Form & Function

By Pollens, Stewart | Strings, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Form & Function


Pollens, Stewart, Strings


The wooden forms Stradiva,i used to build violins, violas, and cellos-on display in the States for me first timeare a window into the famous luthier's instrument-making technique

To the best of anyone's knowledge, Antonio Stradivari left no writings informing the world of his theory of violin design and method of construction. However, among the 710 Stradivari workshop relics preserved in the Museum of the Violin in Cremona, Italy, are 16 wood forms he used to make violins and violas of various shapes and sizes (two cello molds are in the Museé de la Musique in Paris). These wooden forms, and several paper patterns, provide a glimpse into the famous violin maker's technique of violin making.

These reusable forms, each exhibiting different overall dimensions and proportions, furnished Stradivari with dimensional accuracy for his violins' rib structure and provided some uniformity for instruments made on each mold. When viewed as a collection, the molds are clear indications of Stradivari's restless experimentation.

For contemporary violin makers, these invaluable relics not only represent a comprehensive collection of violinmaking artifacts to survive the 18th century, they are a window into his violin-making technique that helps to inform the work of modern makers.

For the first time, items from Stradivari's workshop, including many of his molds, are coming to the United States as part of the debut of Mondomusica New York 2013, the stateside version of Cremona's signature violintrade show being held in New York from March 15-17. Stradivari's original drawings, tools, and internal molds from Cremona's Museum of the Violin will be shown in a replica of Strad's workshop.

HOW THE FORMS TOOK SHAPE

Stradivari didn't follow a single evolutionary path in establishing the outline of his instruments. The development of the "longpattern" instruments, used roughly from 1690 through 1700, drew him away from the slightly shorter and broader models developed by the Amati family. However, in 1703 and 1705, he made copies of two of his larger pre-1689 forms, suggesting that he was reviving earlier concepts.

Thought to be Stradivari's earliest form, MB (possibly an abbreviation for modello buono, or good model) is said to have a similar outline to violins made by Stradivari's predecessor, the master builder Nicolò Amati. (Some believe the MB form came into Stradivari's possession after Amati's death in 1684, though I have not encountered any of Stradivari's violins made on it.)

Four of the violin forms are graded in size and inscribed, from largest to smallest, P, S, T, and Q, which likely stand for prima (first), seconda (second), terza (third), and quarta (fourth). Two of these forms, P and S, are roughly identical, and the S forms have a slightly longer counterpart marked SL, probably an abbreviation for seconda lunga (second long).

The forms marked P, PG (prima grande, or first large), and G (grande, or large) are fullsize forms, similar in size and shape, and were used to make the esteemed grandpattern violins, which are shorter and wider than the long-pattern violins. [Ed. note: The "Lady Blunt" of 1721 seems to have been made on the PG form, as indicated by the handwritten inscription in the pegbox.]

Two forms having slightly different dimensions are inscribed with the letter B. The longer of these two appears to have been used to construct the so-called "longpattern" violins made primarily in the 1690s and known for having a darker tone. This form is virtually identical to the SL form made the previous year (see sidebar, "The Dated Forms").

There are also forms for a 1/4-size violin and a violino piccolo, as well as three forms for violas: a broad, earlier design for a contralto viola, a narrower version designed in 1690 for the Medici court, and a large tenor viola form, also designed for the Medici commission (which included two violins and a cello). …

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