The Wolfgang Stegmüllers, father and son, have set a cat among some pigeons with a new ‘conical’ model of stringed instruments, designed for stronger projection of tone. Jessica Duchen met them in Munich
In an airy, skylit studio in the heart of Schwabing, central Munich, the luthier Wolfgang Stegmüller is showing me an instrument unlike any I’ve seen before. It looks like an ordinary violin – almost. It also sounds like one – plus. Yet walk into the next room while it’s being played and you can hear it more loudly and clearly than you might expect. This instrument, and its viola and cello siblings on display across the room, are examples of a new model that Stegmüller has invented: a ‘conical’ shape, designed for extra projection of sound. And to judge from this encounter, it works.
The idea sounds simple, but represents a startling innovation in this centuries-old art. The design, Stegmüller explains, mirrors a megaphone: the back of the instrument is slightly smaller than the front, so the ribs that connect the two fan outwards instead of being straight. Stegmüller has patented the model so that only he and his luthier son, also named Wolfgang Stegmüller, can legally produce them.
An all-consuming passion
Stegmüller senior did not make his first violin until he was over 30 and working as a contractor in the housing industry. He was also a keen amateur cellist, but at first, he says, he was not interested in making instruments. His motivation in starting to explore the craft was different: ‘I wanted to uncover the secrets of Stradivari – which is a big task,’ he laughs.
His passion for the topic became all-consuming. Crunch time arrived when a luthier in Paris asked him how many violins he had made. ‘I said: “Not one”. He said “You are crazy! How can you decide what’s worth thinking about if you don’t make instruments?” That was the signal.
‘I had never worked with my hands and with wood, but I bought tools and materials and started on my first cello. It was rather solid,’ he smiles, ‘but it could be played. I knew it was not my last, but I also knew it had to be better. In the following 20 years or so I made about 40 cellos, 20 violins and 20 violas alongside my profession as contractor, working nights and weekends, just for fun.’
His son soon began to take an interest. ‘I would go into the workshop to look for my father, because it was the only place you would find him!’ he remembers. ‘I was interested in making toys, but he wouldn’t let me use any of the sharp knives. I was five years old when he gave me my first very small cello– and I had fun with it.’
Music and woodwork played an increasingly large part in his childhood. ‘Eventually my father offered that we could make a violin together for my 16th birthday.’ Soon the younger Wolfgang followed a path that his father had never taken: he went to study violin-making in Cremona.
After two decades, though, Wolfgang père’s own enthusiasm had begun to drain. ‘The young musicians would come in, try the instruments and say “Yes, this is OK”. But then they’d pick up a Stradivari or del Gesù and soon you would see in their eyes the glimmer of love for that instrument…’
He decided to stop. But an insistent friend had other ideas. She commissioned from him a trio of instruments for the Musik Hochschüle in Munich and told him to name his terms. He asked, he says, for time. He wanted to find a new way forward.
‘I noticed that the loudest instruments are those with loudspeakers, notably the brass,’ he says. ‘But how to realise this in a stringed instrument? Many violin makers should have had the same idea and the opposite question is: why not? Because it didn’t exist before. These instruments and the music for them had developed together and the technique of playing a work such as the Brahms concerto depends on what soloists can do on their violins. So if you try to change the technique of playing, you can forget it – no classical musician would follow you.’
A moot point, though, was whether a design that has remained essentially unchanged since the baroque era could perhaps benefit from some adaptation for the 21st century. A louder stringed instrument, easy to play and to rely on for projection, might be a timely addition to the soloist’s arsenal.
Stegmüller worked in secret at first, organising his patent as soon as his design was ready. He began with a cello, since it was the instrument he played himself. Once it was finished, he showed it to Daniel Müller-Schott. ‘The cello was on a chair,’ Stegmüller relates, ‘Daniel walked past it – but after three steps he turned round and said, “What’s that?” For me that was a sign that the instrument was different, but just different enough.”
‘The booth of the bad boys’
The moment of truth came at the Cremona Mondomusica 2010, when Stegmüller took the plunge and unveiled his invention to the trade. ‘Imagine,’ he says, ‘about 300 makers and dealers were there, thousands of classical instruments – and our first appearance: the booth of the bad boys!’ Wolfgang junior was with him, having been working on a conical instrument on the side while completing his official studies.
The instruments inevitably caused discussion and some controversy. ‘Some of the luthiers noted that it’s much more difficult to make,’ says Stegmüller, ‘because in the classical method the ribs are square, but here they have two radiuses, so it’s more complicated. One Italian maker was quiet for a while – then suddenly he exploded. He said: “They have no secret! You can see what they do!”
‘I didn’t understand at first, but then it became clear. For hundreds of years, every violin maker has been making the same model, so they must have a description of what’s special about their instrument: the arching, the thickness of the back, the combination, the varnish, etc, though the instrument looks like the others, without a special aspect or sign of uniqueness. So all the other violin makers have to explain why their violin is “the one”; they have only secrets because they don’t show what they are doing. With our instruments, you can see at once that it’s different.’
Keeping the ideal
But in the end it is the sound that counts. ‘If you have a sound ideal which is exemplified by, for instance, an great old Italian instrument, and you copy that, you have millions of possibilities of errors, because if you don’t reach the same sound, you have to work out why not,’ says Stegmüller. ‘You risk losing your sound ideal, because it is too easy to give up and say “Well, it depends who’s playing it, it sounds different…” But your own sound ideal is the centre of what you’re doing, and is the real reason for it. And if, as we do, you work with your own construction, if you don’t reach your sound ideal you just have to ask yourself: what did I hear, and what can I change to reach it?
‘The sound ideal of conical instruments is the gift,’ he adds. ‘There’s much more energy to the sound. In the classical model the sound waves jump against the ribs and that takes away part of the energy, whereas with these instruments nearly all the soundwaves come back to the top, which projects the sound. So in the conical instruments you have more power to your sound, more energy.
Larger sounds for larger halls
‘Concert halls have become bigger and bigger, more and more people play in these halls and if you play the Brahms Concerto in the Munich Philharmonie, which is difficult anyway, you know that your sound can reach the back row. That’s part of our sound ideal, and we think that we can offer more sound for classical music, for modern classical music, and for the general use of those instruments.’
Senta Kraemer, leader of the Munich Chamber Opera Orchestra, is among the musicians who have responded with enthusiasm to these conical instruments. She met Stegmüller at the Leopold Mozart Violin Competition in Augsburg in 2013, where she agreed to use a conical violin for a concert.
‘The first impression was “Wow!”’ she says. ‘What a nice timbre and capacity. I felt very good with it immediately.’ At the Cremona Mondomusica last year she demonstrated the instruments: ‘I played the violin at their booth; it was a very noisy environment, but many people stated that the violin was very clear and excellent to hear, even from far away.’
But isn’t this an invention primarily for soloists? What happens when the sound needs to blend with other, traditionally built instruments? ‘For me there are no disadvantages,’ Kraemer says. ‘Sure, you should play the violin for a time to adjust – but this is always the case. I think it’s a very good instrument for soloists, but it’s also wonderful for chamber music – I played some with my colleagues on this violin. I can only recommend these instruments – and in addition, Wolfgang has so much expert knowledge. Come to Munich and try!’
Or Cremona – or, indeed, London. The Stegmüllers are exhibiting their conical violins at Cremona Mondomusica (25-27 September) and, following our interview, they have also decided to join us at the Amati Exhibition, 1-2 November at the Langham, London.