The violins of the 17th-century master Antonio Stradivarius will be the focus of an exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum this summer, in a display of instruments universally regarded as the height of the musical craftsman’s art.
At periods during the exhibition, from June 13 to August 11, visitors will have an opportunity to see present-day violin-makers at work.
One firm, Oxford Violins, has been invited to set up a workshop where there will be demonstrations of the various stages of creating an instrument.
Bruno Guastalla, Michael Kearns and Mark Yakoushkin established their own present workshop in central Oxford in 1983 but have been working together since the late 1970s, originally in Abingdon.
This was at the former music shop of Haken and Bell. Mr Kearns had been asked if he could help the business to extend its range of activities by providing a service for instrumental players. Mr Guastalla and Mr Yakoushkin, whose speciality is working with violin bows, joined him.
Mr Kearns, who is Canadian, developed his existing interest in violins when he came to Oxford and went on to study violin-making at the Newark School of Musical Instrument Making.
Mr Guastalla had trained in the art in his native France and Mr Yakoushkin brought his own skills from the United States, where he had also studied art.
“That is how it started,” says Mr Guastalla.
“We were basically independent within the Abingdon shop but then we decided that we wanted to fly with our own wings so we set up a place of our own in Oxford.
“We were confident we could succeed as we had a number of working relationships with some of the dealers in London. We knew we could gain plenty of work, as we do a lot of restoration of instruments.”
These are violas and cellos, as well as violins.
In the early days the three worked with — and learned from — other musical craftsmen and also the players of the instruments.
Among these was the late Carass Topham, who made and restored violins from his home in Radley. It was he who helped Mr Yakoushkin develop his knowledge of how the shape, flexibility and other aspects of design affect the contribution the bow makes to the sound of an instrument.
Materials for the bows include pernambuco, a wood grown in Brazil, while horse-hair, is imported from Mongolia.
For the back of a violin, the wood is maple or sycamore, while the front, known also as the table or sound-board, is of a softwood such as spruce. The maple is mostly European, the spruce an Alpine variety.
Some of the woods used in instrument making are from areas now protected because of deforestation and so in short supply.
“Some are becoming more difficult to get, with only limited supplies — which is as it should be where they need to be protected,” said Mr Guastalla.
For the strings, there are choices of materials including metal, synthetic fibres and the traditional sheep-gut.
An instrument requires various other items such as pegs, bridges — made from Bosnian maple — and the head and tailpieces and other finishings. Each of the team works individually on a project but they discuss their ideas.
Sometimes they combine their skills in the making of an instrument, so for a cello project Mr Guastalla makes the back, the head and the tailpiece and contributed the purfling — the ornamental borders — and the varnishing.
Mr Kearns worked on the front, the ribs, the edge-shaping and the finishing, while the bow lies in the hands of Mr Yakoushkin.
The violins may be made as commissions for individual musicians and here there are very delicate nuances of sound production to meet the stringent demands of the client.
“It is something that is difficult to describe in words,” said Mr Guastalla. “We have to have an openness to hear what it is that people might need.”
Some musicians prefer to play a new instrument, perhaps made especially for them while others favour the tone produced by an older instrument or one of antique vintage.
Some may find a lighter instrument easier to handle, others may prefer one that is more weighty.
Restoration of violins, violas and cellos is a major part of the work of Oxford Violins, along with the buying and selling of instruments of a wide range of ages and values.
Clients include professional musicians — a recent visitor was a member of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra — amateur players and young people taking up an instrument for the first time.
This is an international business, with clients from many destinations.
“Because there are few violin makers worldwide and because musicians travel around a great deal, it is natural the market should be an international one,” said Mr Guastalla.
He and his colleagues are very much looking forward to making their contribution to the exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum.
“We are very pleased to have been asked.
“The collections at the museum are world class and their quality is staggering.
“All violin makers have enormous respect for the work that was done by the Italian instrument-makers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
“They have clarity and design that has been pretty much unequalled.”