Strings of Life: Frank Rittwagen
Visiting the Neukölln studio and neighbourhood of a masterful string instrument maker, Berlin
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Video > Strings of Life: Frank Rittwagen

The making of string instruments is not an ancient craft as far as crafts go. In Europe it wasn’t until the mid-1500s, at the same time when music, poetry and literature truly began to flourish, that the creation of string instruments began as well. In general, not so much has changed with the craft of constructing string instruments in the last 500 years. That said, mass production and the perfection of the digital sound have both had a dramatic impact on their creation over the last 30 years.

It is a craft of skill, dedication and patience – delicate work, a process of construction, dismantling and reconstruction, that must be achieved before meeting the standards of a professional player or the instrument’s maker. Enter Berlin-based luthier, Frank Rittwagen. Born and raised near Stuttgart, he comments that although he has the “usual post-war childhood,” it was extraordinary in one sense – his mother was the founder of a music school which over the years grew into notoriety.

During a chat in his studio, located in Berlin’s Neukölln, he perches on a stool, surrounded by the tools of his trade. Chisels and saws of all sizes, wooden forms, glues and spirits are neatly organized on his workshop table. Wood shavings on the floor give the space the clean, honest smell of craftsmanship. Over 200 instruments have been created by his hands, each taking no less than 200 hours. If, as they say, it takes 10,000 hours to become a master of anything, Frank has most definitely put in his time. As he showed us the meticulous details of his art, he reflects on his rudimentary first instruments, the intimate connections he’s built with his customers and how the modern world has changed his craft.

How long have you been making violins?

I started violin making seriously when I was 20. I trained in South Wales and came back to Germany to work as an employee first, then I became self-employed in 1993. I’ve been doing this for almost 25 years now.

How did you know you wanted to become a violin maker?

It’s a funny story really. When I was around 10 or 11 years old we had these really boring family gatherings. I mean boring for us children. While the adults would eat and drink away, we were expected to wear those ridiculous sailor’s jumpers. One of those aunties always brought along an empty wooden cigar box, and we would cut a sound hole in it, add a cardboard bridge to it, and apply rubber strings, which you could tune. In the end you had a little harp you could play with your thumb and I was absolutely thrilled by that. That you could actually make something that would yield music. (laughs) Then I started to build wooden instruments like hammer dulcimers, pluck dulcimers and appalachian dulcimers, which I saw on tv. I used old piano parts from pianos that I had taken apart. I kept the joints glued together with my bare hands, sitting there for two hours like that – I was really really enthusiastic about it. (laughs)

Do you think your mother had an influence on you due to her musical background?

I think my mother had a big influence on me because she introduced music to me at a very early age, and her mother, my grandmother, was a pianist. I remember that when she visited us she would sit down at the piano and play Chopin. I will always remember that, I still have the piano.

What prompted you to choose becoming an instrument maker rather than a musician?

Well, I went to a boarding school for music in the south of Germany. I practised a lot and passed my A level on the violin. Then I had a choice: I could study the violin as a musician or I could go into violin making. I took up violin making because it was also a question of money. If you study music, you have to have parents who can invest in a good teacher and in the early 80s there weren’t many good string teachers in Germany. It was before all the good Russian teachers came. I didn’t feel fit to study it. I would have made it but not in a very satisfactory way.

I guess if you didn’t have the financial support, it would have been challenging.

 

That and when I was 11 I wanted to play the cello, but violas were missing in the orchestra at the music school, so I ended up with a viola which I hated. When I didn’t have to play the viola anymore I took up the violin, which was a big change, and I ended up with something I love but I never saw myself as a field player, as a genuine violinist. (laughs)

You’re independently commissioned to make violins, how does your business come in?

Most of it comes from violinists who already have an instrument from me. Other musicians hear it and ask, “Wow, this is really good, who made it?” It think that’s the only way it will ever work. Violinists either commision something, or I would have something there for them to try. I have two instruments that I keep, so someone who is interested can come around and try them, then I would make something for them.

A somewhat intimate connection must develop – do they come around a few times or do they just leave it in your hands. What’s the process like?

It’s a very personal thing. I often say that if people were as cautious about marrying as they are with buying instruments, there would hardly be any divorces! (laughs) Over time a really deep friendship has evolved with some musicians. You’re working together on sound and once the instrument is finished the work really starts, because you’re carving out the subtleties of the sound a player wants to have.

 

What is the process of building a violin for each musician, does it change the materials you buy?

During the first stage I’m on my own. I choose the wood and the model of the instrument I want make. Then I would do the best I can in terms of making it look nice and sound as good as possible right from the start. After that it needs some time to settle. I play it myself for a little to see what potential it has. Then comes the second stage, where the musician would take the instrument with them for a week or two, try it in the orchestra, with the group, in his chamber group setting or maybe as a soloist.

In the second stage the musician comes back and we evaluate what change the instrument has undergone by being played and see if the musician can get more out of it or maybe alter it to his specifications. That would involve either reopening it, resetting the base bar, working on the bridge, the sound post, the angle of the neck, it can be anything. It can happen that I take an instrument apart two times after it has been made. That’s the normal process. There’s the rare case when a musician might come, pick it up and say thank you and goodbye, but that’s very rare.

Does the wood play any role in creating sound?

The wood is very important in terms of sound, yes, oh yes.

So that means the source of your materials is important.

