David Gusset's accomplishments as a violin maker are impressive. On his web page, the following entry heads the list of his Awards and Honors: First Prize/Gold Medal for violin making at the 1985 "Antonio Stradivari" International Triennial Violin Making competition in Cremona, Italy. Instrument acquired for permanent display in the Antonio Stradivari Museum in Cremona, Italy. (First prize out of 212 violins from thirty-one countries, the only American to ever win this honor.)
Other medals he's received include three gold medals in international violin making competitions sponsored by the Violin Society of America, the Simone F. Sacconi Award in Cremona Italy for "the instrument most representative of the classical Cremonese ideals," and prizes in German and French international violin making competitions.
In person, David Gusset is tall and thin, with a head of hair like Art Garfunkel's. He is soft-spoken, and serious, but catch his eye and you'll see the twinkle indicating a joke and ready smile are just below the surface. David is a regular fixture at the annual Westwind music and dance camp on the Oregon coast, where he hunts down new Scandinavian tunes, and joins jam sessions of most any genre. I recently had the chance to interview David at his violin shop in Eugene, Oregon . It was like stepping back in time. To get to his shop, go behind the 1870 Gothic Revival house he's in the midst of restoring (all wood, with vertical board and batten siding, listed on the National Register of Historic Places), wend your way through an overgrown meadow/garden, and you'll arrive at what used to be a carriage house. "About the only thing keeping it together when I bought the place was blackberry vines," quips David. But step inside the renovated building now, and you're in a cozy, old-world luthier's shop. Violins and violas for sale or awaiting repair hang high up on one wall. The workbench near the small north windows is filled with knives, gouges, planes, chisels, and various fiddle parts and pieces. A band saw, a freestanding workbench, and chests of drawers housing other violin making supplies and shop drawings fill the room. David is at work, planing a violin top.
The Making of a Violin Maker
What came first for you - playing the fiddle, or building violins?
I've played the violin since I was six. I took lessons for a number of years, then quit and took up other instruments, including the guitar, piano, and saxophone. I picked up the violin again sometime in high school, wanting to play fiddle music. I started listening to records, trying to learn by ear. I loved the instrument from the start: my mother remembers me telling her I wanted to make violins someday, but I don't remember that.
Where did you study violin making?
I began as a student of Paul Hart at Peter Preer's Violin Making School in Salt Lake City in 1974. Peter Prier was a graduate of the Mittenwald Violin Making School [in Bavaria, Germany], and after working for various violin shops in Europe, he came to work for a music store in Salt Lake City. Peter later went into business on his own, and started taking in apprentices in 1972, establishing the first violin making school in the United States. I was one of the first graduates.
So you learned the practical skills there, but in proceeding with your own violin making, you kept studying the masters?
Yes, in violin making school you learn the very basics of how to make violins: how to carve, shape and assemble the parts, how to mix glue and varnishes, how to use and sharpen tools. That program lasted two and a half years, but I'm still learning, thirty years later.
In making your own instruments, do you adhere to the Italian school of violin making?
I mostly study the makers who worked in Cremona, Italy from the mid-1500s through the mid-1700s. That period is called the "Amati School." Other Italian centers of violin making I'm interested in are Venice, Milan, Turin, Mantua, and Naples.
Are Strads and Guarneris the models you mostly work with?
Yes, mostly Stradivari and Guarneri, although I occasionally make others. I've made Amati model violas and cellos, and here's my copy of a Sanctus Seraphin, a Venetian maker in the early 1700s. The associate concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony commissioned this copy in 1980. She owned the original Seraphin - once owned by the violinist Efrem Zimbalist - but needed an instrument she could take on tour and play in the outdoor summer concerts. She's since retired, and I have my instrument back on consignment. I also make copies of a fine Milanese viola that was in the shop - a Mantegazza. The model works well for clients who want a smaller viola with a unique voice.
The design for the most recent viola I'm making is essentially from a viola by Tomaso Balestrieri. This viola has a very classical, Cremonese look to it, almost Amati School, although Balestrieri was working in Mantua around the late 1700s.
How would you describe a Cremonese look?
It's a system of geometric design, proportion, modeling, and architecture common to the early Cremonese instruments. Looking at a Cremonese violin, you immediately notice the pleasing curves and balanced proportions. Amati, Guarneri, Stradivari, Ruggeri, and Bergonzi - they all used the same basic method of design, although each added their own variations.
How do you go about using an instrument as a model?
Take this Balestrieri. First, I analyze the outlines of its rib structure, back and top, and the placement of the f-holes. On a Cremonese instrument, the rib structure is built around a form [or mold] and the form is the geometry of the instrument. Here's an overlay of his f-holes, and see this inside line? That's the tracing of the rib structure. So this is how I think he may have designed his instrument. He created a proportional center that was 6 parts from the top edge and 7 parts from the bottom. The centers of the upper lobes [circular holes] of the f-hole falls on this curve, and the lower lobes fall on this arc; both are set measurements from the proportional center. Two interlocking circles form the upper bout and the two interlocking circles in the bottom bout form a common figure known to ancient Greek mathematicians as the "fish bladder" - the circumference of one circle passes through the center of the other circle. So I took the geometry of this instrument.
How did you get its geometry - by taking it apart?
No. I just traced the outlines onto paper and analyzed the curves. With a compass, you can find the centers of the arcs, and it turns out they're all related to each other, and also to the placement of the f-holes. I wanted to make a smaller viola, so once I'd worked out Balestrieri's geometry on paper, I reduced the size of the model simply by changing the spacing of the legs of my measuring dividers. I also changed a few minor details - the curvature here of the corners, making them not quite so tight, to give more of an Amati feel, a more gentle feel. And I put Amati f-holes on it, and an Amati scroll. That's my pattern for a viola. So I started with one instrument's design, took its basic geometry and proportion, reduced its size, then modified it by doing things in the Amati style.
You could do this kind of geometrical drawing for any instrument?
I try, often. Most great makers of the past, especially the early Italians, worked out designs for each of their instrument models. I've recently been studying the outlines of Stradivari cellos. Here are several outlines - each one a bit different. How do you decide what the right curve is? When I am designing a form, all these curves are very important, how you end up with them. It makes a huge difference in the sound.
[For the full text of this ten-page interview, with lots of technical information on violins and violin-making, purchase the Spring 2006 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Ellen Hansen is a writer and fiddler living in Helvetia, Oregon.]
Photo: Ellen Hansen