Enthrallment in Antiques: Musical Instrument Conservation

A selection of thumb keys of the bassoon. There are thirteen thumb keys total.

Imagine looking at a maze of keys, holes, rods; a type of interconnected machinery that to many people may be a complete puzzle. Now, there is an issue somewhere in this maze that is causing the entire machine to be thrown off. The problem could be as small as a loose screw or a rod not quite lifting enough. A spring could have lost its tension or a pad may be leaking air. More often than not, it takes a professionally trained eye to locate this minuscule problem, the eye of a musical instrument repairperson. There are many worlds of repair that the general public is not aware of. One of these is that of musical instruments. The process is intricate and detailed work that not many non-musicians are aware of. The work it takes to learn how to restore instruments is lengthy and expansive. Repair and conservation of antique musical instruments tends to be an esoteric business in many cases, but is highly sought after in the musical world.

There are limitless examples of this area of repair. Experts are needed for everything from string instruments only the best professionals play on to everyday band instruments seen in high school music programs. At whichever level, the repairperson is usually a trained professional, or at the very least an experienced player. The amount of detail that goes into repair and conservation is great. Many aspects of this area are mentioned by Elizabeth Spelman in her work Repair. She discusses topics such as the human urge to repair, the appeal of ruins, and different types of workers in the restorative world. The interesting connection between ruins of the ancient world and antique musical instruments is one to explore. The human urge to restore beautiful things from the past and nostalgia in general are much of what drives the world of musical repair today.

Stradivarius violin on display in the Royal Palace of Madrid.

Conservation of antique musical instruments is an almost elite profession. Many of the top orchestral players in the world perform on refurbished instruments from earlier centuries. These instruments can cost thousands and thousands of dollars, if not millions. Perhaps the most famous instrument that is sought after is the Stradivarius violin. These violins date back to the late 1600s. Around six hundred and fifty of Stradivarius’s string instruments are still around today. His instruments are the highest regarded in the string world today, and by far the most famous. They are played on by renowned professionals who perform in the top orchestras around the world. Many have to be bought with grants because of how incredibly expensive they are to buy. Obviously, being around three hundred years old, these instruments require work and upkeep. Only the most talented and trusted repairmen can work on them.

An example of this meticulous method of repair is the one of famous classical and modern violinist David Garrett. While walking off the stage after the completion of a concert, Garrett slipped and fell on top of his one million dollar Giovanni Guadagnini violin. Guadagnini was a student of Stradivarius. Guadagnini’s string instruments, dating back to the 1700s, typically go for around one million dollars. Stradivarius’s can go for as high as five million. When Garrett fell on top of his violin it was in its case, but the impact was enough to shatter wood of the body and leave two long cracks spurring from the F holes of the instrument. The sound post, which is an important part on the inside of the instrument was damaged which is a difficult repair to make due to its location. The interesting thing about the repair that had to be done was the way in which the professionals do it. The antiquity of these instruments is preserved through repairing them the same way Stradivarius or Guadagnini would have created them all those years ago. Tools used “range from the traditional — chisels, knives and water-soluble fish-based glue similar to that Stradivari would have used — to the modern” (BBC, 1). The repair of this instrument in particular took over eight months.

Damage may not be this obvious, but anything from the smallest crack to a broken scroll can cause major issues.

The painstaking work included putting every piece of wood back together and then setting it so the pieces would not slip back out of place. The cracks are glued back together and the appearance of them is restored so that they disappear. As well as preserving the outside of the beautiful antique instrument, what is even more important is saving the authentic sound that the instrument is sought after for. Patchwork and additions of modern materials are not accepted because it would potentially affect the way the sound resonates through the instrument. That is why only the most trusted professionals, located out of New York City, were allowed to do this complicated work. The musician played on a replacement Strad, given to him through a grant, until his beloved Guadagnini was returned to him.

The repair that I am most interested in is that of my own instrument, the bassoon. The bassoon is a relatively uncommon instrument. The interesting thing about bassoon repair in particular is that to be a good professional, one must have at least some background knowledge of how the instrument works and how its mechanisms go together. From personal experience, I know that finding a qualified professional to repair it is not an easy task. From home, the closest person I trust with my instrument is over an hour ride away. Teachers of mine are skilled to an extent in the maintenance and repair of the instrument, but it takes a trained technician to truly make the fix if the issues are more intricate. For instance, my bassoon teacher from home has made some easy fixes on my instrument. A specially fitted rubber sleeve on a key that extends across to joints of my instrument had worn down over time. This was causing a very important air hole to leak because it was not being covered by my whisper key, and in turn many of the notes on my instrument were not speaking. My teacher and I studied the many keys on my instrument for some time before realizing where the disconnect was. There were many different situations that could cause this same issue, from a loose or missing screw to a lost pad on a key. While my teacher did discover the real problem, a trained professional may have been able to pinpoint it much quicker and with less trial and error than we did. The simple fix was to wrap some electrical tape around the worn down plastic. This is a solution, but if I wanted to permanently solve the problem I would need to take it to a professional who could fit a new rubber piece for the key.

Connecting bassoon repair to instrument conservation.

As a bassoonist, I was enthralled by the video above. The interesting video chronicles the process it is to replicate an antique instrument, specifically the famous Savary bassoon. The real talent it takes to restore, recreate, and subsequently perform on this instrument is extremely impressive. A performer as highly regarded as the one followed, Lyndon Watts, principal of the Munich Philharmonic, searched for the so called “Stradivarius of bassoons” that he currently performs on. The bassoon has come a very long way since the creation of these old ones, dating from the 1800s, as seen by the addition of nearly a dozen thumb keys alone. The baroque bassoon resurrected had four keys, and six holes. Today, there are twenty three keys and six holes.

