It’s been four decades since Bernard Neumann left Montreal for Cremona, Italy, to study violin making. The now renowned luthier, as a luthier is called, still draws his daily inspiration from his walks along the patterned cobbled streets of the northern Italian town and curved Romanesque gates and porticoes.
“Just look at the beauty of it,” he said, pausing to marvel at the Corinthian capital of one of the columns supporting the loggia running along the facade of the brick and marble cathedral of Cremona.
“There is a repeated pattern, but the decorative element was made by a different stonemason, so each one has its own unique character. It marks you.”
Neumann might as well speak of the stringed instruments created by the master luthiers of Cremona over the centuries – instruments he spent most of his life restoring and preserving.
Cremona is one of the bustling and elegant towns strung like flat pearls along the Po river south of Milan. In early 2020, it made international headlines when the COVID-19 pandemic first swept across northern Italy and the city became an infectious hotspot.
But its most enduring fame is that of the cradle of the violin. With his lutherie tradition on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity, its 150 violin-making workshops, the international violin-making school, the Stauffer center for strings and the Cremona violin museum, it is an understatement to say that the city is defined by the instrument.
Students cycle by with cellos strapped to their backs, snippets of classical music pop out from open windows, and around every corner, it seems, is a luthier’s storefront with sparkling stringed instruments on display.
Since Andrea Amati created the violin in the perfect form we know today in the early 1500s, other masters who made stringed instruments for royal courts across Europe have emerged: Carlo Bergonzi , Giuseppe Guarneri and Giovanni Battisti Guadagnini, to name a few. But it was Antonio Stradivari, who in the mid-1600s elevated the craft to its highest form, creating violins, now known as “Stradivarius” or “Strads,” with clarity and surprisingly complex and perfectly balanced between power and intimacy.
Today, Neumann and his American partner Bruce Carlson continue this tradition, among the most renowned luthiers in the world, working on century-old instruments now valued in the millions and making theirs for today’s most talented virtuosos. .
From Montreal to Cremona
Born in Toronto, Neumann was drawn to Cremona by the story his German grandfather told him as a child, visiting the city where Stradivari created his magnificent instruments. After starting a degree in physiology at McGill University, Neumann transferred to Concordia University to study music and violin. In 1982 he went to Cremona to explore instrument making.
“I first learned the technique of violin making in school here, but I needed to have contact with the old violins, to actually hold them in my hands,” he said.
“A violin is a sculpture, a three-dimensional object, so unless you can turn it over and understand what makes it vibrate, you cannot understand its complexity.”
To gain this experience, he applied for a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, which helped him to become an apprentice for two years with Carlson, known in Cremona as “the deacon” of restorers.
Neumann eventually became his mentor’s partner, and over the past 30 years, the Carlson & Neumann workshop has restored, certified and manufactured violins for many of the world’s best soloists.
‘You tremble at the task every time’
“Bernard is a master in his own right,” said Virginia Villa, director of the Violin Museum of Cremona. “It is rare for a luthier to have his range of skills and experience and this level of cultural sophistication and artistic openness.”
When the collection of the State Russian Museum of Music in Moscow asked the Cremona Museum to restore two exquisite instruments, a Venetian violin from Santo Serafino dating from 1749 and a Venetian cello from the same period, Villa says the only violin making workshop she could fully trust was Carlson & Neumann.
Neumann estimates that with the dozens of instruments he restored, he made around 60 violins, violas and cellos. Each takes about two months and costs over $ 30,000.
The price reflects the meticulous detail that goes into everything from the selection of spruce and maple trees from the Dolomites in northeastern Italy, and the carving of the front and back, to the carving of the stem and the bridge and the dressing of the fingerboard.
“Every phase of the work, every detail is just as important,” said Alessandra Pedota, wife and colleague of Neumann’s luthier. “But every time you make a violin, the material you work with is different – the weight, density, and elasticity of the wood – so you have to change what you are doing. Every time you tremble at the task.”
Sitting in his studio on a quiet Cremona street dotted with luthiers’ display cases, including Pedota’s five doors, Neumann carefully carves the scroll, the decorative end of the maple neck, of his last violin. It is inspired by those made by Guadagnini, an 18th century luthier strongly influenced by Stradivari.
“A lot of soloists come to us with their original Italian instruments,” he said. “Once you have experienced an Amati, a Stradivari or a Guadagnini, you try to integrate it into your own violin making. I think that gives my violins something more because I have had the chance to playing so many fantastic ones. “
WATCH | Claudio Pasceri plays one of Neumann’s cellos:
Give personality to violins
The famous Italian cellist Claudio Pasceri goes even further, claiming that Neumann’s instruments are comparable to those made in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Three years ago, Pasceri, artistic director of the classical music festival Asiagofestival in the Alps, invited Neumann to give a lecture on the making of stringed instruments. The luthier presented himself with a nearly finished unvarnished cello and asked Pasceri to play it as part of his presentation.
“You meet a lot of luthiers who just make instruments,” Pasceri said. “They don’t put their personality so deeply into the instrument. It was the first time I had met a luthier of such a level. For me, when i play I see Bernard. “
Neumann makes almost all of his instruments with one particular musician in mind, from Zeng Cheng, Principal Violinist of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, to Canadian Isabelle Fournier of Symphony Nova Scotia.
Fournier traveled with his violinist stepfather to Cremona five years ago to meet luthiers and spend a few days “being violin geeks”. She says that Neumann, who was in Sweden delivering an instrument to another musician, left her with three to try out, one that still wasn’t varnished, which she left to last.
“I picked it up and started playing and it was like… being struck by lightning,” she recalls. “I said, ‘This is it. This is my violin.’ … He just sang. “
Neumann still needed to varnish the instrument, a process that takes months. When that was done, on a layover to visit his parents in Ontario, he presented Fournier’s violin to her in person in Halifax, where he listened to her play and adjusted the sound column to reflect her voice.
This kind of contact with musicians, says Neumann, is vital to help him create a violin, viola or cello that channels and best reflects the voice of a particular musician.
But at the end of the day, he says, he strives for the same that the masters of the past delivered: instruments that can thrive far beyond their first player, that usher in, over and over again, the artistic thrill of rich, complex, intimate and articulate sound.
WATCH | Bernard Neumann explains what led him to Cremona and to a career as a luthier: