It’s been four decades since Bernard Neumann left Montreal for Cremona, Italy, to study violin making. The now-renowned luthier, as a violin-maker is called, still draws daily inspiration from his walks along the northern Italian town’s patterned cobblestone streets and curved Romanesque doorways and porticos.
“Just look at the beauty of that,” he said, pausing to marvel at the Corinthian capital of one of the columns supporting the loggia running along the front of Cremona’s soaring brick and marble cathedral.
“There’s a repeated motif, but the decorative element was made by a different stonemason, so each one has its uniqueness. It leaves a mark on you.”
Neumann could just as well be talking about the string instruments created by master luthiers in Cremona over the centuries — instruments he’s spent the better part of a lifetime restoring and conserving.
Cremona is one of the bustling, elegant towns strung like flat beads along the Po River south of Milan. In early 2020, it garnered international headlines when the COVID-19 pandemic first swept through northern Italy and the town became an infectious hotspot.
But its most lasting fame is as the birthplace of the violin. With its violin-making tradition on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, its 150 luthier workshops, the International Lutherie School, the Stauffer Centre for Strings and the Cremona Violin Museum, it’s an understatement to say the town is defined by the instrument.
Students breeze by on bicycles with cellos strapped to their backs, snippets of classical music lift from open windows and around every corner, it seems, lies a luthier storefront with gleaming string instruments on display.
Ever since Andrea Amati created the violin in the consummate shape we know today in the early 1500s, other masters who made stringed instruments for royal courts throughout Europe 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, today known as “Stradivarius” or “Strads,” with astounding clarity and complexity and the perfect balance between power and intimacy.
Today, Neumann and his American partner Bruce Carlson, continue that tradition, among the most renowned luthiers in the world, working on the centuries-old instruments now valued in the millions and crafting their own for today’s most talented virtuosi.
From Montreal to Cremona
Toronto-born Neumann was drawn to Cremona by the story his German grandfather shared with him when he was a boy, of visiting the town where Stradivari created his magnificent instruments. After starting a physiology degree at McGill University, Neumann transferred to Concordia University to study music and violin. In 1982, he travelled to Cremona to explore making instruments.
“I first learned the technique of violin making at the 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 around and figure out what makes it tick, you can’t understand its complexity.”
To gain that experience, he applied for a Canada Council grant, which supported him to apprentice for two years with Carlson, known in Cremona as “the deacon” of restorers.
Neumann eventually became his mentor’s partner, and for the past 30 years, the Carlson & Neumann workshop has restored, certified and made violins for many of the world’s top soloists.
‘You tremble before the task each time’
“Bernard is a fully rounded master,” said Virginia Villa, director of Cremona’s Museum of Violins. “It’s rare for a luthier to have his range of skills and experience and that level of cultural sophistication and artistic openness.”
When the Russian State Museum of Music collection in Moscow asked the Cremona museum to restore two exquisite instruments, a Venetian violin by Santo Serafino dating to 1749 and a Venetian cello from the same period, Villa says the only luthier workshop she could fully trust them with was Carlson & Neumann.
Neumann estimates that along with the dozens of instruments he’s restored, he has made about 60 violins, violas and cellos. Each takes roughly two months to complete and costs upward of $30,000.
The price reflects the meticulous detail that goes into everything from the selection of spruce and maple from the Dolomites in northeast Italy, and the sculpting of the front and back, to the carving of the soundpost and bridge and truing of the fingerboard.
“Each phase of work, each detail is equally important,” said Alessandra Pedota, Neumman’s wife and fellow luthier. “But each time you make a violin, the material you’re working with is different — the weight, density and elasticity of the wood — so you have to change what you do. You tremble before the task each time.”
Sitting in his workshop on a quiet Cremona street dotted with luthier storefronts, including Pedota’s five doors down, Neumann carefully carves the scroll, the decorative end of the maple neck, of his latest violin. It’s modelled on those made by Guadagnini, an 18th-century luthier who was heavily influenced by Stradivari.
“A lot of soloists come to us with their original Italian instruments,” he said. “Once you’ve experienced an Amati or Stradivari or Guadagnini, then you try to work that into your own violin making. I think that gives my violins something extra because I’ve had the chance to play so many fantastic ones.”
WATCH | Claudio Pasceri plays one of Neumann’s violoncellos:
Imbuing violins with personality
Renowned Italian cellist Claudio Pasceri goes even further, saying Neumann’s instruments are on a par with those made in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Three years ago, Pasceri, who is the artistic director of the classical music Asiagofestival in the Alps, invited Neumann to give a talk about making string instruments. The luthier showed up with an unvarnished cello near completion and had Pasceri play it as part of his presentation.
“You meet many violin makers who just build instruments,” said Pasceri. “They don’t put their own personality so deeply in the instrument. This was the first time I’d met a violin maker of such a high level. For me, when I play, I see Bernard.”
Neumann makes almost all of his instruments with a specific musician in mind, from Zeng Cheng, lead violinist in the China Philharmonic Orchestra, to Canadian Isabelle Fournier of Symphony Nova Scotia.
Fournier travelled with her violinist stepfather to Cremona five years ago to meet luthiers and have a few days of “being violin geeks.” She says Neumann, who was in Sweden delivering an instrument to another musician, had left three for her to try, one which was still unvarnished, which she left to last.
“I picked it up and started to play and it was like … being struck by lightning,” she recalled. “I said, ‘It’s this one. This is my violin.’ … it just sang. “
Neumann still needed to varnish the instrument, a process that takes months. When it was done, on a stopover to visit his parents in Ontario, he delivered Fournier’s violin to her in person in Halifax, where he listened to her play it and adjusted the soundpost to reflect her voice.
This kind of contact with musicians, Neumann says, is vital to help him create a violin, viola or cello that best channels and reflects the voice of a particular musician.
But in the end, he says, he’s striving for the same thing the masters of the past have delivered: instruments that can thrive well beyond their first player, that usher forward, again and again, the artistic thrill of rich, complex, intimate and articulate sound.