Original Montagnana 1723 Violin
1723 Montagnana Violin
(Original)

Cox Violin #741, Montagnana 1723
Cox Violin #741
Montagnana 1723

Why Make Copies?

In the world of craftsmanship, the apprentice starts by observing and helping with production of a master’s work. A craftsman learns through imitating the motions and tool use of the master, studying how changes in approach lead to changes in the end product. The craftsman learns from doing, from imitating, from the wood through the tool to the hand and to the brain.

The violin is a highly evolved human artifact. Nearly every imaginable variation has been tried, and most have been discarded. It makes sense to me to learn as much as possible from the experiments and experience of others, and to stand on their shoulders as I strive for my own highest achievement.

We know very little of how classic Italian makers worked and thought about their work other than what we can deduce from their extant instruments. We can learn a great deal from the careful study of their instruments, but to integrate that knowledge into the living present of my own work, I need to absorb that knowledge through the experience of working the wood, and through the success or failure of those ideas in the context of my own abilities and temperament.

Modern technology has given us the ability to measure objects in amazing precision and to reproduce forms with detailed printouts and with models from 3D printers. The Strad 3D project demonstrates the application to violin study of CAT Scan and other technologies available to the scientific community. But this point-by-point description, as exact as it is, does little to inform us of the working method that produced the violin, or of the understanding and imagination that led to the maker’s decisions. As a working maker I think I can intuit what Guadagnini might have been thinking and feeling that led to a particular outcome. By putting those intuitions to work with my tools and wood, I may learn something of Guadagnini, but more importantly I learn something of myself and my own instruments, and expand my vision and imagination.

I base most of my work on existing antique instruments. I have come to see that this is not from lack of imagination or self-assurance, but that referring to an existing instrument allows my work to flow in a way that is natural for me. The identification of a new violin with a renowned old one also has some marketing advantages and can make inventory control easier.

This series of instruments based on Guadagnini’s work is not entirely unusual for me. Stradivari and Guarneri are in a special class with most copyists because of their fame and the amount of information available about them and their work. As I have tried to understand the basics of what makes a great instrument and to explore my own personality, I have also been drawn to makers whose instruments also work well, but may not fit standard expectations. Lorenzo Storioni has always intrigued me for his wood choice and simplicity of design, and Carlo Bergonzi because of the influence of Stradivari’s mentorship on an intelligent personality. Guadagnini is a complex personality who made successful and beautiful instruments that show the accumulation of much experience and information.

In making a copy, I try to use the basic dimensions, find similar materials, and apply stylistic aesthetics appropriate to the original. I do not generally copy thicknesses, as my materials are different, but I do try to adopt what I know of the originals’ acoustic principles and goals.

If I have understood the essence of the antique instrument and captured in my understanding important principles that make it work, I would hope that the experts in the field will recognize the instrument copied. I also do not try to completely sublimate my own methods, values, and vision in the process, such that the resulting copy is also recognizably my work. The spontaneity and flair of masterwork is something that cannot be imitated through approximation, but must arise from the authentic flow of a practiced hand and mind. My goal is not to make a museum reproduction of a particular violin, but through the copying process, to make the best instruments of which I am capable, and to improve my own making vision and personality.