Niche instrument makers shake up Berlin | Scene in Berlin | DW | 25.10.2013
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Scene in Berlin

Niche instrument makers shake up Berlin

Berlin’s music scene is notorious for its unrelenting beats and chemical heart, its constant drive for the new. But a few artisans who hand-craft instruments work hard to keep medieval and baroque chic alive.

The long hallway of the cellar is dimly lit and lined with intimidating steel doors. A tungsten bulb flickers, creating a somewhat eerie ambience. We're deep beneath the once-bustling headquarters of the now-bankrupted Leiser footwear empire in Berlin's Neukölln district. It's here where one of Berlin's more unexpected musical revivals is being engineered: the rebirth of medieval and baroque chic.

The German capital is replete with symphony orchestras and opera companies, but for most the Berlin of today is synonymous with musical progression and innovation - and its seemingly insatiable hunger for the 'new.' Training as an architect in the 1980s, Wolfgang Emmerich quickly became bored with what he saw as the futile pursuit of perpetual innovation and being 'modern,' and took a holiday to Greece to consider his future. It was here that he chanced upon what, on reflection, he calls his destiny: a Renaissance-era lute.

Violins hanging up in the workshop of Kevin Gentges (photo: Julian Tompkin)

It takes about one month to make a violin by hand

Taking it back to Berlin, Emmerich set about teaching himself the art of lutherie and restoration, and an obsession was born. He abandoned architecture and today is widely respected as one of the finest luthiers in Europe, shipping his delicate and elegantly hand-crafted instruments the world over, each painstakingly built according to ancient lutherie traditions.

Back to the future

"I was drawn to more historical types of beauty," Emmerich said, plucking on a 24-stringed baroque-style lute that took him over three months to build.

The lute arrived in Europe around A.D. 800 as war bounty from the Crusades, but it would take another few hundred years until it became the favored timbre of the court and gentry. By the 12th century it was the peak of musical fashion amongst the privileged classes here in Germany and throughout much of Europe. By the 18th century, it had completely fallen out of favor and was heading towards extinction.

Wolfgang Emmerich (photo: Julian Tompkin)

Artisan Emmerich is one of Europe's finest luthiers

But in the 1960s, as the protagonists of Britain's folk revival began to reanalyze that country's own musical traditions, the lute (as well as its ancient stringed siblings the mandolin and bouzouki) began to find favor once again amongst discerning ears. Then in 2006, when the pop star Sting got his medieval getup on and released an album of 16th century lute music for Germany's recording company Deutsche Grammophon, the orders began rolling in.

"The lute is a very delicate instrument, both in structure and sound," explained Emmerich, who also specializes in romantic and baroque guitars. "As music progressively got louder the lute became less popular, as it doesn't have the projection of more modern instruments, like the guitar. But in the 60s and 70s in pop music there was a new interest in these very fine, silverfish sounds, as well as the Arabian and Indian influence. From there it's just a few steps to old European music."

Medieval chic

Emmerich is part of a growing movement of Berlin-based artisans quietly rebelling against both perpetual modernity and the production-line musical instruments typical in music shops today. A quick search and you'll uncover artisans hand-crafting instruments often thought the exclusive domain of Berlin's Museum of Musical Instruments - from custom-made pipe organs to harpsichords, and bandoneons to all-but-forgotten wind instruments such as the crumhorn.

"There is definitely a market for hand-crafted instruments, including the violin," Kevin Gentges said, carefully sanding the spruce body of a cello. Operating from a workshop in Prenzlauer Berg with his long-time business partner Felix Scheit, Gentges trained as a violinmaker in Italy in the 1990s and now builds premium violins, violas and cellos to be exported around the globe.

"Sure, you can buy a factory-made violin for 100 euros ($138) in a shop, and many people have no choice but to do this because of cost restrictions," he said. "But you simply cannot compare a handmade instrument with one from a factory, made with inferior wood. It takes one month to finish a violin by hand - two months for a cello. It was an art form completely perfected in Mozart's time, and this is what we build."

"It’s a different pleasure," Gentges concluded, when comparing building an instrument to playing one. "I now have more fun making my instrument than playing it. Playing an instrument, after you finish a performance and the audience has applauded…that's it. It's satisfying but then it's over, which is good if you play a bad show, I suppose. But when you make an instrument, it's there forever. So that's why you need to make it the best instrument you can."

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