As the years go by I’ve gotten more and more picky about the wood I use. You can make an instrument that sounds good, but that is not enough, it has to sound special. It has to have subtitles, color and articulation. The difference between a good violin and a very good violin is quite small but it’s there and it’s audible. For the player it’s very noticeable because he gets feedback from the instrument.

I can imagine that for the musician that it’s exactly those subtleties that are so important.

One must bear in mind that a musician spends a great part of the day with this instrument. It’s quite an intimate relationship.

How does it make you feel working as a craftsman, working with your hands?

I find it very satisfactory. I think it’s a privilege to work with your hands and bring something into being from beginning to end. It’s a rare privilege that most people actually don’t have.

What actually makes a craft, a craft, if that makes sense. What is the meaning of it for you?

First of all, it’s something that does not come easily. It’s not something you look up on the internet and do it the next day. It’s something that takes years of practice and mistakes. It’s quiet, mirroring life, in a way. You have to allow for mistakes, you have to allow yourself to take dead ends streets and find out it’s not the way. Then you take another route. It’s a never-ending search for mastery. There are long periods when you think what you are doing is really not going anywhere and but at the end, if you persevere, you see the results and that is very rewarding.

The other thing is that you also have the burden of responsibility for the whole process. No one will come along and say, “You did well on that part. It’s nice.” I think it’s a great thing to work on something that will evolve into a whole picture. In my case, you start with a piece of wood which is raw, you can almost see the bark, you can see where it was in the tree, then you end up with a varnished instrument and maybe you see it played on stage and, well, that’s quite something.

How has the craft changed since you started?

Enormously. Expectations have risen. Thirty years ago, all the instruments were affordable, but the whole standard of making new instruments has risen enormously. It’s changed in two ways. One would be to have a big output and do it as cheaply as possible because you have competition from the Chinese. The Romanians too, they work very cheaply, but the work is very good too. The route I’ve taken is to have less output and to try to have really really high class instruments that set themselves apart from the competition. It’s something you can’t do using machines or even delegating the work to others.

It sounds like it’s become more industrialized in the last 30 years.

Violin making used to have this manufacturing system, where you wouldn’t have so many machines, but you would have people who were experts at one specific job. They could do it very quickly. At the end, there was someone who would put it all together to make one instrument. You would have 20 instruments, and purely by chance, three of them would be outstandingly good. Maybe five or six were okay, and the rest would have been not so good and sold cheaply. Machines can do a lot but if you use them, you’re taking on a lot of uniformity. You don’t want to have two people in the same orchestra with instruments that look completely alike.

Where do you see the craft going?

It’s hard to predict where it’s headed. In the end, it’s connected to the cultural business. It will really depend on how much money is going into that scene and what people want to make of it. I don’t want to forecast though, so I can’t really say.

What has been the biggest challenge in making violins?

The challenge for me is that I have a sound in my head that I want to bring into being. That and the increase of digital sound equipment into the scene, because it’s changed people’s perception of music. Their approach to playing has become so different. I’m kind of old school. I don’t enjoy listening to CDs. I’d rather not listen to music than listen to a CD. I put on old records, but I can perceive how digital sound has drastically changed people’s perception of sound and music. In the classical scene it’s about perfection and it’s really screwed some people up. It can make it difficult to deal with musicians because it can make them very unsure of themselves – being a musician is a very challenging and stressful job anyway. I would say it’s one of the hardest jobs I know. I’m really not joking, you can tell by the amount of drugs they’re taking. (laughs)

What pushed you through the tough times and who is your biggest inspiration?

Of course, you encounter ups and downs. It’s the kind of business that no matter how good you are it deviates immensely. There would be months no one would come in but you had enough instruments. Friends brought me through this. Good friends. Have good friends if you’re a violin maker, if they’re musicians, even better. (laughs)

Have you sold any instruments to anyone in the world we should know about?

The two most celebrated that I’ve sold instruments to are two violinists of the Folger Quartet who play them around the world.

Do you think that each violin has a story to tell?

I’m often asked about the individual stories of certain violins. Most instruments have a story, big or small. There are amazing stories in old violins like the “Mara” Stradivarius cello that sunk with a ship, was exposed to seawater, came apart completely and was put back together. Heinrich Schiff play it for I don’t know how many years. There are stories of instruments that escaped wars, fires, who knows what. The model I use to show what is possible with wood was made in the 1930s. It’s a funny story, because the wood is from the 1930s and was originally meant to make big wooden rolls with patterns on them to print wallpaper. A violin maker said, “If it’s nice maple like that, pull it apart and cut it another way. Then came the second World War, then the Soviet Union, East Germans, and this violin was sitting in an attic through it all. In 1991, when East Germany opened up, I had the chance to buy stock of the old stuff, and also one or two of these wooden rolls. I made the violin out of one of these rolls.

What’s the greatest thing about the job?

It’s not a job you take for granted and I feel I’ve had a lot of luck. I only make violins. I don’t repair them or sell other things. Being able to make and sell my instruments is a great thing. I have so much freedom with this job. I could raise my children and spend time with them when they were young and still somehow make ends meet. No regrets.

 

Frank, it was lovely meeting you and seeing your beautiful workshop. Your approach to craftsmanship is truly inspiring! Find out more about Frank’s musical instruments.

This portrait is part of FvF Crafts, our video series in collaboration with ZEIT Online dedicated to craftsmanship and the beauty of the handmade. 

This video was filmed by Matei Pleșa for a personal project called “Fascination of the Craft” — find out more here.

Photography: Robbie Lawrence
Video: Matei Plesa