Success is in the set-up
(The Strad Magazine, November 1996)
Violin makers Wendy and Peter Moes are known for their individual style.
Steve Collins finds out their secret
Wendy and Peter Moes, the Connecticut-based violin makers, are among the most highly acclaimed of today's stringed instrument makers. Formally trained in Europe and the US, this husband and wife team shares a unique philosophy of instrument making that stresses originality in both design and tonal characteristics.
The Moeses met at the State Violin Making School in Mittenwald, Germany, in 1972 and began their collaboration as violin makers upon graduation in 1975. Wendy arrived at Mittenwald after studying humanities and music at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. While she was there she worked part time for a local violin maker, rehairing bows. After college, she served an informal internship at the Wurlitzer shop in New York City under the tutelage of Fernando Sacconi and Hans Nebel, where her potential was quickly recognized and Sacconi and Nebel encouraged her to apply to Mittenwald for a formal training.
Peter's interest in music developed out of hearing his father play the cello. Despite a serious interest in the instrument, Peter studied mechanical engineering at the Technische Universitat in Munich and sought entry to Mittenwald after graduation. Both received excellent training at Mittenwald; Peter worked principally with Karl Roy (later head of the school), while Wendy's teacher was Alois Hornsteiner.
After completing their studies, the Moeses decided to head for the US and seek work at one of the major violin shops. This would enable them to improve their knowledge of the old master violins and to gain more experience in making tonal adjustments, simple repairs and more complex restoration work. Even students who do not want to pursue these areas recognize that the experience provides insights that are beneficial to their work in making new instruments.
The Moeses wrote to several big violin shops in the US and were accepted by Los Angeles-based Hans Weisshaar, who was particularly noted for his expertise in restoration. They stayed with him for three years and sneak highly of his knowledge. skills and sincere interest in helping young violin makers develop. Wendy recalls that Weisshaar was very fond of teaching. 'He once took a group of us aside and demonstrated how to do a neck graft, which he finished in about half an hour; he took all of the mystery out of this difficult job.' After leaving Weisshaar, the Moes returned to Europe. They worked for a short time in Germany and then travelled to Italy, where they hoped to find an old stone farm house and settle into idyllic lives as violin makers. While looking around the Italian countryside, they realized the impracticality of making such an early retreat from the musical scene. They decided instead to settle in London and establish a partnership with Peter Biddulph, the violin dealer whom they had met briefly in Los Angeles.
In time all parties realized that this arrangement was not working and the Moeses left London to open a shop of their own in New York City. In 1981 they set up their business on 91st Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side and four years later they took a dramatic step and sought a more high-profile address, moving to a second-story shop at 225 West 57th Street, not far from Carnegie Hall.
Well trained, strategically situated and welcomed into the trade by its leading memIJers (both are members of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers and L'Entente Internationale des Maitres Luthiers et Archetieres d'Art), one would expect them to have been more than satisfied with the prospects of a successful ti~ture. But with scores of musicians calling for appointments for adjustments and repairs and multitudes arriving at their door to buy strings, cakes of rosin and accessories, they soon realized that they were doing less instrument making and restoration and more administration. UltimatelY the obligatory socializing with clients left them with little time for hands-on work, which was instead being relegated to their assistants (though the making of new instruments has never involved the use of assistants). Within a few years, devotion to the craft of violin making led them to close down the shop and to retreat to their apartment on West 93rd Street where they focused their efforts almost entirely on fulfilling contracts for new instruments, taking on a few interesting restoration projects and sharply limiting visitations from clientele. This proved a happy solution professionally, as well as personally, as they were better able to attend to the needs of their two young daughters.
In 1991 the constraints of apartment and city living led the Moeses to leave New York City for Concord, Massachusetts and finally to a spacious stone house set in the woods outside of Stamford, Connecticut. It would seem that the idyllic setting that they had searched for in Italy 20 years earlier has finally been found, and now with their reputations firmly established and their house only an hour's train ride from Manhattan, they are better positioned to interact with their clients yet able to keep the distractions at bay Far from rechlsive, one or both of them make at least one trip into New York each week to minister to the needs of musicians or to attend concerts.
