Sunday 4 June 2017

The Inset Lute Rose: A Contemporary Example, and Some Historical Ones

In my last post I described a lute that I and some of my colleagues here in Vancouver put together for loan to a deserving music student. We started work on it in the lute making class at the LSA Workshop West in 2015, and it had contributions from Grant Tomlinson, Ray Nurse, Wilma Van Berkel, and me: I dubbed our little group the "Commonwealth of Vancouver Lute Makers."

In the post, I mentioned that I didn't carve a new rose for this lute, but instead inset one that I had carved in 2003, for a project that I eventually set aside. I had no qualms about reusing it: the rose looked good (I must say I was a bit impressed by the carving skills of that young whippersnapper Travis Carey); and it saved me a fair amount of time. To give you an idea how much, I usually spend around 20 to 24 hours carving an average lute rose, while inlaying this old one took probably no more than 2 or 3.

A further reason I felt comfortable insetting my old rose was that, from the evidence I've seen, it was a trick of the trade used commonly by the old master lute makers. Just like modern makers, they obviously took a lot of pride and satisfaction in making a rose that was (in the words of Thomas Mace) "smoothly cut," yet they often seemed willing to re-use and recycle suitable old parts in new lutes, one supposes for reasons of economy, as well as aesthetics.  This is true of roses, just as it was true, for instance, of early 16th century Italian lute bodies (and bellies) by Hans Frei and Laux Maler that ended up in France a hundred years later, converted to 10 and 11 course lutes.

Today, what I'd like to do is just give a brief description of my technique for insetting an old rose in a new belly. It's not too complicated, but I think it's worth showing. In my experience as a lute repairer as well as maker, I've seen quite a few instances where otherwise healthy lutes have needed new bellies--and there's often no good reason why the fine original rose shouldn't be preserved and given new life.

After that, I'd like to show you some historical examples of inset roses in lutes that I've come across in my travels.

So first, the technique.

Take one rose, already carved, and in an appropriate place--perhaps the line deeply scored around the perimeter--use a sharp knife or rose cutting chisel to carefully cut the rose out of the surrounding soundboard.

The edge of the cut-out rose is bound to be a little rough, so smooth out the bumps by running a sanding block around the outside. I use a square-sided sanding block and place a block of wood under the rose, so it's raised about 10 mm off the table top. This ensures that the perimeter of the rose, while perhaps not perfectly round, is at least straight-sided (that is,  perpendicular to the surface of the pattern.)
Step two: cut a hole in the new soundboard. Lay out the location of the rose centre along the centreline of the belly, then use a compass to scribe a circle that's approximately 1mm smaller than the diameter of the rose to be inlaid (you should check the diameter of the rose very carefully in many places, since the rose might not be perfectly round.) Use a knife or rose chisel to cut out this circle...
then fashion a disc of, say, 3/4" mdf (medium density fibreboard), a millimetre or two smaller in diameter than the hole you've just cut. Use double-sided tape to stick a strip of 220 grit sand paper to the outside...
and use the disc to carefully shape the hole. Again, use spacers to raise the belly a few millimetres above the table, so when you use the sanding disc, the edges of the hole end up straight-sided.

Proceed very carefully, and check the fit often, from the back side of the belly. Make sure to mark the centreline of the rose, so that its grain orientation matches that of the belly. I found it helpful in the fitting process to work roughly quadrant by quadrant--get a decent fit on the upper right quadrant, then work into the upper left, then lower left, and so on around the circle. Eventually, the rose popped snugly into place.
Once it was fit, and everything looked good from the back and front sides, I just left it in place, and proceeded to gluing. I cut out some pieces of thin handmade paper to overlap from the soundboard partway onto the pattern--specifically, across the outer ring of semicircles to the solid ring partway in.  (I thought that would offer more security than just gluing to the fragile outer part of the pattern.) I applied hide glue to the paper--not too much, because I didn't want to have to clean up great gobs of dried glue later on--and stuck it down. On top of this went a layer of waxed paper; then a circle of thick card slightly bigger than the rose, that covered the whole gluing area; then a batten; then clamps.
Please note that I did not attempt to brush any glue around the outside edge of the rose and try to stick it into the hole in the belly. That would have been totally impractical, and created a terrible mess. I reasoned that the paper would do a good enough job of securing the rose, and that I might incidentally get some glue squeeze from the paper in the (very slight) gap between the rose and the belly. And eventually, the rose would be secured in place by three harmonic bars, as well as numerous other small bars, so I didn't think there was any danger that it might come loose.

This is the look from the back, after the glue dried: 
And the view from the front:
All that's left was to take my rose chisel and carefully cut out the paper that underlay the outer ring of the pattern. Once done, I could treat this belly as I would any other--gluing on a set of bars, fitting into the lute body, etc. Here's the final look:
Nice. I think the Travis of 2003 would be pleased.

