First Published in the Violin Society of America Newsletter, December 1999
reproduced with permission from The Violin Society of America


Stainer, Early Strad, and Baroque Violins: 
An Interview with David Van Zandt

By Steve Csik

David Van Zandt, in Seattle, Washington, makes violins, violas, and cellos in modern and baroque setup. For his baroque violins, David uses a Stainer model. For his modern instruments, David uses a 1742 del Gesu model, but he has ventured from the contemporary norm for Stradivari-based instruments in modern setup by offering an early Stradivari (1683) based model rather than the more customary "golden period" (1700 - 1725) model. Davidís work with Stainer, baroque, and early Stradivari models makes [him] a good source of information for the VSA Newsletter series on contemporary making [...]. For this interview David responded to questions from Steven Csik.

You build baroque violins based on Jacob Stainer rather than Stradivari or del Gesu. Why do you prefer Stainer?

I choose Stainer models, both small and grand Stainer patterns, primarily because those instruments have been well received by baroque musicians in the past and continue to be successful today. Historically, Stainerís instruments were highly regarded by performers from the time they were made, throughout the baroque period, and into the 19th century. There are quite a number of reference sources that refer to the many baroque composers and musicians who owned Stainer instruments and the comparative values of Stainer violins to those of Stradivari, with Stainerís violins fetching higher prices even into the mid 1800ís. I was exposed to some very fine original instruments made generically on a Stainer pattern while working in New York with William Monical in the mid-80ís.  There I was fortunate to have opportunities to study and take patterns of a number of violins by Stainer and other fine makers of the baroque and classical period.

Iíve learned from your web site that your baroque violins differ from your modern ones in setup, neck, fingerboard, shorter bass-bar, and thinner soundpost. How important are these items for a baroque sound? In addition to those items, do you graduate the plates of your baroque violins differently from your modern ones in order to achieve a baroque sound?

The tonal demands of a baroque musician are so intertwined with their equipment that itís difficult to separate out the degrees of importance in the set-up, neck length and shape, and the way the instrument is constructed, not to mention the bow. Just as with a violin for modern performance practice, the baroque violin must be appropriate in all its parts for the music and the musician. One can make general statements about diminutive bass bars, short necks, or using a "baroque" bridge. But as makers, we all have to draw on our experience and make informed decisions as to just how diminutive a particular bar should be, or how short the neck and string length should be, or what geometry in bridge design is most appropriate for the wood weíre using, on a given model, for a particular musicianís style and technique.

The arching style of Stainerís violins is considerably different from those of Stradivariís and Guarneri del Gesuís, but the plates must be graduated to allow them to vibrate freely no matter which style of instrument you make. But to answer your question, I wouldnít significantly change the graduations on a Stainer model if I were to set it up with a modern neck, fingerboard, bridge, etc. I would, however, make sure the model as a modern instrument fits the needs of the musician before I begin construction. After all, there are quite a number of Stainerís violins out there being used by todayís musicians as modern violins, though none I can think of, off hand, that are used by soloists in front of large orchestras.

Are there any other structural differences between your baroque and modern instruments that we havenít already noted - perhaps blocks, linings, ribs?

The way I build my baroque instruments is very similar to the way I build modern instruments. The main difference structurally is the way I set my necks. Originally, necks were glued directly to the ribs, then nailed through the upper block, with the rib structure free of the mold. I think nailing a neck is just asking for failure. For better stability and accuracy I mortise the neck into the upper block as in modern making, though I set the neck before the top is glued to the ribs. By all appearances my necks have the look and feel of an historical baroque neck but are structurally more stable.

Though itís not really a "structural" element, perhaps the most misunderstood aspect in constructing an early violin is the neck shape. It must allow the musician to move up and down the neck while at the same time be comfortable enough to hold the instrument without the use of a chinrest. Another aspect different from modern construction is that I veneer my fingerboards with ebony over a light wood core. I also make my own tailpieces. Both of which contribute to a lightweight instrument.

