Interview with master violin maker Bernward Goes

Regional wood and traditional craftsmanship

Quatuor Ébène and the Rothko String Quartet recently made the Ordenssaal resound. But you can also expect particularly moving moments of string music with »Anastasia Kobekina Vivaldi«, the »Minguet Quartett Shubert«, and »Renaud Capuçon Schumann« in this year's Schlossfestspiele program. We took the opportunity to look behind the scenes of string instrument making. We talked to Bernward Goes, owner of the master workshop in Stuttgart-Vaihingen, about his profession and the differences between making a cello and a violin and the suitable wood. 

How did you become a violinmaker?
I played the violin as a child and teenager, but it was clear that I didn't want to make it my profession. I've always had a great interest in craftsmanship. At first, it was just an idea that I later pursued seriously. I got an apprenticeship in Cremona, the Italian birthplace and place of activity of Stradivari and all his comrades from the golden age of violin making. After four years of training, I returned to Germany, spent a few years as a journeyman, and became a master craftsman in 1999. I have now been self-employed for a good 24 years.

What does it take to become a good violin maker?

String instrument making is a delicate balance between detail and overall concept. It's not just about manual practice, but also about visual practice. You must learn to perceive details such as curves and harmonious relationships in the design. This is where the art of craftsmanship comes in. Violin making is meticulous work, but it's important to remember the bigger picture. A single exquisite detail, no matter how beautiful, does not a well-balanced instrument make.

Do you remember the first instrument you built?

Of course, I still have it. You can see that it was the beginning, but I'm still very proud of it. It's an incredible thing! You brood over it for months, and you hold such an instrument in the end. Even after all these years, I still love it. These instruments are so complex, and each one is unique. You know your material, your wood and how you want to design it, yet the mixture of surprise and trepidation remains until completion.

Are there any special features in the production of a cello compared to a violin?

There is hardly any difference in terms of craftsmanship. Of course, the proportions are different, the tuning and the pitch. The cello is bigger. For example, it is more difficult to bend such a large, wide rib that makes a nice curve than with a violin. But above all, it's more work. It takes me about 200 hours to make a violin. The cello probably takes two to three times as long. And you need more wood. The surface alone is at least four times as big. 

How do you make the instruments?

In violin making, there are different methods for fitting the body, for example, depending on the region. The French use the so-called outer mold, while Italian violin makers use an inner mold. In the German tradition, the edges were placed on the finished back, known as boxing. I build the body in the Italian way - now the most common - over the inner mold. Traditionally, maple is used for the body. But I have a special feature here.

...which is?

I use wood from the region. Traditionally, the wood used to make stringed instruments comes from Bosnia, which means barren limestone soil and karst mountains. We have the same growing conditions here in the Swabian Alb. It was a trial, an experiment, and it worked surprisingly well. Most of the wood can be put to excellent use. 

Is there such a thing as the perfect instrument?

No, there is no such thing as the instrument that everyone wants. I tend to see musicians putting an instrument away until the person comes along and says: »Wow, that's exactly what I've been looking for for ten years.« That's the wonderful thing about it. Every instrument is individual.

Do you also play your instruments yourself? 

Yes, that's actually very important. When an instrument is finished, I play it for six months. I can't explain to you what actually happens physically, but I have the impression that the instrument settles in during the first six months. When I give customers a selection, they buy what is currently being played. That always sounds the best.

Would you recognize an instrument from your hand or a Stradivarius by its sound? 

No, not by sound, but if someone brought me something that I sold ten years ago, I would recognize it immediately by the the the way its built.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

That it's so wonderfully anachronistic. (laughs) You can take your time in this trade. Of course, it has to be worthwhile at the end of the day, but it's not about profit and optimization. What is made by hand has its own expression and that is precisely what is important for customers, because the instrument should suit them. You can't order something like this on the internet. I'm on site, I listen, I take problems seriously. It's a bit out of date, but my customers enjoy it as much as I do. 

Bernward Goes in his stringinstruments workshop in Stuttgart-Vaihingen

© Daniel Keyerleber

© Daniel Keyerleber

Violin making needs a trained eye for detail

© Daniel Keyerleber

© Daniel Keyerleber