Mystery of the birth of the violin.
Is there a mystery in the wonderful and exquisite sound of Stradivari's, Amati's, and Guarneri's violins? Violin master Alexander Rabinovich, who now resides in St. Petersburg, has managed to prove that his instruments can meet all the criteria of the famous violin masters of the XVII-XVIII centuries.
- What was the beginning of your relationship with the violin?
- It may look like a mere chance. But I think there are no mere chances in life. Today, I can hardly imagine my life without violins… When I was a child, one of my classmates was the son of a violin master. We became friends and so I started going into his father's, Ivan Petrovich Krivov's, workshop. I became interested: why are instruments, although similar in appearance, indeed so different? One really sounds, the other doesn't. The same size, four strings, two boards, a stick - that's all. But the sound of one is live, beautiful and genuine, while the other's is not. And it so happens, that I have been wondering about these questions up until now without being able to provide a satisfactory answer.
- So a childhood acquaintance determined your future fate?
- Yes. And I was lucky. I do not only consider him my teacher but, at that time, the only serious master in all of Leningrad. From the 1950-ies to the 1980-ies there were many others who repaired instruments or tried to make them, but it was amateurs' level. There was just one professional - Krivov.
- How did you start your experiments with sound?
- Repairing was the starting point. The initial experience came when working with broken factory-made instruments - only working with such ones will allow for the necessary experience to be gained (instruments made by a master can only be restored; either you like them and restore, or, if you don't, you don't work with them at all). With factory-made instruments one may change the lacquer or width, make a new sounding board, etc.
- During centuries, musicians and violin masters have been trying hard to find out the reasons which produce the unique sound of the masterpieces by the Great Italians. Many hypotheses have been put forward…
This was the point from which I started thinking. There are several theories about how the Italian masters managed to get this perfect sound. For example, that the voice of a violin is more dependent on its construction, on the proportion between the widths of different parts of the body, on the shape of bends and curves than on the qualities of the material. So they start to copy ancient instruments, respecting the sizes up to a fraction of a millimeter, the colour of the lacquer, and even the scratches which appear as time passes. But the result was always different. At the most, the violin sounded loudly. There is no breathing, live voice - none at all! According to another theory - the theory of tuning - each point of the body should be checked and repeat the pitch of the sound. I made measurements of genuine instruments myself and haven't found any strict patterns. All this, I believe, would lead us to say that the sound of an instrument depends on itself. There seems to be just one rule - maximal solidity at minimal weight.
- So researchers usually strive to copy only the external characteristics of an instrument?
- As a rule, yes. However, there are some Italian instruments with wonderful voices and sound that are externally quite far from the ideal. Sometimes they were made so carelessly that made you feel ill at ease: how ever could they? But the sound is nevertheless wonderful. I supposed that the secret lies in the micro-structure of the material and the peculiarities of the wood used for making them. It seems that in Italy of the XVII-XVIII centuries, or maybe earlier, there existed a special way of treating the wood. My task was to rediscover, if possible, the lost technology: the technology of "sounding material".
- The technology of "sounding material"… What does it mean? Where is the mystery of the sound of Stradivari's violins hidden?
- The main secret is in the method used for grinding the wood, in forming a special structure of the material. The capillary tubes of which the wood in fact consists of becomes, after special processing, hollow and they start to act as resonators. Each of them answers to a certain frequency, to a sound of a certain pitch. As all tubes are different in linear sizes, length and width, they together respond to a big diapason of sound. My task is only to free the natural capillaries from all which may prevent them from resounding, and then strengthen them with a special polymeric substance.
- Is this substance also a part of a secret technology?
- Well, I won't tell you all the details but will just specify the nature of the "strengthener". On Mt Etna's slope there was a field of amber. It was possible to get directly from it a polymer that was elastic and at the same time solid, chemically neutral, and impeding the instrument's aging for a dozen of millions of years. It was the basis of the grounding and lacquering used by Italian masters up to the XIX century. At the end of the XVIII century these sources of amber started to exhaust. Although nature distilled the amber of Mt. Etna, I managed to reproduced this process in a laboratory working with Baltic amber. The effect is the same and if we look at the process as a whole, we can see that it is similar to the natural way of making violins. This discovery was of principle value to me. I feel close to professor Preobrazhensky from Bulgakov's "Dog's Heart" who thought of the uselessness of an artificial creation of a human being. The same goes for violins. We are surrounded by forests, given to us by nature. Wood, in its very essence, is perfect. We need not re-invent anything, just realize this and use wood the way it should be.
- There is an opinion that an instrument has to "ripen", that real acoustic peculiarities of wood show later. Does your violin need time to "warm up"?
- Yes, to some extent. As long as the musician needs to get used to the instrument. For example, one famous violinist told me after a year and a half of constant playing of my violin, and only it, for he did not have other violins at that time: "You won't believe it but I am still finding new capabilities of the instrument". The matter is that, at every stage of the process of making an instrument I stabilize each step. As a result, the violin, whether alt or quinton, won't be exposed to corrosion, won't react on exposure. They sound well immediately, don't need to dry up, but it is not easy to learn to use their capabilities.
- How long do violins live?
- I can affirm one thing with certainty: warranty on my instruments is 300 years. After that, we may get back to this question. Generally speaking, violins that were made the way they should, live long. Their main enemy is corrosion. If it were not for it - and of course for external breakages - an instrument could live for many centuries.
- Some of your instruments have proper names. How do they get them?