Do you retain the traditional high arching of Stainer in making your Stainer instruments?

All of the violins I make on the two Stainer models I use have a higher arch than the aggregate of Stradivariís or del Gesuís violin archings. I donít go to the extremes, though. Iíve found that somewhere in the range of 16.5mm to 18mm is where I get the best results. Height is not the only thing to look at; the shape of those higher archings, particularly how they resolve into the channel, is more significant to creating a sound appropriate for the musical style than just the arch height.

Have you used Stainer as a modern model? Would it make a good one?

Iíve not used a Stainer model for making a modern violin. I would however, if I encountered a client whose style and technique were compatible with the instrument. But I think it would be a rare modern musician indeed who would find a Stainer model made by a contemporary maker to be their best option.

What lessons/insights does a baroque maker gain that might be applicable to modern making?

Iíve learned a great deal about modern making through making baroque instruments. At the very least, breaking away from the Strad and del Gesu patterns has educated my eye and hand. Having worked from different models and arching styles has given me a better understanding of when to depart from the typical graduations described by Sacconi. By working with baroque instruments over the years, Iíve developed ways to evaluate appropriate bar and bridge placement within a variety of arch styles.

I cut my baroque bridges from solid blanks and can choose from many options in bridge design, width and placement to best suit the arching style and overall geometry of the instrument. The relationship of the bridge and bassbar placement on the arch is critical to sound. In modern violin construction the use of a 41mm wide bridge is so widespread as to be almost universal, regardless of arching, greatly limiting the options of bassbar placement. Having an awareness of shape and plate flexibility in baroque instruments helps me when I work out arching concepts for modern instruments. With few exceptions, the set-up of modern instruments has become standardized. Makers can quote the dimensions of modern necks, fingerboards and bassbars and can tell you without hesitation the length of the vibrating string length of a violin. In many ways we can look at baroque making as having more "principles of design" than a series of standardized measurements. Thatís one of the reasons we see so many unique models associated with baroque makers. Striving to understand some of those principles of design for early instruments can give any maker a better grasp of making modern instruments.

You also make modern instruments. One of the Stradivari models you use is from 1683. Why did you choose that Strad model rather than one of the "golden period" models?

I chose that model for the requirements of a specific musician. The musician wanted a violin with particular attributes, which included a one-piece slab back. He wanted a violin that spoke easily and had a sound that was "rich" but not over-powering. An early Strad pattern fulfilled those requirements.

Did working with a 1683 Stradivari model give you the feeling that you were working with anything less, acoustically, than a first rate violin?

I contend that most of us would not be dissatisfied with the sound of an early Strad. While I was building my instrument, I most definitely didnít believe I was building an inferior instrument in any way. I set out with a specific goal in mind, to build an instrument to fit the musical needs of a specific musician. If my clientís satisfaction is any indication, I achieved that goal.

Were there any compensations or adjustments you had to make by using the 1683 model which would have been unnecessary or already built in, if you had chosen a "golden period" model?

There certainly were compensations and adjustments I made using the 1683 model that I wouldnít have made with a given "golden period" Strad model. But I make compensations and adjustments on every violin I make, even instruments based on the same model. While itís true that I chose the early Strad model over a later one when building the instrument for my client, in the end we have to realize there are many more similarities than differences between the early and golden period Stradivari instruments.

As a contemporary maker I have to say I believe the "golden period" Stradivari model may be over-sold and perhaps even over-rated. Donít get me wrong, Stradivariís golden period instruments are absolutely beautiful, and as an isolated section of his career are the greatest works he did stylistically. Itís also unquestionable that many of Stradivariís golden period instruments are unmatched in quality of sound. But the idea that using a golden period Strad or some species of del Gesu is always going to satisfy modern musicians is very limiting, as well as unrealisticÖ one could almost say fatalistic. If all I did was copy either the Soil Strad or the Canon del Gesu in order to satisfy all my clients, I think I would go mad and give up making.

