David Rattray has been active in making and restoring violin family instruments for some three decades. After more than 25 years as musical instrument curator at the Royal Academy of Music, he has relocated to Scotland. He has been involved in a broad range of violin-related endeavors, from lecturing and curating exhibitions, to the reconstruction of the Mary Rose fiddles and the copying of Paganini’s ‘Cannon’ Guarneri del Gesù, and as director of the Vivaldi Project – a Venetian-style baroque orchestra, the largest instrument commission of modern times. He is a member of the Ente Triennale Scientific Committee, Cremona and served as a jury member of the Antonio Stradivari International Violin Making Competition 2009. His books include Violin Making in Scotland 1750-1950, published in 2006; Masterpieces of Italian Violin Making 1620–1850, his first book, which is now in its second edition; and as curator of the Becket Collection of historical musical instruments, his book on the collection was published 2010.
What first drew you to the idea of becoming a luthier?
I recently relocated with my family from London to the place where I grew up: Kirkcaldy a medium-sized town overlooking the Forth and Edinburgh beyond. Life was pretty slow back in the early 1970s, but anything felt possible; the moon landings and David Bowie on Top of the Pops seemed proof of that, albeit in black and white.
Playing in the school band and practising didn’t feel too much like work, and it filled the time. For a while I even considered music college, but in the end, aged 16, opted for an engineering apprenticeship and regular pay. Around then I’d discovered traditional music and became involved in the Edinburgh music scene. The group Battlefield played on Stefan Sobell citterns and mandolins. I loved their sound and soon commissioned a couple of instruments, leading to my first visit to a luthier’s workshop. I also got to know a couple of Edinburgh makers and thought this could be for me.
It was only after moving to London after a year in Amsterdam that I applied for a place on the violin-making course at the musical instrument technology department within the old London College of Furniture (now part of the Metropolitan University). It was great meeting like-minded souls, as well as getting to know the founder of the course, Willie Luff. We visited the London auctions. I still remember the impact of the Sotheby’s sale, which included the Lady Blunt and three other outstanding Strads. After making my first instrument, I was hooked.
How did you take your first steps in the profession?
After college I set up my own workshop concentrating on new making, but during that time I also as gained valuable experience through visiting and working with other makers. A couple of years later, the harpsichord maker Malcolm Greenhalgh mentioned the vacancy as instrument curator at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM). I was offered the job. From that point on, life was on fast track and my outlook on violin making was profoundly changed.
As curator of the instrument collection at the RAM, what were your chief duties and what were the most demanding and rewarding aspects of the job?
The form and function of the role evolved over many years; it was not always the high-tech York Gate department it is today. Back in 1989, still feeling rather green, I shared a small office outside the Duke’s Hall. The instrument collection, neglected for decades, was housed in a large, dusty recess, open to the atmosphere behind the opera theatre. The shocking impression was that of a junk shop, with instruments out of cases and little in the way of an inventory; the first couple of years included tracking down outstanding loans. Eventually things took shape with the establishment of a workshop and instrument store on the third floor, and with a loan scheme and departmental budget in place, things were soon looking up. A couple of part-time assistants were appointed to help with the ongoing workload, and eventually a full-time PA.
Apart from strings maintenance, an important skill was the pairing of instruments and borrowers. For years I attended most of the RAM concerts, working with the head of strings and soon getting to know everyone’s playing. In 1991, with the encouragement of Charles Beare, the first book on the collection was published; this work rightly highlighted the significance of the collection, while also serving to diminish the appetite of potential asset strippers who may have anticipated the sale of a Strad or two.
I recently visited the RAM museum and was sorry to observe many of the instruments have gone off display, but was delighted as always to see the ‘Archinto’ Strad (viola, 1696). I still get excited by this piece, but meeting it for the first time was certainly a game changer. Working late evenings and weekends for a year I still feel pleased with the resulting copy, and count it as the first serious instrument. Being able to see great old classical works certainly helps dictate style.
Personal highlights of my time at the RAM included the incorporation of the David Josefowitz (or Fridart) collection that was on loan to the institution, with eight Stradivaris, four Guarneris and works by Seraphin, Tononi, Maggini, Deconet, Grancino and Testore. There was also the development of a historical performance collection, as well as setting up exhibitions on Cremonese and British makers. Also I was pleased to have the support of the institution in undertaking research on Scottish lutherie. The resulting volume was published in 2006.
Which violin makers and/or particular instruments do you love most and what qualities stand out in them for you (both in their construction and in their sound)?
I was eventually able to cut back on curatorial hours to allow additional time for making. Over 25 years violin copies include Stradivari, Seraphin, Goffriller, Guadagnini, Grancino and several on del Gesù models; violas after Guadagnini, Guarneri and Gasparo; also a handful of cellos after Stradivari, Guarneri, Celoniatus and an Amati five-stringer.
