I have just entered the Cremonese Academy, where the secrets of the construction of the arches are taught, and I see a postcard on a table. I take one in my hand and ask Marta Lucchi what they are.
They are postcards that have been designed for children who come to visit the school. Children are always very curious to know what the different parts of the bow are called, and which and how many materials are used to build a good bow.
Only children come to visit the school?
Our Fondazione Lucchi welcomes people of all kinds and backgrounds: tourists curious to know the techniques of processing a “local product”, experts in the artistic production of wood, violin makers, students of the Conservatory, already established musicians who come from the other side of the world and families with children who live within walking distance from here. We also organize excellent courses at amateur level for those who are not satisfied with a simple visit. Among the aims of the Fondazione Lucchi is precisely that of responding to this desire for knowledge.
Knowledge of how to work and disconnect many different materials, but above all wood: the wood of the stick. What is the “right” wood to build a bow?
The best wood is normally pernambuco, while for the baroque bows snake wood is used. The quality of the wood to be used for an arch is directly proportional to the transmission speed of sound through the wood. When the use of carbon fiber was introduced, my father immediately wanted to try using it. Even in the case of carbon fiber, there is actually fiber and fiber. The risk of carbon fiber is the excessive speed of sound transmission through the bow, which causes a loss of the lower harmonics of the sounds produced by the strings. The carbon bow is perfect for generating crisp and bright sounds, but unsuitable for creating soft and mellow sounds. Then there are carbon arches with a pernambuco soul that try to mediate between the two types of bow.
“A violin maker can make the most beautiful violin in the world and a bowmaker the finest bow, but if by chance wood is not exactly as it should be, the whole work is unusable … There must be an objective way of measuring the goodness of wood a priori, before working it, I kept repeating myself … I knew that what I was looking for existed, suspended somewhere, at the top, it was enough to reach out to grab it like in a cosmic treasure hunt. It is up to us to discover them, to make good use of them”
Presented at Mondomusica, Cremona, in September 2012, just over a month after the death of the master, the book is an autobiography of the great bow-maker Giovanni Lucchi. From his pages, one after the other emerge the memories of his life: from his native Cesena, to Cremona, through his studies in the conservatory, the experience of work abroad, the return home, the theater of Bologna, “his” school. The relationships with the father, the wife, the children, the friends, the colleagues, the great interpreters. Research as a meaning of life.
“We listened to him, helping him to put a little – not too much – order between his memories. Since he was a child, he climbed onto the stool to face the double bass, much higher than he was, when he devised an empirical method to measure the transmissibility of wood, since he played with friends up and down the Romagna Riviera until he has earned the trust of Rostropovich, giving him an elastic and leaping bow as his intelligence, like his passion” say the two curators of the work: Louisette di Suni e Alessandra Mascaretti.
An autobiography that the master Lucchi has not written in his own hand, therefore, but where the touch of his hand is clearly felt. The hand used to play the double bass, to caress the wood, to separate the horse-hair, to assemble, disassemble, smooth, polish. A hand always in tune with the inner frequency of his soul, tense in the confident and tenacious pursuit of perfect frequency. A hand that wanted to draw the different moments of his life, reconstructing a series of events always animated by the inner passion, by the desire to overcome their limits, as when he was a child climbed on a stool to be able to play the double bass. A hand that has been able to ask and receive. A hand protagonist of the passionate research, which emerges fresh from the pages of the book, accompanying the reader to grasp the dense network of relationship between people, places, facts, emotions, questions and answers that have made the life of Giovanni Lucchi a passionate journey towards a single goal: the “bel suono”.
Giovanni Lucchi, bass player, bow maker and experimenter he has often published the results of his most significant research in important magazines. Among his most important articles, we remember: LucchiMeter, in The Strad, June 1988; The Use of Empirical and Scientific Methods to Measure the Velocity of Propagation of Sound, in The Violin Society of America Journal, 2, 1988; How to Visualize The Bel Suono in Real Time, in The Violin Society of America Journal, 2, 1998; Repairing a bow using a toothed patch, in The Strad, October 2008.
Nell’arco di una vita
Fondazione Lucchi Cremona (15 ottobre 2013)
I look at her perplexed. Marta takes a pine cone and uses it to make me understand how the scales rub against the strings. I understand and I am ready for the third question.
So rubbing on the strings the hairs lose the scales, so as the tires rubbing on the asphalt become smooth?
In Japan teachers tell their students that horsehair should be changed every three months and horsehair is changed systematically every three months. Obviously the duration of horsehair depends on how much the bow is used and therefore to establish a fixed-term change is perhaps a little exaggerated. Under normal use conditions, horsehair change is necessary at intervals ranging from six months to one year.
How do you understand that the right time has come to change horsehair?
Horsehair are to be changed when they break easily when playing or when a large amount of rosin is needed to make them play. One thing you should not do is clean horsehair with liquid substances. Above all if the operation is carried out with the bow in a vertical position, it is possible to wet the wood under the ring, which could swell and seriously damage the bow.
