Making Musical Instrument

Making Musical Instruments
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Instruments and
Their Iconography
  Renaissance Instruments
  Substitute Materials
  The Jazz Ensemble
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  Making Musical Instruments
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When Canada was still a colony, the task of repairing instruments or producing violins for music lovers fell to wood craftsmen such as cabinetmakers and carpenters.

Today, instrument making is recognized as a profession in its own right and is taught in specialized schools and by masters in the field. Some artisans, like those interviewed for this study, begin as musicians and eventually learn the secrets of their craft. Thus, a violinist becomes a luthier; a harpsichordist begins making harpsichords; or a flautist turns to crafting flutes.

All these artisans, at some point in their training or career, need to consult various sources of documentation to learn how to make a particular type of instrument. For example, a luthier who specializes in medieval reproductions must rely on illustrations for information on the construction, use and history of an instrument, as very few instruments from before the sixteenth century have survived. The artisan must also bear in mind that any reproduction, whether a painting, sculpture, illumination or engraving, will not reveal all of an instrument's features, such as the type of material used, the thickness of the various parts, or the tension of the strings.

  Mid-fifteenth-century manuscript by Henri Arnault de Zwolle
Mid-fifteenth-century manuscript by Henri Arnault
de Zwolle

More information is available on Renaissance instruments. Some details of manufacture are provided through instruments that have been preserved, and through various writings. For example, a mid-fifteenth-century manuscript by Henri Arnault de Zwolle, a physician and astrologer employed by the Duke of Burgundy, contains descriptions and drawings of some musical instruments of the period. Among a number of sixteenth-century books is the major three-volume treatise Syntagma Musicum, by German composer Michael Praetorius; the second volume, De Organographia, gives numerous details on the instruments of the time. Marin Mersenne's seventeenth-century Harmonie universelle constitutes an encyclopaedia of music, with a major section on instruments.

  Radiographie de la caisse d'un luth
X-Ray of the body of a lute

Later periods offer plentiful evidence of musical life, and museum collections are rich in instruments of all types. However, the collections are not always representative of the instruments peculiar to these periods, as collectors have tended to preserve the most richly ornamented works. Finally, some instruments have been altered by repair or have been modernized.

Museums have enlisted the help of instrument makers to produce technical plans and drawings of instruments in their collections. These plans, which faithfully reproduce the various parts of the instruments, are a boon to researchers. Some luthiers prefer to draw their own plans from the original instrument and may even X-ray an instrument to reveal all its features.

Yet, despite a luthier's most meticulous efforts to reproduce a period instrument, the original materials are often no longer available and must be replaced by similar materials. With the ban on the importation of materials such as ivory and tortoiseshell, it is difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce certain instruments exactly. Some artisans use recycled materials, such as ivory from piano keys, or substitute synthetic products resembling the more precious substances.

Many Canadian instrument makers use indigenous woods. Maple, Sitka spruce and black cherry, for example, are ideal for the construction of many types of instruments, and the forests of British Columbia, eastern Ontario and southern Quebec are particularly rich sources of wood for stringed instruments. Some artisans find interesting materials in buildings that are being demolished, as wood from old house frames offers a number of attractive qualities, including dryness.

Other instruments or instrument parts are made exclusively of imported woods. Among the most popular are Brazilian rosewood and Pernambuco wood, and European spruce and boxwood. These woods offer numerous advantages, including flexibility, resistance to warping and to splitting when they are turned on a lathe, and superior acoustics. Unfortunately, the widespread fires in the Amazon forests are threatening the supply of rosewood; and the European woods that are popular because of their age, such as close-grained spruce, are becoming increasingly rare.

Instrument makers must respond to the changing musical tastes of their clientele and the public. This principle has dictated the evolution of music and instrument making for centuries. Many luthiers agree that musical instruments are constantly changing and that there is always room for innovation and improvement even on a Stradivarius violin, which is considered the ultimate in stringed instruments. Some artisans have unquestionably improved instruments by making them more mechanically stable and reducing the risks of warping and breaking, while at the same time preserving their intrinsic aesthetics and tone.

For these reasons, such instruments must be considered original, even if they imitate the style of an earlier period. Like Stradivari, who refused to copy the violins of Amati, his master, our Canadian instrument makers imbue their instruments with a totally original character. As can be seen throughout this study, this originality derives primarily from the inventiveness, sensitivity and professionalism of Canadian luthiers and instrument makers.