I appreciate a wide variety of historical work, often the earlier the better. With violins there are plenty of great classical models to provide inspiration, but with violas good old pure examples are scarce. Often, however, less aesthetically beautiful instruments can be most successful tonally. Thinking about some cut-down Italian tenors, for instance, such as a viola attributed to Gasparo da Salo in the RAM collection: it possesses relatively low arching, wide bridge platform and elongated sound holes, and it plays amazingly well. Of course one can interpret such instruments to give a personal stamp, working within the framework of the general form. To date I’ve made around 35 instruments on that model.
What would be your advice to violin-making students?
Try to keep a passion for the profession. Find a model that works and that players love, and learn by making the same model again and again. That way you begin to develop an instinctive feel for the original, and through that begin to acquire a personal style. In addition, get away from of antique copies; rather look at pure old examples such as the “Viotti” Stradivari (1709) and try to find an aesthetic in keeping with the classics. Patrick Robin and Martin Bouette are makers I admire with regard to this approach. Regarding varnish and pigments: don’t faff around for too long with home-made recipes; there are some really good stable and consistent products available from specialist luthier suppliers.
You’ve made instruments modelled upon those of many great historic luthiers. What are some of the issues you face in doing so?
My instruments mainly are built on a Stradivari style inside moulds, although occasionally this differs; for example, making a copy of an early English viola, the ribs were built on the back, as they were in the original.
Certain classical violins can be challenging to copy, in particular the works of Guarneri del Gesù, where because of a twisted rib garland the front and back outlines can be significantly different. To incorporate this I use a full-depth, three-part mould, the thin section upper and lower parts following the lines of the original; outlines and arching templates are revised to correct distortion and wear. The use of body and head casts are recommended where possible, as photographs can be equally useful and deceptive from the point of view of camera and printing distortions and colour perception.
What is it like to handle, for example, the great Cremonese instruments of the 17th-18th century – and just how cool-headed must you be to take a blade to them to do repairs?
The priority is to always preserve the integrity of the original work and to ensure that what is done can be undone. Thankfully the great old instruments I worked on at the RAM generally only required gluing up, retouching, cleaning, neck and set-up work, although occasionally a table would require removal to attend a crack, replacement edgework or to refit a patch, etc.
One works on a clean, protected, dust-free surface, and with great care, avoiding tools mounted around bench area and with a hope for a period in which the phone won’t ring too often. During my last few years in Marylebone Road I found it increasingly difficult, with appointments and meetings, to manage quality time at the bench.
What advice would you give to talented young string players who need good instruments, but can’t afford today’s prices? Which modern instrument-makers do you most rate?
I think we can all agree the days of picking up a nice old Italian fiddle at an affordable price have gone. However, there are for instance some great, underrated London makers: Betts, Panormo, Fendt, Chanot, Lott, Boullangier and Dodd come to mind. I can think of many excellent modern British makers. The best advice is to get around, meet the makers, and talk to other players. If someone says “What you need, my darling, is an old Italian,” I’d wonder slightly about personal motivation – or perhaps I’m just becoming an old cynic.
How much of the mystique around Strads might perhaps be just that – mystique – and how much is justified, in your view?
The reputation of the great classical makers from Andrea Amati through to Bergonzi cannot be underestimated; this sentiment can also be applied to the early Brescian and Venetian schools. Any mystique may sit in the notion that a singe craftsman was responsible for each labelled work. We know, for instance, that Stradivari was assisted by his sons; but considering the vast and varied output of the Stradivari business, surely there was a small army of other artisans contributing to the output of lutes, mandolins, guitars, viols, harps, bows and cases. Hopefully research will reveal more on this general area.
What are the most important tips you would give someone in possession of a fine instrument on how to care for it?
Remember that one is simply the custodian. You may have purchased the instrument, but you do not own it to do with as you will. To be slightly flippant:
Don’t leave in a train
Don’t take it down the pub
Don’t let it get too dry – keep an eye on humidity
Don’t use oily or abrasive cleaners
Don’t travel with it by bike
Don’t stuff your case full of music
Don’t forget to fasten the catches before you set off!
Finally, if a cab driver asks, ‘what you got in there love, one of them Stradavinki’s?’ say: “Of course – what else?”
Last but not least, how are you enjoying life in Scotland? And what are you making at the moment?
Workwise, I’m already pleased to have a number of visits from BBC Scottish and Scottish Chamber Orchestra players, and am also looking forward to a part-time teaching role at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland next term. I’m keeping busy on the making front, among other things currently varnishing a viola, which has an interesting story. Towards the end of last year I was contacted by an Australian musician with a view to making a viola. Apparently he’d come into the possession of an old, partially carved back and table wedge, the work begun by Ken Jones who was unable to finish the piece. The outline being similar to a 17th-century Italian viola by Mariani, this provided the basis for arching, sound hole and scroll form.
I’m really enjoying the new house and the location on the outskirts of town, with a large wooded garden; it’s also great to catch up with old mates in Edinburgh. I plan to be in London for occasional visits. Compared to the metropolis it can feel rather quiet here, but certainly I have no regrets.