A popular trend in recent years has been the making of copies, replete with the most meticulous replication of wear, marks and bruises. The Moeses are adamantly opposed to the approach of copying, which they feel is artistically bankrupt. 'The last way to reproduce the tonal qualities of an instrument is to copy its dimensions, archings and graduations down to the smallest fraction of a millimetre,' says Peter. 'In fact, that is the best way to make an instrument that sounds totally different from the original, for that kind of making does not take into account the individual quality of the wood. The ability to create an instrument that produces a certain type of sound comes from within the maker.
The maker must have a concept of sound in his mind and a feel for wood and for shaping it that is partly instinctive and partly the result of experience. At first, you have to make a few ugly violins by experimenting one at a time to figure out how the instrument works.
'Working wood is like being a nutshell on top of a waterfall. As the water changes its course, the nutshell must follow. In making a violin, you constantly have to negotiate with the wood. Violin making is like white-water rafting. In copying, you never find out what is going on - there are too many variables that are out of your control.'
'Being a copyist is like being an actor,' continues Wendy. 'If you copy all the time you never develop your personality as a maker. The making of exact replicas that have the appearance of ago is like a parlour trick. It is very clever and impressive but there is no substance to it. I sometimes ask myself why anyone would want to become a violin maker today. In practically any other field it is possible to attain excellence. One can be a great musician, artist, doctor or investment banker but the notion of greatness in violin making is restricted to makers of the past. This attitude that nothing can ever equal a Strad or a Guarneri has had a devastating effect on violin making. Once you arrive at that realisation, a maker winds up mainly copying the work of either Stradivari or Guarneri. If Stradivari had slavishly copied the work of the greatest master of his day, Nicolo Amati, we would never have had the benefit of his genius and where would we be if "del Gesu" had copied Stradivari'?
It is because these makers struck out on their own and succeeded that the world cherishes their instruments. Violin making has stagnated for centuries because of this reliance on copying. Copying is like painting by numbers.
Nor are the Moeses necessarily interested in making instruments that produce the type of sound associated with many old instruments. 'A lot of people never question the idea that Strads and Guarneris are the best,' says Wendy. 'There must be more than two ways to make a violin and we are looking for another way.'
'There is a sound we are after,' continues Peter. 'We want a different sound in our cellos than achieved by Strad; it may sound arrogant but we are not interested in his cello sound. Many Strad cellos do not have a strong C-string. This is very important for chamber music and for that reason many Strads are not successful for that repertoire. Soloists in particular need a good A-string. We want to make cellos with a strong bass and a clear treble that speaks well. This is hard to achieve, but we are well on our way.
'We like the freedom to make instruments that sound the way we want,' says Wendy. 'It is important to recognize that taste in sound has changed over the centuries. In the Baroque era people used gut strings and most instruments were heavier in wood so their sound was much brighter. They undoubtedly preferred that bright sound. Today people are very interested in dark sounds and many old instruments have been altered to reflect this change in taste. We have the opportunity to make instruments that reflect the variety of musical needs of today's players. We can design instruments that can fill a great hall with sound, if that is what is needed, but that may not have been a requirement back in the 17th and 18th centuries. We are going after a very filled-out sound, but with an edge.' Peter continues: 'in terms of responsiveness, an instrument should work without a fight. If you have to work too hard to get the sound you want, you have no energy left for the music.'
Though they eschew copying, they too had to start somewhere. 'For our cellos', says Peter, 'we began with a Montagnana outline that was about two centimeters shorter than a typical Stradivari cello, but much wider. The original was so wide that it required a very steep string angle for bow clearance. This created a lot of difficulties and limitations in adjusting the sound because of the bridge height, so we reduced the width of our model, which gave us more control. Though we at first used the f-hole outline of the Montagnana, the purfling and edgework were of our own design.'
The Moeses divide up those aspects of the work that lend visual character to their instruments. Wendy works on the scrolls and purfling while Peter cuts the f-holes, does the edgework and attends to the varnishing This lends a consistency of style to their instruments. Other chores are shared evenly, the instrument being passed back and forth between them. 'That way we have a series of checks and balances on the way it is turning out,' says Peter. Being of one mind when it comes to stylistic matters leads to few disputes and an instrument whose design features are well integrated. Though some machinery is employed (for example, the purfling channel is cut with a specially adapted router), they avoid the machine-made look which can be achieved whether machines are used or not.
