It has been four decades since Bernard Neumann left Montreal for Cremona, Italy, to study violin making. The now renowned luthier, as a luthier is called, still draws inspiration daily from his walks along the northern Italian city’s patterned cobbled streets and curved Romanesque gates and porticoes.
“Just look at the beauty of this,” he said, pausing to marvel at the Corinthian capital of one of the columns supporting the loggia running along the facade of the brick and marble cathedral of Cremona.
“There is a repeated pattern, but the decorative element was made by a different stonecutter, so each has its own uniqueness. It marks you.”
Neumann might as well talk about the stringed instruments created by Cremona’s master luthiers over the centuries – instruments he spent most of his life restoring and preserving.
Cremona is one of the bustling and elegant cities that string together like flat pearls along the Po River south of Milan. In early 2020, it made international headlines when the COVID-19 pandemic first swept across northern Italy and the city became an infectious hotspot.
But its most enduring fame is that of the cradle of the violin. With its violin-making tradition inscribed on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity, its 150 violin-making workshops, the International School of Violin-making, the Stauffer Center for Strings and the Cremona Violin Museum, that’s an understatement to say that the city is defined by the instrument.
Students cycle past with cellos strapped to their backs, snippets of classical music rise from open windows, and on every corner, it seems, is a luthier storefront with gleaming string instruments on display .
Since Andrea Amati created the violin in the perfect form we know today in the early 1500s, other masters making stringed instruments for royal courts across Europe have appeared: Carlo Bergonzi, Giuseppe Guarneri and Giovanni Battisti Guadagnini, to name a few. Antonio Stradivari, who in the mid-1600s elevated craftsmanship to its highest form, creating violins, today known as “Stradivarius” or “Strads”, with astonishing clarity and complexity and a perfect balance between power and privacy.
Today, Neumann and his American partner Bruce Carlson carry on this tradition, among the most renowned luthiers in the world, working on centuries-old instruments now valued at millions and crafting their own for today’s most talented virtuosos. today.
From Montreal to Cremona
Born in Toronto, Neumann was drawn to Cremona by the story his German grandfather told him as a child of visiting the town where Stradivari created his magnificent instruments. After beginning a degree in physiology at McGill University, Neumann transferred to Concordia University to study music and the violin. In 1982 he traveled to Cremona to explore instrument making.
“I first learned the technique of violin making at school here, but I needed to have contact with the old violins, to hold them in my hands,” he said.
“A violin is a sculpture, a three-dimensional object, so unless you can turn it around and understand what makes it vibrate, you cannot understand its complexity.”
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To gain this experience, he applied for a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, which helped him apprentice for two years with Carlson, known in Cremona as “the deacon” of restorers.
Eventually Neumann partnered with his mentor, and over the past 30 years the Carlson & Neumann workshop has restored, certified and manufactured violins for many of the world’s finest soloists.
“You tremble before the task every time”
“Bernard is a complete master,” said Virginia Villa, director of the Cremona Violin Museum. “Rarely does a luthier have his breadth of skill and experience and this level of cultural sophistication and artistic openness.”
When the collection of the State Russian Museum of Music in Moscow asked the museum in Cremona to restore two exquisite instruments, a Venetian violin by Santo Serafino dating from 1749 and a Venetian cello from the same period, Villa said that the only luthier workshop she could trust them completely was Carlson & Neumann.
Neumann estimates that in addition to the dozens of instruments he restored, he made about 60 violins, violas, and cellos. Each takes about two months and costs over $30,000.
The price reflects the meticulous detail that goes into everything from the selection of spruce and maple from the Dolomites in northeast Italy, and the carving of the front and back, to the sculpting the sound column and the bridge and dressing the fingerboard.
“Every phase of work, every detail is equally important,” said Alessandra Pedota, wife of Neumann and fellow luthier. “But every time you make a violin, the material you’re working with is different – the weight, density and elasticity of the wood – so you have to change what you’re doing. You shudder at the task every time.”
Sitting in his studio on a quiet Cremona street dotted with windows of violin makers, including the five doors of Pedota, Neumann carefully carves the volute, the decorative end of the maple neck, of his latest violin. It is inspired by those made by Guadagnini, an 18th century luthier strongly influenced by Stradivari.
“A lot of soloists come to us with their native Italian instruments,” he said. “Once you have experienced an Amati, a Stradivari or a Guadagnini, you try to integrate it into your own violin making. I think it gives my violins something more because I’ve had the chance to play so many fantastic ones.”
Giving personality to violins
Renowned Italian cellist Claudio Pasceri goes even further, claiming that Neumann’s instruments are comparable to those made in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Three years ago, Pasceri, artistic director of the Asiago classical music festival in the Alps, invited Neumann to give a lecture on making string instruments. The luthier showed up with an almost finished unvarnished cello and asked Pasceri to play it as part of his presentation.
“You come across a lot of luthiers who just make instruments,” Pasceri said. “They don’t put their personality so deeply into the instrument. It was the first time I had met such a high-level luthier. For me, when I play, I see Bernard.”
Neumann builds almost all of its instruments with a specific musician in mind, from Zeng Cheng, principal violinist of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, to Canadian Isabelle Fournier of Symphony Nova Scotia.
Fournier traveled with his violinist stepfather to Cremona five years ago to meet violin makers and spend a few days “being violin geeks”. She says that Neumann, who was in Sweden to deliver an instrument to another musician, had left three for her to try out, one that was not yet varnished, which she left to last.
“I picked it up and started playing and it was like… being struck by lightning,” she recalled. “I said, ‘This is this one. This is my violin.’ …he just sang.”
Neumann still had to varnish the instrument, a process that takes months. When it was done, during a stopover to visit his parents in Ontario, he personally delivered Fournier’s violin to her in Halifax, where he listened to her play and adjusted the gallows to reflect her voice.
This kind of contact with musicians, says Neumann, is essential in helping him create a violin, viola or cello that best channels and reflects the voice of a particular musician.
But ultimately, he says, he’s striving for the same thing that masters of the past have delivered: instruments that can flourish far beyond their first player, that usher in, again and again , the artistic thrill of rich, complex, intimate music and articulate sound.