characteristics one looks for in a great viola. The broad pattern produces great depth while the flattish arching provides ample power and projection.
This viola shows Mr Keller working at his very best….with exquisite wood selection… commanding craftsmanship ….all still in pristine condition.
Mr Keller came to America to work at Moennig’s and Bill spoke fondly of him over the years. I had the pleasure to speak with him a number of times and always enjoyed his energy and intensity.
Interestingly, this viola ( like all his violas of this period.. I believe )is not dated…. I was always told it was because Mr Ormandy did not want his players playing new instruments ….and this was a cute,cunning way around that.
I am proud to be offering this fine viola for sale.
I have also used the fitting with spring experience on a smaller scale. Cracks on old cellos (and sometimes new) have a tendency to sink ….typically due to the enormous string tension down on the thin,soft spruce top. I often fit the spruce cleats like little bass bars pushing up to restore the arching at the area of the crack. It also works to counteract the tendency for the crack to sink over time. These cleats are fit with chalk as a transfer with a slight arch in the center -( the amount of spring varies with each different repair) and the two clamps together with the hot glue can add just the right amount of force to help me make the crack (eventually!) disappear.
It is rare for me to not change a bass bar when doing a thorough restoration in preparing to off an instrument for sale. Often the size(or lack of),shape ,positioning is not ideal to drive the lower register as well as possible. Another reason that has grown on me over years of fitting countless bars is the added benefit of fitting the bar with “spring”. When fitting the bar you start with the center of the bar touching the top and the ends slightly up off the top. This is the beginning of the spring. As you fit the bar to the top you delicately rock the bar from one end to the other carefully feeling for all the bumps – i.e. the places where it is not fitting.As you complete the fitting and the bar and top are basically meld together as you rock back and forth. The bar will sit flat against the top in the unclamped state – the ends will still rise up off the top….this is the spring that will create the upward thrust pushing up against the downward force of the string tension….much the way the camber in a bow adds a counter force to the tension of the hair and the strenuous demands of playing. Certainly there are limits ….too much and you would distort the top…..also different archings need different amounts of spring. One thing of the highest importance is that the fit of the bar needs to exact to invisibly produce this force without warping the top.
There is also debate as to whether bars lose their spring over time – much like older bows losing their camber – over the years my thoughts and experience have told me that yes they do lose their spring – and that instruments can benefit immensely from a new bar that precisely adds it.
One thing that comes to mind in this photo is that I’m fitting the bar to the cello while it rests on my lap/knees with the edge of my bench in view. Mr Moennig never liked that way of working…..he would shake his head and say “Mike ….you use your bench as a shelf instead of a work place”. He had trained in Mittenwald and Mirecourt where you did your work on the bench top….never on your lap. I had worked with Burritt Miller ( who studied in Cremona) and others at the shop. I like to be around the work and the more intuitive/tactile approach seemed to fit…..but Bill was never on board with that….but he reluctantly went along.
Telesphore Barbe was one of the finest craftsman making instruments for the great J B Vuilluame in Paris c 1860-70. He boldly states the fact on his labels – (“ex premier ouvier de J B Vuilluame”). Upon leaving the shop of Vuilluame he makes his own beautiful instruments which show his talent, skill and artistry to dramatic effect. Though he also carries with him the legacy of Vuilluame in a fascinating way – the complete command of purfling /edges /arching…..the delicate details like the fluting around the F holes….the bold Stradivari model….
One other interesting thing you often encounter with French instruments is their neck set. They invariably set the neck lower over the top and angle the neck more steeply to achieve the proper height at the bridge. This puts too much tension down on the top – producing too harsh and bright a sound. In this case I (delicately!) extracted the neck – gluing a foot on the neck stock so that the neck sits higher over the top – and then set it at the correct -a less steep angle – which gives a much warmer sound. When this is finished with the varnish restored its as if nothing ever happened.Its fascinating how the right neck angle (and tension that is put down on the top) produces a very different different sound.
One thing I use while setting the neck is to sight down he edge of the back toward the scroll….when set at the correct angle – the edge of the back should run right through the eye of the scroll. Part of the deep geometry contained in the violin that can used to guide you through an exacting operation.
Jeff is a prominent cellist….and a prominent teacher…..and one of the most passionate searchers for sound I have ever met. Its a compelling challenge to work on all of his fine, varied cellos that range from old to new….big/dark to smaller/brighter. Add this all the stressful variations that seasons, travel and wear and tear provide and its a delicate balancing act.
Some demand work inside work ( i e bass bar etc) …or work from the outside ( bridge,post etc) …neck angle adjustments….truly the whole spectrum of ways to enhance the sound and get every ounce of punch and depth that each instrument has to give.
The bridge pictured was cut for a fine Sgarabotto cello that he was using to play the Bach suites at Bargemusic in NY.
Here are 2 beautiful Italian violas that figure prominently in the Philadelphia Orchestra. These instruments are played by very sensitive,fussy players who know immediately when they have lost power and clarity due to openings. Changes in climate/humidity/ locale all conspire to expand and contract the top & back plates…..which in combination with the glue being made to let go if need be to relieve dangerous stress…is a recipe for needing to find and glue often small subtle openings. This is even more difficult on older instruments.
I’ve developed a number of subtle methods to find the subtle openings ….the large ones are easy to find….but with these players the openings never get very large because they have me checking/gluing at the slightest variation in sound. Many problems with instruments are often thought to be more dramatic in nature….but really are solved by a very thorough search and careful gluing.
After 5 plus years I still have so many vivid Moennig era memories….One that struck me recently was a day that the great Japanese violinist Mr Toshiya Eto came to the shop. Mr Eto had been at Curtis in the late 1940’s early 1950’s and had developed a long standing friendship with Bill – and had a number of fine instruments from the shop over the years…and his students would come as well. On this particular day he had a very fine Pressenda that needed attention….among other things it needed to have the fingerboard planed rather dramatically. I started in on it by carefully taking down the set up/ bridge etc. ( This was something you got very careful about at the shop – you were always working on great instruments for great players …so you always had to be able to re-set up the instrument very,very accurately …..(both bridge placement and most importantly post position. I was always making markers to guide me.) Theses were players who had played these instruments for many years at the highest level… so there was no margin for any error or change.
The first thing to do was to sharpen my plane blade…if Bill would be walking behind you….and he heard the loud scraping sound of a dull plane blade he would tell you bluntly. Once I got started to plane the fingerboard I realized that Bill and Mr Eto were going to stand right behind me while I worked! Needless to say it was a stressful hour…trying to be as surgical, effecient and accurate as possible…while Bill and Mr Eto chatted amiably…..all the while watching every move I made. I know of no more delicate scenario than working on a fine instrument in front of a fine player….and getting it done well …and gracefully.
Another interesting thing about Mr Eto was that he was the first child pupil of the legendary Mr Suzuki….apparently the father of Mr Eto approached Mr Suzuki to teach his 4 year old son ….and a movement that swept the world was born.