1998: A Tribute to Neil Ertz

neil_ertzNeil Értz (1966-2016) was one of Britain’s best loved violin makers. I had the pleasure of selling a few of his instruments and chatting to him frequently about the new instruments that he was making, and the greater pleasure of counting him amongst my friends. A 1998 copy of Guarneri’s 1742 ‘Lord Wilton’ allows a moment of reflection about the tremendous contribution he made to violin making across the world. 

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1744 ‘Ole Bull’ once considered by many to be too outlandish to be part of the Cremonese tradition

Looking back with what I know now, 1998 was one of the great turning points in modern violin making. I was a student learning instrument making at the time, so even if I had made it to New York for the Guarneri Exhibition, I don’t think I knew enough for it to make any profound impact on me. In the workshop we talked about Guarneri being a rougher kind of Strad, laughed at his anomalies and there the conversation stopped. If we were a little more informed we would have commented upon the elements that contrasted against our expected idea of Stradivari and the other Cremonese makers, but the very limited conversation that we enjoyed was one that echoed across the world of violin making. From Vuillaume up to the modern time, people tried to tidy up del Gesu’s work, applying his design forms within a framework that spoke as much for 20th century ideals of ‘honest craftsmanship’ as it did for an awareness of the more refined masterpieces of the past. Understanding of Guarneri’s masterpieces was so much in it’s infancy 30 years ago that at the time, the 1744 Ole Bull violin by del Gesu was still regarded by many as a fake, being too provocatively preposterous to conceivably exist within the spectrum of Classical Cremonese work. It is now one of the most celebrated examples in the world. Clean copies by makers such as William Luff or David Rubio that were once much respected in the top rank of English making now feel lacklustre and stilted by comparison to a better understanding of what del Gesu’s work really looks like, and the liberties which that gives to looking back on Stradivari and understanding the imperfections that give his violins their character.

Aside from the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the catalogue that followed can be counted as the most important book ever written on violin making. For the first time it included precise technical drawings of all of the instruments in the exhibition along with full-sized and painstakingly accurate colour photographs by Stewart Pollens. Whilst many more recent books have photographs of rival quality to these, they broke new ground, and later books lack the technical detail of technical drawings and measurements vital for violin making. Meanwhile, the collection of essays that filled the catalogue were the fruits of years of experimenting, analysis and research that finally gave us a profound insight into the Cremonese system of making. Roger Hargrave’s analysis was unrivalled in detail and insight. It allowed us to rethink the observations made in Simone Sacconi’s Secrets of Stradivari, going wider and further in its compelling arguments for how the great makers of the past made their instruments. It didn’t answer every question, but where it didn’t, it can be clearly seen as the springboard to further research and one of the most significant waypoints in the process of reclaiming the Cremonese tradition after many centuries of loss. Roger is quite adamant about one thing though. He couldn’t have achieved all that without the help of an unsung hero of the del Gesu story. The endless enthusiasm of the cheeky young Scot who came to work with him, Neil Értz.

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Neil’s 1998 copy of Yehudi Menuhin’s 1742 ‘Lord Wilton’ epitomises the renaissance in violin making that was taking place. Two years before he had been on a secret mission with a couple of colleagues (he told me it was secret, so it must have been) [Editor’s note: He told everyone it was secret, so it really was] to take plaster casts off this iconic instrument. At the time he didn’t care so much for the varnish, resulting in a good antiqued finish rather than a full-blown bench copy, but the woodwork beneath is startling: In the light of the research that he was working on with Roger for the 1998 exhibition, his violin is one of the most compelling and absorbing Guarneri copies I have seen.

I rarely get to see Guarneri copies that are as good. It takes a lot of experience of looking at del Gesu’s work, and reaching out further to his predecessors in the Guarneri family to understand how a consistent approach to making evolved in the workshop of Andrea Guarneri by the 1660s that developed a distinctive look separate from the Amatis and other dynasties of making. Yet beyond the varnish, it has it’s own irreverence. If Guarneri made a second instrument on the same form as the Lord Wilton at the same time, this is perhaps what Neil’s would be, with enough independence to let it stand out on it’s own without falling outside of the standards of the 1742 original. This was entirely Neil’s intention as with all his instruments: He was much more interested in calling it a violin ‘in the manner of Guarneri del Gesu, c.1742’, than acknowledging the a single prototype from which it was created.

It’s worth contrasting Neil’s violin with another from the same year by  Andreas Hellinge, which passed through our hands recently was a full bench copy, made when the original del Gesu was for sale in Zurich, with the intention of providing Menuhin with a memento of his last great violin. The philosophy of the precise copy is fundamentally different from Neil’s confidence in understanding del Gesu’s intentions to the point of producing a free interpretation. It is difficult to judge between the two, but the comparative outcomes prove to be totally fascinating in terms of beginning to understand and interpret masterpieces of the past.

Many times, I see violins by makers who are impressed by the aesthetic dynamism of a real del Gesu (or a photograph of one) and impose it on their Stradivarian ideals, producing a kind of hybrid instrument that is particular to violin making in our present generation, but even if they see a difference, they are seldom brave enough to go the full mile. When (you think) you know del Gesu’s works superficially, it’s all too easy to dismiss deep channelling in the corners as an exception amongst an inconsistent body of work. The hybrids that seem to be the majority of contemporary del Gesu copies that I see are sweet instruments, sometimes very beautiful indeed, but they have nothing of the sound qualities that differentiate a great del Gesu from a great Strad. It makes it all the more exciting when I see something so close to what the original should be.

ertz1998-detailNeil was always generous with his time and his knowledge. His constant posts on Maestronet were just one of the ways that he communicated far and wide about his continual developments about the violin, and after he passed away few of us could understand how he had made over 200 violins when he seemed to be always on the phone laughing and sharing with so many of his colleagues. He was always proud of this particular instrument and called this one a ‘really cool fiddle’ when I spoke to him about it on the Sunday before he died, and even though he also thought that he had come a long way over twenty years it was still one of the violins he was proud to have photographed on his website. It is just one example of very compelling contemporary making, and there is a good community of makers, many of whom have been inspired by Neil’s work, who have been making to this level over the last twenty years. Yet, because of the circumstances of it’s date, it epitomises this crucial moment in the modern history of violin making. I hope that Neil continues to inspire new generations of makers to look closer and revisit the old masters as he did in 1998.

In memoriam.

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