Monday, July 18, 2011

the most exciting artefact I've ever held

 This is a violin made by Francesco Ruggieri in 1670- although the scroll is by Joseph Guarneri (why that is so is another story and would probably test the patience of my reader). Where were you in 1670? I'm having trouble remembering my whereabouts. But I want to make some sort of attempt to describe something of the magic of this, a beautiful classical violin of great age and reputation.

 You, or maybe your children have probably heard this instrument. I think Francesco would be a little surprised to know the extent to which the vibrations he made possible from the carving of his gouges, has resonated across the world to an audience of millions, even just in the recent era. This is one of those instruments that has made the sort of sound that has excited  specialist classical listeners, to be sure; but it has also made beautiful noises that have become part of the story of mass entertainment and common culture across the world. This, because it's custodian has played (amongst a life-time of more specialised assignments) in the production of many film themes, including Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Death at a Funeral and Dr. Who, amongst numerous others.

 I have to tell you that hearing it is great, but holding it and feeling it live and dance in my fingers as I breathe and talk is quite the most wonderful thing I've ever experienced as a craftsman.  It is of another order again from anything I've felt- and I've felt quite a few over twenty years.
It's a strange sensation, to pick up something that looks a bit like thousands of other things that attempt to be like the thing that this actually is. This has very little to do with outward appearance, or even craftsmanship. If you know instruments a bit, it speaks to you before you pick it up with a thousand subtle messages to tell you exactly what it isn't. These are the visual clues and they can't be fluffed or faked very easily. They don't have anything to do with a clever person wielding tools cleverly. They speak of dozens of 'one percenters'- tiny details that add up to something that your average grafter could slave away at for decades and never get close to...the angle of a breath with the impact of a hurricane.

With a really fine instrument, I can feel it moving around in my fingers while I talk, and the way that it does that will tell my  little brain about different qualities that are present, or more likely not present. Most instruments will respond to my voice, as filtered through my fingers. This one responds to my breath. Jumps to my breath.

Of course it has had centuries of training by wonderful musicians, including the present one. And it has had the benefit of centuries of diligent and maybe inspired maintenance (and possibly, modification) by the worlds most talented repairers. But it all adds up to one of the most superb artefacts (in my humble opinion) ever created by a person, because it is not only a sublimely beautiful physical object, it is itself a very active participator in the re-creation of a magical level of musical performance.

Gaby Lester is a charming and very talented musician who gives generously of her craft and skill. Her web site is here, and it includes lots of interesting links, including one to the beautiful Italian village of Fossa that was devastated by earthquake but struggles to reassert itself, and a You Tube video of her playing a tune with 'The Who' and lots of other wonderful stuff. It was a joy to meet her and to spend a little time with her wonderful instrument.


  1. I agree absolutely that string instruments have something "magic"; the most surprising for me is that a great sound normally comes from a very perfect, harmonic and beautyfull instrument, although not always.
    Another surprising issue is the quality of the sound. My daughter, as you know, is violinist and she shares a flat in London with another violin player that has a Scarampella's violin. The first time she heard and played this instrument she was disappointed "in the flat", but when she heard it in a concert hall she got amazed about the quality, the projection, and the balance of the sound.
    It's a pitty that violins are, for many people, just an investment. This makes very difficult for many good players to afford a good instrument, mostly of them owned by banks........

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