The Moeses consider a musicians role to be an important part of violin making. 'We like to get to know a musician and find out what they want,' says Wendy. 'One of the problems in making an instrument for a player is that when they pick up a new instrument (to them), they are still trying to play the one they are familiar with. They continue to compensate for weaknesses or inequalities even though the new instrument may not have them. It takes some time for a musician to get to know an instrument and adjust his or her playing to bring out its best.'
Peter feels they have sufficient control in making their instruments so that they can tailor them to the player. 'If you make every instrument the same, using one pattern and with the same graduations, they would surely come out sounding differently. Some makers are fatalistic - they let their instruments turn out the way they turn out. If I did not feel I had some control over the end product, I would give up. I want to influence the way they sound and respond.'
One of the factors that provides some predictability for the Moeses is their wood. The spruce wood that they have been using for many years comes from panelling taken from several old Tyrolean houses.
‘Unfortunately, it has a lot of knots, many nail holes and worm damage that we have to avoid and work around,’ Peter remarks. ‘Because the old timbers from this house were not originally cut the way violin wood is prepared, we do not have wide planks to work from and we must piece together our tops from narrower boards. This is a lot of extra work, though we feel it is worth the extra effort because of the particularly fine tonal characteristics of the wood. We have a lot of this material -- enough for many instruments -- and because we have worked with it for so many years, we know its properties and how it works acoustically. This gives us extra control over the tonal quality of our instruments.
The Moeses’ varnish, like the planked tops and inevitable knots, is also a readily identifiable trait of their instruments. It is a rich deep reddish varnish, with great clarity. The craquelure, often approaching alligatoring, is an intentional feature that develops in the drying process, though it is, in part, controlled by the application. The craquelure, they feel, breaks down the varnish layer so that it does not ‘straightjacket’ the instrument, thereby restricting tonal production. The precise formula of their varnish is a trade secret, but they admit it is not a drying-oil varnish, which they believe becomes too hard with time and has a deleterious effect on sound. Peter characterizes such varnishes as ‘bulletproof – horrible – like some old waterproof coach varnish. It is totally inappropriate for an instrument. We have experimented with adding various percentages of drying oil to our varnish but we were not happy with the effect. It chipped off in a way that one never sees in an old instrument and was very unattractive.’ ‘While not a spirit varnish, as such, our varnish is alcohol sensitive,’ Wendy admits. ‘Shellac is often a major component of spirit varnish and it is much too hard.’ ‘And spirit varnishes are very difficult to apply over large surfaces because they dry too fast and you cannot go over them,’ adds Peter.
Varnish making takes place in a small room off of the main woodworking room of their shop and is the subject of never-ending experimentation. Various resins are prepared by heating in laboratory glassware and the inimitable colour of their varnish is carefully developed. Colouring matter is added to alter the hue and intensity (the only clue given here by Wendy is that just about everything that goes into the varnish is edible). Another small room is fitted out with banks of ultraviolet lamps, which are used for sunning the wood prior to varnishing and also for controlling the drying of the varnish. Sitting in the shop and receiving final touches prior to varnishing is a cello that had been ordered a number of years ago by the cellist Donald McCall. ‘Waiting time for an instrument has quite a bit since we gave up our shop in New York,’ says Wendy. ‘It used to be about four years but now we are able to get to new orders in about 18 months. We don’t have a rigid waiting list. Some of the better-established players with good instruments are in less of a rush and this enables us to move more quickly to meet the needs of players who are in desperate need of a good instrument, or musicians with tendonitis who are struggling with an instrument that is very hard to play. We try to get instruments to those clients as quickly as we can and we are thankful to those customers who are patient.’
Peter Wiley of the Beaux Arts Trio came upon his cello quite suddenly, though. He had brought his Testore to the Moeses for an adjustment and happened to try an instrument of theirs that was sitting around the shop. The instrument wasn’t fully varnished but he liked it so much he insisted upon having it. When he joined the Beaux Arts Trio, the Moeses we afraid that Menachem Pressler was going to object to this bold new instrument and make him get another cello’, says Wendy, ‘but nothing was ever said and he has been using it for most of his concert work and recordings ever since.’
The Moeses must be proud of their achievements, for their instruments have been selected by orchestral players, chamber musicians and soloists all over the world and by some who have put fine old instruments aside. Yo-Yo Ma has ordered an instrument, though only time will tell whether he will retire the ‘Davidoff’ Stradivari or Montagnana cellos in preference of his Moes & Moes.