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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 4, No. 8

Christophe Landon, Violinmaker

by Anne-Catherine Hatton / May 1, 1999

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At thirty-nine, Christophe Landon has already reached the peak of his profession as a violin and bow maker, as well as being a respected authority on period instruments. In his New York workshop-gallery across the street from the Juilliard School of Music, Landon welcomes students and the greats of the music world. He is constantly experimenting in his ongoing quest to make each new violin better than its predecessors -- a "magical violin."

Landon came to violin-making early. "I had a small workshop as a youngster, and was already making panpipes out of pearwood and guitars out of African gourds," he told us. When he was fourteen, violinist Jean Maillard enabled him to spend a first summer in Mirecourt, France's violin-making capital, where, at seventeen he emerged as an apprentice violin-maker. Landon was also a top-ranking student in school. His scientific background was good for mental discipline, he says, but not much use in his craft, violinmakers learn by experience and comparison, even today."

Landon points out that the rules of violin-making haven't changed since the 18th-century masters Antonio Stradivarius and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù. "The violin reached the peak of perfection then. We've been striving ever since to reproduce their marvellous instruments." In twenty-five years of constant experimenting he has made astonishing strides in his instruments' richness of tone by letting the wood season naturally over several years before the varnishing stage. "The importance of wood, its beauty and magic are what is so fantastic about violin-making," says Landon.

How do people judge the quality of a violin? There's no ideal violin, says Landon. In Germany people want a wide range of tonal colour, for example, whereas in New York the demand is for the "enormous sound" needed for large modern concert halls.

Musicians have a very subjective approach when it comes to choosing their instrument, Landon says, telling how violinist André Rieu tried out the finest Strads the world over for two years. He finally fell in love with one instrument, bought it, and promptly returned it after discovering it wasn't a Stradivarius. "It proves there are violins that sound like Strads," says Landon. "There's no direct correlation between a violin's price tag and its richness of sound." Strads reach astronomical figures because they're rare, but frankly, he'd prefer to see them in museums rather than in airplanes and concert halls where they're exposed to major changes in temperature and humidity.

The fact that Strads are priceless has its up side, however. It leaves room for young modern artisans and lesser-known violinmakers from previous centuries. At the moment, Landon is writing a book about two 19th-century Turin artisans, Joannes Franciscus Pressenda and Guiseppe Antonio Rocca.

Landon says he never stops learning. "Pressenda and Rocca aren't the only great undiscovered violinmakers," he concludes. "Expertise is a life-long affair."

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