Creating a brilliant, flawless tone is the focal point of Katharina Starzer’s work and life. She makes violins, cellos, violas. We visit her workshop in Haidhausen, which is a shop and sound studio in one.
Visiting the shop on Haidhausen’s Kellerstrasse – not far from the philharmonic hall – means stepping into the midst of bandsaws, angle grinders and column drills, as well as cork at floor level for resting round-bodied instruments on. The walls are festooned with violins in various stages of completion – and at the centre of it all we find Katharina Starzer at her workbench, working on an almost-complete instrument. The air is scented with wood and glue and is at a pleasant temperature.
This small workshop fits in perfectly in Haidhausen, a part of the city known both for its proximity to music (the Gasteig is Europe’s largest cultural centre) and for its old-fashioned manufactories and workshops, such as the one Katharina Starzer owns. This tall woman, born in Giessen, is a violin maker – one of more than 30 in Munich and its environs. How do you go about getting into this line of work?
“Via a series of detours!” she laughs, then continues: “I first tried my hand at furniture restoration and quickly realised something was missing for me! After a little while my work material somehow seemed too one-dimensional – too lifeless. There had to be more! And because of the violin lessons I had been having since childhood, I was aware of what else wood can do.”
Even as a small child, she felt it: “People have the closest relationship with the violin – closer than with the piano, bassoon or harp. Holding the wood so close to the throat and face allows your body to merge with the vibration of the instrument. That is how my desire to create sound from wood was born, and what has since driven me on like a longing!”
Her instruments are created following examples by the great role models in the field, whose pieces cannot be improved upon to this day, but at best can be imitated.
She registered with the renowned state musical instrument making school in Mittenwald and completed an apprenticeship there. From there, she pursued her goal with focus: she took on a further apprenticeship under Michael Jaumann, working on the repair, restoration and reconstruction of stringed instruments and bows; then another with John-Eric Traelnes in Lausanne, where she focused on repairs and restoration; she went on to apprentice with Martin Schleske and complete varnishing courses under François Perego.
“I finally completed my examination for the master craftsman’s certificate at Hamburg Chamber of Trade and since then, I have been working independently in Munich in my own master violin making workshop.” The crowning moment came when she returned to the place she originally began her training, taking up a position as lecturer at the State Vocational College of Violin Making in Mittenwald.
The competition is considerable. “But in a city that boats six large professional orchestras, a renowned college of music and around 50 amateur orchestras as well as a cultivated, educated middle class who want their children to learn an instrument, demand is fortunately high,” says Starzer.
She actually still makes her instruments in the same way they were made 400 years ago – following the ancient, unchanged rules of the art of violin-making.
Let’s get back to Kellerstrasse, to the room adorned with many hanging violins, the occasional cello and also a double bass: this is where Katharina Starzer creates sound. She actually still makes her instruments in the same way they were made 400 years ago – following the ancient, unchanged rules of the art of violin-making. Her instruments are created following examples by the great role models in the field, whose pieces cannot be improved upon to this day, but at best can be imitated: Amati, Guarneri and of course Antonio Stradivari.
The materials originate from the forest as they always have – Starzer buys them from tone wood merchants: sycamore for the ribs, neck and bottom, spruce for the top of the body and ebony for the fingerboard. The wood is cut in the winter months during the new moon, and then stored for a long time before it reaches Katharina’s workbench. Taking a piece of this wood in hand and knocking on it now, it vibrates and sings and resonates even at this virtually raw stage.
The tall young woman spends around two months working on an instrument with her skilful hands, after which she sells it for between 20,000 and 30,000 euros.
“I’m following the phase progression of the wood here,” the violin maker explains as she planes, jabs and taps the wood, demonstrating how it sounds and vibrates ever more clearly and is gradually formed into the resonant, rounded shape of a perfect violin, just two or three millimetres thick. “Every stringed instrument” she says as she looks around her workshop, “is unique – and each will bear my sound signature some day.”
The tall young woman spends around two months working on an instrument with her skilful hands, after which she sells it for between 20,000 and 30,000 euros. Her customers are music schools, professional orchestra members and amateurs. She produces the individual components of the instrument here in the workshop: the body and ribs, neck and scroll.
The bass bar is glued in place, the sound holes (also referred to as f-holes because of their f shape) are cut, the fingerboard and bridge are fitted and all replaceable parts are cut to size and glued in place. Once the instrument is varnished and dried and ready to play, and the strings are fine tuned and made to vibrate for the first time, the virtuosity of her craft becomes apparent.
“It depends on so many things – how high the top is arched, how far I extend the arch out to the edge – even the most minuscule differences give the instrument a different timbre.” So every instrument is unique.
Would she recognise an instrument she had made by its sound? Katharina Starzer smiles and nods.
“I’ve developed my own sound concept from listening and playing over the years. I integrate this idea into my instruments, but each of them has its own special character thanks to the uniqueness of the wood and the model. For me, that is the greatest charm of my craft – producing an aesthetic instrument that obeys all the rules of violin making and gives room to my ideal of creating a sound that is clear and strong yet effortless.”
Would she recognise an instrument she had made by its sound? Katharina Starzer smiles and nods. “Yes, I definitely would,” she says and quickly adds that she would rather not mention any of the prominent names who rank among her customers. After all, the music speaks for itself.