You have used Stainer, early Stradivari, and Del Gesu as your models for violin making. Are there other models you have used? If so, why did you seek them out?

About 15 years ago I began working from a pattern I took from a G. B. Guadagnini, ca. 1755, in the collection at the Smithsonian Institution. I must have made 6 or 7 instruments using that model, but I just couldnít figure out how to make it sound the way I wanted it to. I was able to make a very nice classical violin with it, but I didnít have much success with it as a modern instrument. I may go back to the Guadagnini someday, but to make it work for me I know I will end up making arches that have little to do with the original instrument.

Iíve developed a couple of viola patterns over the years. One has a body length of 15 ĺ inches and is built on a composite of ideas based on a whole range of instruments Iíve seen, and with it Iíve met with some success. The other Iíve used for most of my career, and is very loosely based on an Andrea Guarneri, ca. 1697 with a body length of 16 ľ inches, which also has worked well musically. I also use a cello model taken from a David Tecchler, ca. 1711.

I choose a particular model partially based on how it looks and partially based on what I want to accomplish tonally. I want to make instruments to please my eye, but I also want to meld visual aesthetics with what I think I can achieve tonally for a given musician. I seek out historical instruments that have a proven ability to develop a particular quality of sound. Or, as in the case of the smaller viola I make, I use basic principles of design to create an appearance and a sound I think will be successful.

Do you select wood differently or varnish differently according to the model youíre working with?

Only in a general sort of way. I tend to choose my lightest weight maple for baroque violins. I get my best results using slab maple, willow and poplar on violas, though Iíve used slab maple successfully with my interpretation of the early Stradivari and the Stainer models. No matter which model I choose I look for the lightest and strongest spruce I have available. As far as varnish goes, I tend to shy away from too much red in the Stainer, early Stradivari model violins and the Andrea Guarneri model violas. But the basic varnish recipe and method of application is incredibly similar for all my instruments.

How strong is the correlation of model to tone? The general perception is that a del Gesu model has a strong, warm, dark, alto tone; a Strad model has a strong, clear, soprano tone; a Stainer model has a warm, clear, intimate tone. Are those stereotypes accurate? Can a violin buyer go to a maker and treat tone and model separately, asking for a violin that looks like a Stainer but has a big booming tone like a del Gesu or Strad?

I believe the correlation of model to tone is fairly strong. The stereotypical sound you describe for the del Gesu, Stradivari, and Stainer is reasonably accurate, though the Stainer model is often only "intimate" in relation to well constructed del Gesu or Stradivari models. If a contemporary maker stays well within the extremes of the materials and style of a particular historical maker, the resulting instrument will have many of the characteristics of sound of that historical makerís instruments. One has to keep in mind, however, that within each makerís body of work there can be quite a variation in dimensions, and more importantly, arching styles. Arching style is tremendously important to the character of sound of an instrument. But, as an example, it would be unreasonable to expect a short, narrow-waisted model with a deeply recurved, high "figure eight" style arching that might be found on a small pattern Stainer-like model to sound anything like a wide, flat, low arched model such as the Cannon del Gesu.

One of the ideas foremost in my mind when working with a musician and their concept of creating sound is not to impose my own aesthetics. I strive to be an active listener and use all the tools at my disposal to create a successful match of model and musician. During the construction process I use my experience to manipulate the model to allow the musician the most freedom to make her or his music. The wisest musicians will be very clear about their musical needs and expectations when working with an astute violin maker whose work they admire... and in turn they will lean heavily on the experience and advice of the maker as to the range of choices for the most suitable model. Itís very easy for a musician to speculate that a particular model of instrument will be "The One" for them. But there are an incredible number of makers, both contemporary and historical, whose models have proven successful for musicians. Thereís no reason to limit the choice of models to just one or two.

Copyright © VSA Newsletter, December 1999

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