- By chance. It is not a rule for me. There are many violins which I call in jest "nameless star". In the case of some of them the name is self-evident. For instance, a certain "violinette" (when the conversation centers around one instrument in particular, the master calls it with this endearing designation - Yu. R.) received the name "Joker" because of a certain event: the violinist had to play at a concert, but his really excellent instrument was out of order. My violin suited him in sound, and so it played the specific role of a joker, the card which replaces any card. The violin "Amati" was made after a model by Niccolo Amati and thus was given that name. The violinette "Lace-maker" was named so due to the lace-like "dress" of the sounding boards which I "sewed" for it.
- Do you trace the fate of your instruments?
- I've been doing so recently, but many of them I have lost sight of. I have even lost count of their total: something between 150 and 160. In the 1970-ies I used to sell instruments to Moscow, to the factory of applied arts. I have no idea what happened to them after.
- Did it happen that some of your violins got into wrong hands?
- Unfortunately yes. Twice in such a case I bought the instruments back. Thank goodness, it was not expensive. And I was happy.
- In your mind, do you feel your instruments are like living beings or are they only the result of a precise analysis and a well-done job?
- I don't like to dwell on self-analysis. When I say goodbye to a violin - yes, I feel something. The buyer takes it away and who can guess its future fate? But it is just lyrics. My job is to plan, do what one must, and let it be the way it should.
- Every autumn, for the last five years, the "Early Music Festival" has been held in our city. Your instruments are used for performing both parts of scores and whole concerts. What is the value of this cultural event for you?
- To me it is not just a festival. From the moment the festival was first organized my life has been very closely connected with ancient music. The mere opening of this marvelous event in the early 1990-ies was a revelation for me. I suddenly felt that music could be performed in a different way from the usual one. What I don't like in the modern approach is sportiveness, the musician's wish to play in a more obvious manner than other violinists. To play loud, to goggle, to call it 'expression', to sweat and cry. It does not touch the heart. And it makes one feel that all this is aimed at declaring: "Here I am, notice me!". In music, I am interested only in music, and those who want only themselves to be noticed are unnecessary here. Authentic manner supposes even another type of sound creating: not rigid, ideally smooth, even stiff, but with breathing. It brings about a feeling of liveliness.
- To play ancient music, do musicians need to read not only the composers' biographies but also play special instruments?
- Of course. In the early 1990-ies I became seriously involved in studying ancient instrument making. The fact is that, in the first half of the XIX century, the French master Vuillaume and his alumni won a historic competition of instrument-making. They not only invented a new technique for violin making - the instruments made since are made following this technique - but also copied all ancient violins. I don't consider this to be right and necessary. Stradivari was hardly more stupid than Vuillaume. For instance, they changed the neck to strengthen the sound. Ancient masters made it of fir-tree wood with a good resonance and added a thin ebony plating on top. It created a light and firm sounding instrument. It felt even the finest nuances of tuning because even an extra one-tenth, or even one-hundredth part of a gram of the weight can hinder. Now plating it is done from ebony monolith. It is like putting a railroad sleeper on an instrument. Knights were killed with swords made of this wood! The balance of the instrument changes: the neck outbalances and begins to brake the sound.
- What are you doing now - modern violins or baroque ones?
- The majority of all the instruments I make are made following ancient techniques. They have a different support, a different string-holder - flacky like the neck, ideally firm and light. Any music can be played on them from Biber or Vivaldi to Webern or Schnitke. But for decades now performers have been used to other instruments and the 'wrong' neck hurts their eyes. So sometimes they ask me to make a Vuillaume model. I can make both.
- Where are your instruments played?
- In 2001, at the IV Festival of Ancient Music, the first professional baroque orchestra of Russia, the Katherine the Great Orchestra, was created. It was initially decided that musicians would play my violins and alts as the potential of the instruments enables to get the desired sound. It is now possible to say that this goal was successfully met. Critics declared that it was a kind of reconstruction of Louis the XIV's "24 Royal Violins" orchestra. The orchestra released its first disk, the first "authentic" version of Antonio Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" in our country. Last Autumn, two of my quintons, "Kirill" and "Methodius", were presented to the audience by Sergey Filchenko and Nazar Kozhukhar in Telemann's "Duet". I have reconstructed this ancient instrument to get many excellent compositions written especially for it out of oblivion.
At the last "Early Music Festival" an outstanding Petersburg violinist Andrey Reshetin performed a unique concert. The program included sonatas by H.I.F. Biber, written in such a way that each sonata requires its own tuning (scordatura) of the violin. It is difficult to re-tune the violin during the concert because it would worsen the quality of the sound: the instrument has to get used to a new distribution of the pressure of the strings on the body. This is why for even only a part of this cycle a musician needs several violins. I had five good violins which helped to hold the concert. Among the owners of my violins there are various laureates of international competitions such as Maria Krestinskaya, Ilia Gringoltz, Sergey Filchenko, and the first lead player of the Mariinsky Theatre orchestra Sergey Levitin.
- Professional musicians and musical critics consider you as one of the best violin masters of Russia and your instruments enjoy recognition all around the world.
- There are many different and endless nuances in the technique of instrument making. Each of them leads to the appearance of a specific shade of the violin's voice. It is like people's voices. They are all different, one can see something unique in any of them, something different from all the others. The same goes for my instruments - each differs from its predecessor and this process is endless. The search for something new is going on, and will be going on eternally.
#5 novembe-december. 2002. "Art&Times"