And to clean the wooden parts of the bow? Hands, especially in summer, always leave traces of sweat on the wood …
All wooden parts should be cleaned every day, when you stop using the bow, with a soft dry cloth, just to prevent the formation of a layer of dirt that is difficult to remove.
What elements should a musician consider when evaluating the quality of a bow?
My father usually advised the musicians to put the bow in 5 stress positions at the same time and evaluate his response in terms of grip: playing with the tip of the bow, playing the fourth string, not playing two strings at the same time, playing near the bridge and play the piano. This is the situation that allows you to better distinguish a good bow from a bad bow. However, first of all, everyone should feel comfortable with the bow that decides to buy. And this depends on factors that no one has yet managed to measure “objectively”. The musician must try the bow without haste, until it is necessary to make his assessment. And it is a time that can be very variable. There are those who feel immediately at ease with the new bow and those who must gradually become familiar. Who tries for hours, who asks to try the bow for a few days and who decides in a few minutes.
Marta stops … asks me to wait a moment and then comes back with a bow in her hands.
For example, in Rostropovich, when he passed from Cremona, it took only a few notes to decide that this arch was the right arch for the concert he had to make that same evening. Rostropovich managed to grasp the ability to jump out of the arc in a few minutes. Then my father built one specifically for him and gave it to him instead of this, which we now jealously preserve as his memory.
I look at the fascinated bow, touch it with my fingers and connect the words of Marta to the title of the film by Bruno Monsaingeon dedicated to Rostropovich recently presented in an Italian preview: “The indomitable bow”.
In my brain appears the image of a wild horse, running free on a beach. White horse, white beach, blue sea. A white horse … is it really horsehair that gives the bows the chance to “jump” over every obstacle and make the cellists “indomitable”?
A few steps away from the Cremona Violin Museum, in the Lucchi store in via Monteverdi 18, we meet Marta, the daughter of the great bow-maker Giovanni. He has in his hands the autobiography his father wrote shortly before dying “Nell’arco di una vita”. Together we look at the photos of the book and the memories emerge, full of affection and admiration for a father who certainly left a deep mark in the life of Marta.
My father was curious. He has observed everything around him. He identified the problems, sought solutions with tenacity. He spent a lot of time taking apart, reassembling, making hypotheses, verifying them, making mistakes and learning from his mistakes. In our bathtub at home, he tested the effect made by various substances on the elasticity and resistance of the horsehair. And once he tried to put a bow in the microwave oven … He never stopped. He shared his discoveries with others and asked, he always asked everyone, because he was convinced that from everyone he could learn something new.
But had he done some scientific studies?
No. He had studied music. He graduated in double bass and then started playing. His first profession was that of the musician. In Sweden and then in Bologna, in the theater. He liked to play, but the passion for mechanics, which as a child led him to disassemble everything, accompanied him to in the theater. He played until the day when, almost by accident, after using a bow for years, for the first time he asked himself: how do I change the horsehair of my bow? He asked his friends musicians. Then he tried to change the hairs of his bow by himself and he understood how to do it. He also understood that he liked it and that he was able to do it well. Little by little, in an era in which the profession of bow-maker in Italy was not widespread, he found himself changing horse-hairs to all the bows of his orchestra. Then he asked how to build a bow and … he continued his life by asking questions and chasing the answers.
Often the right question, at the right time of life, opens the door to a series of questions that lead far … And so, of question in demand, became a bow-maker and then a teacher in the first course for bow-makers in Italy. But how did he come to think of the Lucchi Meter?
For a long time he tried to understand what were the characteristics that made a simple piece of wood suitable or unsuitable to become a bow. He was looking for an objective system to “measure” the quality of wood. He had done a lot of tests, for example, by loading weights on the wooden boards to evaluate their resistance, but then realized that it was not dependent on the weight resistance that a piece of wood was suitable for becoming a bow. Then, one evening, watching a documentary on television, he had the right intuition. The documentary illustrated the techniques used to measure the depth of the sea floor. My father understood that, with a similar system, one could measure the transmission speed of sound in the wood. It was not easy to switch from intuition to construction of equipment suitable for the purpose: he had to consult many experts and make many attempts before getting what he wanted, but in the end, in 1983, he succeeded and his discovery revolutionized the world of the bows construction.
On a table, in a leather bag, the Lucchi Meter prototype shows off. Marta caresses him with her eyes.
The Lucchi Meter now allows anyone to assess whether or not a wood is suitable for the construction of a bow and the Lucchi values are now accepted everywhere to determine the price of wood for bows. But the most important thing is that the bow-makers do not lose more hours and hours of work by filing a wood that will eventually give life to a bad bow. If the wood is good, and you know it before starting to work it, only the skill of the bow-maker will determine the good result.
At the door faces a customer who wants to buy some horse-hairs. Greeting Marta and I go out thinking that I have to go back to let her explain me how to choose a good bow and how to keep it in shape. See you soon, Marta.