Shrader, Erin, Strings
Seattle luthier David Van Zandt turns to Stainer and del Gesù for inspiration
HIS NAME IS NOT ON THE DOOR, nor will you find him in the phone book, or even see him if you happen by his window-the shade is always drawn. But musicians know where to find him, and his name is particularly well known among early-music performers who play his Baroque and classical instruments in professional ensembles alongside centuries-old originals. David Van Zandt makes both early and modern stringed instruments in the red-brick shop he shares with fellow violin maker Aimin Barnett on a quiet side street in Seattle.
The violin he's making today is based on the "Lord Wilton," made in 1742 by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù. Van Zandt has made many successful "modern" instruments on this pattern. Picking up a nearly finished back, he lays it on a life-size photograph of the original. The outlines match. He points out the flattish ends of the upper and lower bouts, as if del Gesù had just widened an earlier pattern by adding a narrow strip in the middle without adjusting the rest of the outline.
While the outlines match, Van Zandt doesn't make copies. Working within the confines of a pattern that is known to work and measurements considered standard for modern instruments, he will make adjustments to achieve a certain sound for a particular client, or to satisfy his own curiosity. Even if he wanted to make an exact copy, it wouldn't be possible. He uses John Hancock as an analogy. Anyone can write the name, everyone will recognize it, but the handwriting can never be the same. The same is true of violin making.
"You've got a Strad, everybody knows what it is," he says.
But no two makers will use their tools in precisely the same way; no hand can cut exactly the same f-hole. The finished violin is as unique as a signature.
Van Zandt's career took an unusual turn after violin-making school when he went to work for William Monical in New York, the foremost practitioner of early-instrument restoration. "Most violin shops don't want anything to do with early instruments," he says, but at Monical's he had the opportunity to see and work on instruments, in original condition with every possible type of setup, by such old masters as Thir, Albani, and Stainer.
At school he had learned the skills to make "a very accurate violin-shaped object." Working at Monical's, he says, "I learned what a violin was. What made it tick.
"Nothing was standard. Early violins and violas were more individual and regional," he adds, explaining that they developed according to local standards of pitch and measurement. For example, the pitch A was simply A on the local church organ, while the local unit of measure might be the length of a finger or a foot on a statue in the center of town. Early French violins, he says, tended to have a longer string and neck length than Italian instruments of the same period. Bridges, sound posts, and bass bars were not uniform in size, and their placement was determined by the arching, which was designed around where the bridge goes-bringing the discussion back to pitch, which was determined locally.
By listening to an instrument before and after taking it apart, Van Zandt was able to develop theories about what worked and what didn't. By working with a range of instruments and setups, he learned how the size and placement of post, bass bar, bridge, arching, and graduations all work together-the principles behind the standard measurements in use today.
This experience gives him greater flexibility in how he balances those variables to get a particular sound for a client. Of course he has more room for interpretation on early-style instruments. "I don't have to use a 44.5 millimeter bridge or a bass bar that's 27 centimeters long. The question is, how do I get to the point that I can make my best instrument, understanding why I make the arch this way."
For modern instruments he sticks closer to the measurements specified in Simone Sacconi's book The "Secrets" of Stradivari, published in 1972. These standards, he explains, became set in the 1850s and now that's what people expect. Too much deviation earns criticism from judges, dealers, or even savvy musicians who whip out their tape measures to see that an instrument adheres to the norm.
Still, understanding the principles behind the standards helps Van Zandt refine his modern instruments within the standards: "How do I use the Sacconi measurements? What do I do with the arching to satisfy the client's request for sound?" He also must make an instrument that satisfies his own curiosity: based on the ideas of the classical masters, but uniquely a Van Zandt.
For his Baroque violins, Van Zandt uses a Jacob Stainer pattern from 1655. Stainer's instruments were highly prized by musicians all over Europe before Stradivari's work appeared, and his patterns make successful Baroque instruments today. The arching is higher than what Strad or del Gesù made, but more important than the height of the arching is the shape and how it resolves, he says.
For modern instruments he uses the Lord Wilton, but not exclusively. He also offers a slightly diminutive mid-1730's-era del Gesù, which musicians find comfortable to play without compromising on sound. Van Zandt breaks with convention by using a pre-Golden Era Strad model, a pattern taken from a 1683 instrument. The arching ideas on the original are closer to Amati's, he says, more curvaceous. He also interprets that early outline with a later-style, flatter arch, as seen on the "Betts" Strad of 1704.
A SOLITARY PURSUIT
Van Zandt makes modern and Baroque violas on the same pattern. It's based on the 1697 Andrea Guarneri belonging to William Primrose, but influenced by an earlier Andrea Guarneri viola in the David Fulton collection, the 1676 "Conte Vitale."
Violin making can be a solitary pursuit, but Van Zandt enjoys conversation among colleagues. He travels to work with makers in other parts of the country; he attends summer workshops at Oberlin College and meetings of the Violin Society of America and the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. He stays in touch with colleagues by phone and participates in online discussions with other makers. His website (www.vanzandtviolins.com) is a veritable treasure trove of links and information about the violin trade. As the new secretary of the AFVBM, his job is to facilitate communication among members. And he has started making instruments with his shop mate, Armin Barnett. Their first joint instrument was a viola and now they're collaborating on a 1685 Nicolo Amati violin. "I feel privileged to work with Armin," he says. "It's hard to slack off."
All this sharing is an important factor in the high level of violin making today, he says. "The old guild system was insulated, it kept family secrets. There's less of that now."
Makers are well informed, he says, and their methodology is classically oriented, starting at the source-the great instruments, themselves. He sees an increased respect for new makers as they produce consistent instruments that satisfy professional musicians and stand the test of time.
Van Zandt started violin-making school in 1979: "We talked, ate, and slept violins. It was very exciting."
Even all these years later the excitement hasn't stopped. "I can't do anything else," he concludes.
By listening to an instrument before and after taking it apart, Van Zandt was able to develop theories about what worked and what didn't.
The old guild system ... kept family secrets.
-David Van Zandt
Strings lutherie editor ERIN SHRADER is a bow maker and repairer. She apprenticed with Charles Espey of Port Townsend, Washington, and repaired and restored bows at David Stone Violins in Seattle, where she gained valuable insight into the lutherie and stringed-instrument retail trades. Shrader is a former National Endowment for the Arts Fellow who earned a bachelor of music degree from the Early Music Institute at the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana. In this issue, she chronicles her visit with fine-instrument collector David Fulton in "Mondo Italiano!"…
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Publication information: Article title: Signature Series. Contributors: Shrader, Erin - Author. Magazine title: Strings. Volume: 20. Issue: 3 Publication date: October 2005. Page number: 102+. © String Letter Publishing Mar 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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