Now--let's have a look at some slightly older examples.

I don't get to Europe too often these days--I'm pretty much chained to the workbench (sigh)--but when I do, I head straight for the musical instrument collections (heere bee the lutes!) Julia and I made a trip to Munich and Copenhagen during the Christmas season of 2015-16, and I got to ogle lutes galore. The museums in Munich were wonderful, but I must say the Carl Claudius Samling at the Danish Music Museum was a real revelation. They had just moved into a new space in the former home of the Danish Broadcasting Company. The exhibits were fine, the staff friendly and helpful, and the musical instruments on display were, simply, stunning. We visited on short notice, so I had to be content to look at the lutes through glass in their display cases; at some point in the future, though, I would love to make arrangements to do some research among the instruments in the collection. 

Here's my first example of an inset rose, from a lute in the Carl Claudius Samling, by Andrea Harton (no. 102A). Dated 1617, it was originally a theorbo (the body is ebony and ivory), but was converted at some point to its present configuration as a German Baroque lute. I have no information on when, or by whom, the conversion was done; from the look of things (from a distance, and through glass), to me it seems as though the body may be the only original part of the lute to have survived the conversion.

Or, perhaps, the rose as well?

It's a lovely triple rose, and it is indeed "smoothly cut"--and it is definitely inset. Here's a little closer look:

This view shows clearly a ring of dark-light-dark-light purfling around each of the three parts of the rose. It's an unusual look, but I think it's quite well-done: not only are the roses neatly fitted, but the purfling rings are actually cut into each other slightly, elbowing each other's space a tiny bit, which helps to integrate them together visually. (On original old triple roses, the chip-carved border will often wind and snake and overlap to integrate the three parts.) 

Is this the original rose? I don't know, but at the very least it looks to me like a rose carved in what I would call a high-Renaissance style--the elements are beautifully proportioned, the lines are cleanly and deeply cut, and the work overall gives an impression of efficiency and mastery. If it is not the original rose, it certainly is an original rose, and whoever did the conversion made an inspired choice to include it.

(Of course, it's also an open question whether the three parts are actually from the same original rose--the pattern of the top element is different from the two below it, and though they all appear to be cut by the same steady hand, the chip carved border at the top is a little bit compressed compared to the other two...)

Two more examples, both from the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, SD, USA. These are the two superb 13 course baroque lutes of the 1720s by Thomas Edlinger of Prague (nos. 10213 and 10214), both, again, conversions of earlier lutes. They've travelled an interesting path: from the 18th century they were kept stored in the attic of a castle in Bohemia, and were "rediscovered" by the castle's owners only in 1907. From the 1950s until the late 1970s they were loaned to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Robert Lundberg examined and photographed them there; some photos appear in his book "Historical Lute Construction.") In 2002 they were acquired by the National Music Museum. Supported by a research grant from the Saskatchewan Arts Board, I was able to visit the Museum and measure and photograph these lutes in the summer of 2006.

I'm not sure I can adequately describe the thrill I got from looking at and handling these lutes. It was one of those rare instances in my life where all my senses were heightened, my eyes and hands and mind totally engaged in observing the object before me: sensing its weight and balance, the way it shimmered in my hands when I simply spoke a word; observing the woods used and the joints fitted, the curves, cuts, colours and proportions; trying with all my concentration to notice, and commit to memory, every single detail about the lutes.

It's a good thing I did, too, because I sure wasn't able to get much use out of the photos I took. I was working with a (film) 35mm SLR camera, and did not have the expertise to photograph in the rather harsh lighting conditions in the museum's basement (I would love to go back there with a good digital camera.) Most of my shots of the roses were a wash, unfortunately--so for my purposes today, I'll rely on the museum's own photos.

First the larger of the two, NMM 10214. This lute, attributed to the famous Tieffenbrucher family of lute makers in Padua (a label inside reads, "In Padua. Vendelinus Tieffenbruker"), has a beautiful back of 21 striped yew ribs, and probably began life as a bass lute in the late 16th century. Edlinger's label inside shows that the 13 course conversion was done in 1724.

Photo courtesy NMM
Photo courtesy NMM
The rose, one of the most intricate and beautifully carved examples I've ever seen, is inset. From the original lute? Difficult to say--but that doesn't diminish its glory.

Photo courtesy NMM
The pattern of interlocking rings is a fairly common motif in surviving old lute roses, but the carver has added some interesting features--first, a set of eight flower patterns forming a square within the circle; and second, and most intriguingly, a pattern of a sun with a human face at the very centre.

According to Wikipedia, that figure is actually a very common heraldic charge called "the sun in splendour" or "the sun in his glory." In its most usual form, the figure "consists of a round disc with the features of a human face, surrounded by twelve or sixteen rays, alternating wavy and straight...The alternating straight and wavy rays are often said to represent the light and heat of the sun respectively." That's exactly what we have here--the human face, and 16 rays, alternating wavy and straight (the carver's skill in accomplishing this detail in the fragile spruce is simply astonishing.)

