Mastering the violin’s making
By Alessandro Bianchi
Although I have often relished the tender melody of the violin, it wasn’t until I met Mathias Menanteau that I realized the endless passion and mastery necessary for its creation.
French luthier Menanteau was born on July 29, 1977 in Vendée, France. He moved to Newark, England and attended the international Newark Violin Making School to garner the skill of making and restoring musical instruments. After being awarded a certificate, Mathias set out for Berlin, where he began working in the Anton Pilar violin workshop. It was in this musically rich city that Mathias deepened and acquired new knowledge on restoration, serving him well for various apprenticeships in Paris and New York.
He left Germany after five years and moved to the cradle of violin making, a city in Lombardy, Italy called Cremona. Menanteau’s expertise in musical instruments was magnified while working in Eric Blot’s workshop, where Mathias not only began restoring instruments, but also acquired knowledge of the dynasties of great Italian masters of music, such as Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri. In February of 2010, Menanteau finally opened his own violin shop in Monti, a neighborhood in the historic center of Rome.
Here, in addition to restoring instruments, he follows the traditional techniques and methods used by eighteenth-century Italian violin-makers to create his own bow instruments, mostly inspired by those of Cremona and Venice. Unlike the strict rules in the making of musical instruments, the restoration process allows room for leeway. Scientific discoveries including the use of x-rays to detect tunnels dug out by termites, or even dendrochronology, the science of dating events and changes by observing annual growth rings in timber, are new methods that help wood experts as well as restorers.
The making of an instrument always begins with choosing its wood, the cutting of which must be followed to perfection. String instruments are generally comprised of a fingerboard, the part that vibrates the most that is fixed onto a soundboard, allowing the sound to be amplified.
The violin is an instrument comprised of more than fifty individual pieces, each assembled together from different kinds of wood. The soundboard is made of fir, which grows in wind-protected valleys at an altitude ranging from 1000-1500 meters (3,280 to 4,921 feet). The higher the altitude, the narrower the wood fibers, as the cold climate hinders their growth. These pine trees are selected by the sonorous quality that emerges as the woodcutter strikes the base of each trunk with his axe.
The bottom of the violin and its sides are both made from maple, a kind of wood found in the forests of central Europe, specifically in what was known as Bohemia. The fingerboard is instead made of high quality ebony imported from Madagascar known as “black ivory.” Most of Menanteau’s stocked up piles of wood were acquired more than thirty years ago from old violin makers back in his days as a young apprentice in England.
Last but certainly not least, the bridge is considered such an important part of the violin that it takes on the role of a calling card for the craftsman. It is here that Mathias Menanteau, like many other master craftsmen before him, leaves his name branded onto the violin.