Baroque era Savary bassoon vs modern day Heckel bassoon.

The professional who seeks to play on this replica must learn completely new fingerings and techniques than those used on the modern bassoon. Watts explains the reason that he sought for the baroque bassoon was for its quality of sound and rarity. He believes that the rare orchestras who perform on both historical and modern instruments are important to culture today, which is why he puts in the effort to play on his bassoon. The process of restoring or replicating any historical instrument is similar to this one in time frame and attention to detail.

Buy a copy of Repair here.

Elizabeth Spelman opens her readers’ eyes to many of the different realms of repair. But one that is not mentioned in her writing is the repair of musical instruments. There are many aspects of Spelman’s stance that can be related to the process, though. First off, there is the talk of ruins that Spelman introduces in chapter six of her work. She explains the appeal that ancient ruins have to the people of today. Visitors are attracted to the wreckage of old places because of the history that these places hold. Humans as a species are attracted to these old places because of the wander of how life once was, the mistakes that led to their downfall, and the want to repair but the knowledge that not everything can be saved. In Spelman’s own words,

“…the state of terminal disrepair characteristic of ruins has been treated as the source of rapturous enthrallment, or at the very least, poignant instruction.” (103)

This rapturous enthrallment that many humans experience is what leads to a musician’s want to use an antique instrument. The prestige of using an older instrument is an attraction for many experienced players. They admire their beauty, authenticity, quality, and notoriety. From my own experience, I know this to be true. I play on a used bassoon that had at least two owners before it belonged to me. The reason I wanted to purchase it used rather than new was a very common one among bassoonists and other double reed players. Buying an older product ensures that it will work well and produce a good sound. Mine came from a very reputable double reed company called Fox. I trusted that I would be getting a quality product, but knowing the previous owner personally attracted me to buying it because I knew from her playing in the past that it was a good bassoon. Another trait that draws in buyers is the “broken in” aspect of a previously owned instrument. A played on instrument is better in some cases than a brand new one. These are some of the same reasons that world famous musicians, like David Garrett, are in search of esteemed violins or other strings. The sheer fame and exclusivity of the products are why they are expensive and sought after. Their quality is the reason they gained fame, but the enthrallment of their elusiveness is the real reason only the best of the best are able to have them within reach.

Another connection between Spelman’s thoughts and musical repair is her ideas on who is able to do the work on such unique things, as well as when the repair should or should not be done. The author states:

“…any work it [the human’s toolbelt] might do would threaten the status of the remains as ruins and diminish their power to give pleasure…” (104)

Spelman is saying that if modern day humans were to “repair” ancient ruins, it would take away from all that is important about them. In short, the process of fixing or renovating the ruins would destroy them and their history, which is their appeal in the first place. While musical instruments often are worked on, this is more of an aim to conserve, rather than repair or replicate, at least in the case of the antique ones. That is why only the best repairmen are trusted with valuable Stradivari strings or, in a lesser sense, reputed Heckel bassoons.

Spelman also mentions “invisible mending” in the beginning chapters of her book. The concept is practiced by the characters the author introduces Louise, Elisabeth, and Irene, art conservators. The women are conservators of famous, irreplaceable art. Their main goal is to fix any problem without making it look like the damage ever happened in the first place. The same technique was used on the damaged Guadignini violin of David Garrett. The reason the process of repairing it took a very long time and was so specific was because of the aim of invisible mending that the owner and repairmen had. They were trying not to take anything away from the prestige of the hundreds of years old violin because it would lose value if they did. This is why they did not add any modern materials on if they could avoid it at all, or make fixes that were obvious. Spelman eloquently says this in the excerpt:

“…they honor the creator of the work of art by keeping their own handiwork to a minimum, neither editing nor revising, and surely not replicating from the ground up… The distinction between the work of art and their surgical intervention must be kept clear” (16).

The goal of the invisible mending conservators is just that — to do work that will honor the original creators’ intentions and almost make their own input unrecognizable. On the other hand, there are instrument repairers who are quite like Spelman’s character Willie, who simply do what makes sense to solve a problem without considering the history of the product or what the maker would have wanted or done themselves. For instance, the repair my bassoon teacher did was much more in the style of Willie the repairman from Spelman’s text than a professional like Louise and her crew of people. She solved the problem in a way that was easy and available, but also very effective. The original maker of the product probably would not have used electrical tape to fix the issue, they would have created a specific piece that was supposed to be on the instrument instead. The repair work done also makes it obvious that it is a makeshift fix if someone were to look hard enough. All three of Spelman’s repairing characters can be related to the world of instrumental conservation in their own different ways because of how much of a spectrum the realm is, varying from its own Willie to Louise.

Spelman seems to believe that ruins should remain just that- ruined. Repairing them to their former glory could and would take away from what they have come to represent over many years. This debate is a common one in the world of historic music, as well. The question is this: to conserve or to curate? In the words of Andrew Lamb,

“Musical instruments are designed to be functional objects. They have moving parts or they require physical interaction to fulfil the purpose for which they were made” (1).

At this time, the world of musical conservators has come to some sort of conclusion in that historical instruments should be admired for what their purpose is — making music. However, rather than modernizing them, changing their appearance, or attempting to advance them with new technology, they should simply be preserved and maintained. The reason these antiques are so important is more often than not their quality of sound. The purpose of saving them and admiring them is for that quality, and should be shown off. This differs from Spelman’s suggestion. Musical repair almost always includes restoration in the process. The approach of experts in this field is different than those who just want to keep the world around them and the history that is a part of it exactly the way it is. In the eyes of conservators who want to preserve more than just the look of the artifacts, if an instrument is playable, it should be played.