By Patrick Sullivan
You’ll find many luthiers in London’s Marylebone area, but one workshop there may be unique. In the Royal Academy of Music Museum, a team of four luthiers—all women—and one bow restorer care for one of the world’s great collections of stringed instruments. And they do it fishbowl style, behind a glass wall in full view of a museum brimming with visitors. “Usually if you turn around there are noses pressed against the window,” says luthier Anette Fajardo with a laugh. “They cannot come in, so it’s OK.”
Fajardo and her collaborators work in the academy’s striking York Gate building next to Regent’s Park, two miles north of Buckingham Palace. In the museum’s 25-square-meter workshop, the team adjusts, maintains, repairs, and evaluates an astonishing array of instruments by both legendary luthiers and modern makers.
Founded in 1822, the Royal Academy is Britain’s oldest conservatory. The school currently serves some 750 students. And since 2001, it has operated a landmark museum with a stringed-instrument collection ranging from masterful works by 21st-century luthiers to spectacular Cremonese instruments like the “Viotti ex-Bruce,” the 1709 Strad once owned by Queen Marie Antoinette’s violinist.
The dilemma is often between restoring an instrument to what we perceive to be the original condition and trying to optimize the sound quality and playability. —Anette Fajardo
It’s a luthier’s dream come true, according to Fajardo, who points to her recent work on an Amati viola from about 1620. “It is absolutely beautiful, very delicate,” she says with a sigh. “It’s a great pleasure to work on such instruments. And to be able to take your time. The question is always, ‘What is best for the instrument?’”
Many of the academy’s approximately 250 stringed instruments and 150 bows go out on loan to students and faculty, according to Barbara Meyer, the museum’s curator of instruments, who oversees the workshop team. “For me it is very fascinating to help the students to find an instrument that suits them,” Meyer says.
The luthiers often focus on measures to ward off wear and tear, as well as spending time with students to teach them how best to handle the instruments. This workshop is very different from a commercial operation, Meyer stresses. Central to its work is balancing two key obligations. “On one side we have the students and faculty, so we need to accommodate player needs,” Meyer says. “And then the instruments belong to an accredited museum, so we need to maintain the instruments to modern museum standards. Those are two completely different worlds.”
Luthier Sarah Beaton, for example, is currently working on an instrument that has badly worn edgework and purfling. “A repair like this, in some cases you might remove some original wood, but that’s not possible in this museum setting,” explains Beaton, a graduate of the Newark School of Violin Making who has worked at the Royal Academy for two and a half years. “So we developed a technique to build up the wood to the size it would originally have been without removing any of the original wood.”
One question rears its head again and again, according to Fajardo, who studied violin making at the Geigenbaufachschule Mittenwald and joined the museum team in 2006. “The dilemma is often between restoring an instrument to what we perceive to be the original condition and trying to optimize the sound quality and playability,” she says. “We want the instrument to be played, not put in a glass case.” Meyer says: “The team needs to carefully evaluate whether instruments can continue to be played or stay protected in a glass case to conserve their unique features for future generations.”
Though Fajardo and her fellow luthiers all work just a day or two a week at the museum, they often collaborate. “One of us sometimes works on one part of the instrument, one on the other,” says Fajardo. “Working together trains your critical eye toward your own work. And the great thing about working with colleagues is that you can bounce ideas off each other.” All four luthiers have their own private workshops separate from the Academy.
Disagreements arise, of course—“For sure, yes,” Fajardo says with a laugh—but Meyer is the mediator and has the final say.
Meyer took over management of the workshop several years ago, after the departure of luthier David Rattray, who served as the Royal Academy’s instrument curator for more than 25 years. The weight of the history now in her care was highlighted by a recent year-long project: The museum produced condition reports for every stringed instrument and bow in the collection. “We had a chance to look in detail at every instrument, and not under the time pressure that we have when they come in for a checkup,” Meyer says.
The process was sometimes eye-opening, as when the team evaluated a beautiful 1695 Rugeri cello.
“Among the documents we looked at was a certificate from the Hill company from the early 1900s that confirms they shortened the instrument,” Meyer says. “Such repairs would be totally prohibited these days.”
Another Rugeri cello had been lengthened. “Unfortunately there is no documentation concerning those cellos, which are really heritage instruments, that gives us a clue of what they were like before they were altered,” she says.
Among Meyer’s favorite museum instruments are two Girolamo II Amati violins: One dates from 1671, the other from 1719. “Beautiful instruments and great sound,” she says. Dendrochronology testing revealed that the older Amati features front wood from the same source as that used for other Cremonese instruments, including three Strads.
But centuries-old violins are hardly the workshop’s only responsibility.
The museum’s Calleva Collection is composed of early 21st-century instruments and bows by the likes of Peter Beare, Andrea Frandsen, and Gregg Alf. When it comes to adjustments and repairs, Meyer and her team can easily confer with these instruments’ living makers, some of whom are in London. One joy of the six-year-old Calleva Collection, Meyer says, has been seeing its effect on young musicians. “All the modern cellos and violas have been on loan to students,” she says. “It’s been a revelation to many of them to play such high-quality modern instruments.”