But what is the significance of this in a lute rose? Well, the heraldic figure is one that is used on a variety of coats of arms, both of individuals and families, and geographical locations such as towns, cities, and countries. Could the motif point to a possible origin of the rose--either a particular person, or a particular place? I can't say for sure, though a couple of intriguing possibilities present themselves. A quick survey of the coats of arms with the motif listed on the Wikipedia page shows many localities in France and Switzerland, both of which seem unlikely candidates. There are, however, two in the Czech Republic: Loukov, a village and municipality (obec) in Kroměříž District in the Zlín Region, 249 km east of Prague; and Věžky, a village and municipality in Přerov District in the Olomouc Region, 230 km (143 mi) east of Prague. (And by the way, I turned up no associations of this design with Padua or regions near it.)

The coat of arms of Loukov, By Pkotrla at Czech Wikipedia
The coat of arms of Věžky, By Pkotrla at Czech Wikipedia 

Of course this is all speculation (and definitely not an exhaustive survey), and probably of very little consequence for our appreciation of the lute itself. However, to me, as a lute maker and student of the work of the old masters, it is interesting to contemplate the idea that, on balance, it's more likely that the rose's origin is closer to Prague than to Padua--in other words, that the rose might be one that Edlinger had on hand, rather than the original rose in the bass lute.

On to the last example, NMM 10213, the smaller of the two Edlinger lutes. There is a label inside reading "Magno dieffopruchar a venetia" with no date; Edlinger's label alongside it shows that he converted the lute to 13 courses in 1728. This lute, I must say, is a bit of an oddity, though a fascinating one.

Photo courtesy NMM
Photo courtesy NMM

Here's the inset rose:

Photo courtesy NMM
Again, it's a beautifully and crisply carved old rose, complete with the central leaf motif that (I imagine) originally accompanied it. The borders around each of the three circles are most noteworthy to me because they appear to be round-bottomed channels. I've seen this feature in other old lute roses, but no matter what tool I've tried, I've not been able to find one to make this kind of rounded channel in a straight line, let alone in a perfectly-executed circle such you see here. (If any lute makers or carvers reading this have figured it out, please let me know.)

I had actually been interested in this lute as a possible model for a small theorbo, but when I got to the museum and examined it, I saw pretty quickly that the idea wasn't going to work out. Simply put,  the shape is just a little too wonky--the outline is wobbly, and the bowl is kind of lumpy and irregular. I felt that if I used this lute as a model, I would end up having to change the cross sections, longitudinal section, and outline so much that I could barely point to the original lute as the origin for the shape.

But even though I didn't end up using the information I took from this lute to make a new instrument, the time I spent with it in the museum was, I feel, incredibly important to my evolving sense of what a lute actually is or can be. Before then, my idea of "lute" was shaped mainly by my contact with the work of modern makers--lutes built on solid wood molds that have been carefully shaped to iron out all irregularities in body shape, and where every detail of workmanship is executed to the nth degree. Modern lutes, by and large, are pretty much perfect artifacts, and in this way they are very unlike most, if not all, of the old lutes that one sees in museum collections.

This is true of both the Edlinger lutes in South Dakota, but especially true of this one. Besides the wobbly old body and the inset rose, it's pretty clear that Edlinger also re-used an old belly when he put this lute together--as you can see in this photo, he's added a strip of spruce at the very top to fill in the gap where the belly wasn't quite long enough. There also appear to be old "ghost" marks of some previous body frets (you can see one just above the 12th fret); and, though it's hidden behind the third course bass-side string, there appears to be a ghost mark of the very tip of an old fingerboard point which has been filled in with a spruce patch (you'll just have to take my word for it.)

Photo courtesy NMM
What else? Ghost marks of what appear to be the ends of an old capping strip on each side of the bowl; a strip of maple that's been added to the edge rib on the treble side, to add depth to the body; a "new", two-piece capping strip that's been stuck on the bottom of the bowl, almost, it seems, as an afterthought.

Photo courtesy NMM
If it was anybody besides Edlinger who had done this, you'd probably say that some of it is pretty rough work. Indeed, you can say it of him, and if you want to be brutally honest, you can say that he must have used up a lot of spare parts he had kicking around his workshop to put this lute together.

And yet, I don't think in this case that to say those things is an insult. What Edlinger did was, very simply, put together a lute for a certain client who had a certain musical purpose or necessity in mind.  He did what can be called, somewhat generously, a workmanlike job in doing so. Quite obviously, the lute served that purpose well--the marks of it having been played vigorously, and for a long time, are clearly seen.

It must have been a wonderful instrument. And though in its present state it is far from being technically perfect, it is nevertheless very mysterious, and very beautiful.