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The Monteverdi violins
of the Gabrieli Consort & Players

The original
by George Stoppani

Choosing the model

When the news came that the Gabrieli Trust was able to provide the financial support for this project we had to move fast, since a recording date was already fixed. I had been discussing for some time, with violinist Oliver Webber, the possibility of making reconstructions of instruments explicitly suitable for performing Monteverdi for his ensemble, the "Monteverdi String Band". The first step was choosing the right model and finding an original instrument as the basis of the reconstruction. Monteverdi himself was said to prefer Cremonese violins, which at that time could mean older instruments by Andrea Amati, or more likely his sons, the brothers Antonio and Girolamo. A further consideration was that the instruments made by Andrea were probably originally set up in a very different way: the earlier ones were probably viole da braccio and had only 3 strings. If any of these instruments were used as violins by musicians working for Monteverdi, they would have been modified to have a set-up like those which the brothers were doing at that time. Therefore it seemed a much better choice to look for a brothers Amati violin from around 1610 or a bit earlier.

By a bit of extraordinary luck, there happened to be a 1595 example a mere 15 minutes from my workshop, at the Royal Northern College of Music. Another strong contender was the 1629 at the Royal Academy of Music in London. There are some significant differences in the models, and this one is thought to be possibly made or part-made by the young Nicolo Amati. It also may be the first  - or a very early- example of a model that they used from that time on. The National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota has a smaller Brothers Amati violin of 1604, which has a great many features in common with the 1595. We felt it a reasonable assumption that Brothers Amati violins were more like these two than the 1629 one. Despite the beauty of the 1629, we felt that the 1595 was the best choice for the intended usage.

The Brothers Amati original - 1595

Photo: George Stoppani

The 1595 has a similar corpus length but is a little narrower than the 1629 and has different archings and graduations. The style of the f-holes is a good illustration of the differences.

Brothers Amati - 1595 Brothers Amati - 1604
Brothers Amati - 1629 Hieronymus Amati II -1695
Photos: George Stoppani

Deriving working drawings

When making a copy of an old instrument, it is not enough simply to attempt to duplicate the dimensions and shape as it is now. Account must be taken of distortion, particularly of the archings of the back and front, due to wood shrinkage and the forces exerted by the string tension over the centuries. The measurements have to be interpreted in a way that points to how the instrument might have been originally. Therefore there is no scientific method for doing this that is any more reliable than informed guesswork based on observations of distortion in instruments of different ages.

It is generally believed that the Amatis used an inside mould to form the rib garland. Though it seems likely that they had a geometric system of constructing the outline or the mould, it appears that they did not adhere to it with rigidity. There are therefore asymmetries and variations from one instrument to another that were made using the same mould. The process involved regenerating that mould and building the instrument with similar deviations. The intention is not an exact replica of the dimensions of the original but of keeping very close to the original, with some natural deviation commensurate with the working methods of the time allowed. If this is not done, then the copies will look too geometrically perfect and therefore not in the style of the Brothers Amati or any other early Italian maker.

The original is now set up as a modern violin,, and we turned to various sources to decide what sort of bass bar, neck, fingerboard, tailpiece, bridge and stringing would be appropriate. One of the pleasures of this project was working with Oliver Webber on resolving issues about set-up. He has a very serious and scholarly approach to the history of music, instruments and stringing. We were able to sift through all the information we could lay hands on and discuss its implications. We don’t think we have made any serious mistakes, but this area of research is dynamic – new pieces of evidence are continually emerging.

Fortunately, there is at least one surviving Amati bass bar, which is very small by modern standards. There is a lot of information about Stradivari violins and their fittings which, though much later, can be used to corroborate other information. A major source is old paintings which are sometimes very detailed and almost photographic. Again fortunately, there are a great many to look at and it is possible to form a reasonably precise idea about the necks, fingerboards, tailpieces and bridges.

For example, this is by Bartolomeo Cavarozzi:

He worked in Rome but, since the violin making industry had not developed there at that time, this may well have been a Cremonese instrument.

Taking measurements

The Royal Northern College of Music kindly arranged for me to have access to their 1595 instrument. I had two sessions when I photographed this violin and took measurements. The photos were not taken with a view to a publication in  The Strad but were to give me useful info, and keep the appearance fresh in my mind. The measurements included outlines of back and front, wood thicknesses, arching curves, rib heights, scroll dimensions and f-holes. I also examined the internal work for clues as to which blocks and linings might be original. I was also able to take similar measurements of a Hiernonymus II violin belonging to the Halle Orchestra. Though out of the date range for this project, it was very helpful in focusing my mind on the ways in which the earlier violins were different. The Royal Academy of Music also generously provided access to their precious 1629 instrument and no doubt the time will come to make a copy of this one.

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© 2006 Oliver Webber and George Stoppani                  Design by Linden Lea