Luthier Andreas Hudelmayer uses techniques both ancient and modern to inform the fine stringed instruments he makes in his Clerkenwell studio – plus one huge Bosnian maple. Claudia Pritchard went to see him at work
If you are of a romantic disposition, you will see, in the background of the career of violin-maker Andreas Hudelmayer, a towering Bosnian maple tree, hundreds of years old, and springing from it, the 20 or so cellos that he has already created from its wood. But Hudelmayer himself, 45, would frown gently at this narrative, not to be a killjoy but because ‘myth-busting’ is in his nature. Yes, the end result of all his work is beautiful, inspiring music, and that requires heart as well as head, but his forensic approach to instrument-making relies as much on his computer as on his more traditional tools.
Above all, a spreadsheet system of recording innumerable measurements, of his own instruments and of the historic instruments on which many are based, enables him to see at a glance the physical differences between, say, a Guarneri and his versions based on it, and examining these can shed light on differences in their sound. So valuable has this methodical data collection been, that other makers all over the world have followed suit.
A chin-rest that puts the least strain on the instrument while following the contours of the player’s face, initially designed to accommodate the needs of just one violinist, has also attracted a following. But at the heart of his business are the 60-plus instruments that have come out of the studio in Clerkenwell, a few minutes’ walk from the musical hubs of the Barbican and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, in London.
A creative complex
One floor up, with a distractingly beautiful view, he has creative neighbours in a complex of craftspeople, leaving the door open when work allows: violin-making can be a solitary business, but less so with jewellers, glass workers and even a fresco painter for company. His career as a maker began in this studio 13 years ago, after a long gestation. Growing up in a family of amateur musicians, he played the cello from the age of eight, but admits to playing less since the arrival of his son, who is now four – Hudelmayer is married to the music journalist Joanna Pieters, whom he met at a convention in Dartington.
Having messed around with wood as a youngster, he hit on the idea of combining his love of making things with his love of music, and after his compulsory community service on leaving school in his native Stuttgart, he looked for training as a luthier. ‘I started learning Italian, because I thought I would go to Cremona. But it turned out the best place was the Newark School of Violin Making.’
On graduating with distinction from the Nottinghamshire-based course, he returned to Germany for three years, working as a maker and restorer in a workshop in Potsdam, and then made for Britain again, this time as workshop head at Frederick Phelps in London, getting to know musicians and the trade. But setting up as a maker in his own right was always in his sights.
Taking the risk
‘I gave myself a two-year deadline, which I undercut by a few months. Within a couple of months, both of us parted with our salaries (Joanna had been editing The Strad), and there was a big risk all round. It took about a year until things started turning round. It’s not very easy to ask people to try an instrument you have made. But it’s no good making beautiful instruments if nobody knows they are there.’ But little by little, players did hear that they were there, and an early sale to the Slovenian soloist and teacher Igor Ozim helped put Hudelmayer on the map.
The detailed record keeping was a practice developed at the outset, initially in handwritten log entries in a series of notebooks. ‘They were a lot more detailed than most of my colleagues’. But if it transpires over time that an instrument was better, I can learn from my own making. And then there’s that maxim, “Keep everything the same apart from one thing.” In fact, you can’t do that, because the wood is always different.’
Creating the ‘Italian Sound’
He laughs at the shopping list of requirements that every player wants from his or her instrument – warm but brilliant, playing easily but with enough resistance that the player can lay into it … it all adds up to ‘the Italian sound’. And that’s an evocative phrase, conjuring up glamour and brio. Andreas is pragmatic again – it’s all about, the arching, the thickness of the wood here, and here, and that means another entry in the log books.
When working to commission, he assures the player from the outset that they are not obliged to keep the instrument if it does not work out as they had hoped. Even though a deposit has been handed over – a violin costs from around the same price as a modest secondhand car – that is not binding. ‘They can try the next one, and if that’s not working for them either, they can have their deposit back. It doesn’t happen much, but people change their minds. They change their style.’
It’s a great offer, but hardly likely to be accepted often. Musicians are generous in their praise for Hudelmayers. Stephen Orton, principal cellist, of the orchestra of St Martin in the Fields praises the consistency of his Hudelmayer cello, and there are Hudelmayers are in the London Symphony Orchestra, the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester, the Chilingirian Quartet and the orchestra of English National Opera, as well as in the luggage of many soloists worldwide.
Among them is Raphael Wallfisch who says that he is ‘a wonderful luthier … The beautiful cello that he made for me looks magnificent and sounds terrific. It has a a rich and powerful tone. I would encourage anyone looking for a fine instrument to play a Hudelmayer!’
Endorsements don’t come much higher than that.