A true story of love, wood and violins
Updated 1:06pm Friday 23rd May 2014 in Features
Three life-changing moments combined to bring two East Germans to York. MATT CLARK discovers what they were.
JOERG Koplin is tapping a slender plank of honeyed spruce. He nods in approval, but not as a carpenter might. Joerg is looking for something singular, a bell-like ring that will allow him to turn this ordinary piece of wood into a thing of beauty, a violin even Stradivarius would have been proud to put his name to.
Joerg was born in East Germany, not far from the Polish border and near the Baltic coast, where a love of wood was kindled during childhood days in his father’s workshop.
But it had nothing to do with making instruments. Joerg decided his working life would be spent running a parquet flooring company in Berlin that specialised in hardwood and detailed marquetry.
All was going according to plan, until one day his life and his career took a swift change in direction.
"After some years laying parquetry, it became just building work and I was looking for something different," says Joerg. "Then at a party I met (my wife to be), Steffi."
She was already a luthier and that was that really. After a spell of work experience at Bastian Muthesius in Berlin, Joerg decided to give up parquetry for good and instead dedicate his life to stringed instruments – and his wife. Though not necessarily in that order, he insists.
Steffi's route to violin making was almost as fortuitous. Originally from East Berlin, she began playing the violin at seven and went on to win second prize on two occasions in the Jugend Musiziert competition for young musicians.
Steffi entered the Handel Special School of Music and an illustrious career as a concert violinist looked assured.
But, at the age of 12, she visited a violin workshop and a nagging doubt crept in.
"At first I was just curious," says Steffi. "But I wrote in my diary, 'today I have decided to become a violin maker'. The idea had been there since then."
The clincher came six years later when Steffi spent some time at the Stradivari school of violin making in Cremona, Italy.
Which is where her life began to change.
"That was it. I fell in love with both the school and the city, " she says. “My decision was made, no question."
So followed three years learning her craft at Cremona, two more in England and a spell of work experience with some of Europe's leading makers.
Then Steffi met Joerg. At first she tried to teach him the rudiments of her trade but, as Joerg says, it was a bit like a wife trying to teach her husband to drive.
In any case Berlin was full to the gunwales with violin makers. So the idea of trying to keep two more in gainful employment seemed an order as tall as the city's TV tower.
There was only one thing for it; give England a try. So Joerg studied at the renowned Newark School of Violin Making and, to make ends meet, Steffi went to work as an instrument repairer in Cambridge.
Then came decision time. Still unsure where to call home, the couple booked a break to York. Now there's something about life changing moments with this couple, because after that day out, they weren't unsure any more.
Steffi had fallen in love with another ancient city.
But there was a good business reason too.
"I worked once in Nottingham and a lady had to bring her violin all the way from York, because there was no one here," says Joerg. We did some research and found there is so much going on, they probably need a repairer. So we thought let's try."
That was four years ago. Now the couple run a successful instrument workshop from their home near the Barbican, where, as well as violins, Joerg makes cellos and violas from scratch, while Steffi concentrates on restoration.
"I have a big passion for old instruments that are seen as beyond repair and bringing them back to life; rescuing things that are so rare," says Steffi. "In fact a lot of what I do isn't for the money, because I can spend ages in the workshop, often evenings and weekends."
Joerg only use spruce for soundboards because it's strong and light, with ideal resonant qualities.
Not any old spruce, mind. Too many branches cause knots in the timber and that spoils its timbre. There is also a problem with a tree from low levels. What you really need is one from the Alps where it grows slowly. That, Joerg says, produces dense wood, narrow, grain and superior acoustical properties.
Which is why he never buys a batch without tapping first."When you rub your fingers along, you can feel how dry and seasoned it is. You are looking for a straight grain and you are listening for how long the wood rings."
That is crucial because the soundboard is like the membrane on a drum; thin and responsive, while the back is like the sides of the drum. And that calls for hardwood; traditionally maple, for both musicality and aesthetic properties. Fine examples can be highly figured.
The neck and scroll are also maple and carving the latter calls for an even steadier hand. But despite the complexities of forming the body, even the best made violins rely on a little piece of dowel, called the sound post.
So important is this little peg that violinists call it the âme, (soul in French) and the position is critical.
"There is a standard place, because you have to start somewhere," says Steffi. "Then you move it one way and tone changes completely. Move it another and it changes again.
"There are all sorts of theories for this but they don't always work out. Often it's trial and error ."
Not to mention an experienced ear, because we're talking minute measurements. Half a millimetre in any direction and instantly the sound becomes richer, darker, brighter or louder.
To make matters worse every violin is different. Then there is the bridge to worry about. Not to mention the varnish, which does more than protect, seal and enhance the look of an instrument.
A good one improves the sound. Indeed some will tell you that's what makes a Stradivarius so prized.
"Varnish helps to sell the instrument but it also mutes the sound," says Joerg. "A white (barewood) violin is really harsh and loud and of course varnish protects the instrument from sweaty hands."
But while it can’t save a really beaten up instrument, Steffi can. She calls these her 'crazy projects' because although they make no financial sense, sometimes satisfaction is reward enough.
Take her recent acquisition; a17th century English cello, which although completely original is riddled with worm and will cost thousands of pounds to restore.
"Joerg hates me for that one. He said 'oh God please don't buy it. Not more projects'. But I just had to. It's very derelict but I love it. It was just too rare to leave.
"When the cello is repaired I will sell it to a musician though. They will make good use of it and that's what it's for; to be played."
Koplin violins are priced from £7,000. Steffi and Joerg also buy and sell quality used instruments.
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