While My Violins Gently Sleep
We visited Bärbel Bellinghausen in her workshop, at Viktorgasse 22. Here, in a former dairy, time seems to pass a little more slowly. And time is an important commodity for this master violin maker, who – like Beethoven – comes from Bonn and has made Vienna her home. Bellinghausen spends three months making each violin. At the same time, she’s started work on her new project: making ViolinCocoons – fabric covers made from the highest quality materials, to protect the precious instruments. A patent has been registered, and the cocoons are already a hit on the international music circuit thanks to word of mouth alone.
Entering the workshop, we are greeted by the unmistakable smell of the material that will later resonate with beautiful sounds: wood. That smell was already a source of wonder for Bellinghausen when, as a little girl, she was allowed into her grandfather’s carpentry workshop. Choosing the wood is the first step in making a new instrument. Weight and density are decisive factors, and whether it is waxy or dry. 420g of wood is required to make a violin – about four times the weight of a slice of Sachertorte, to make a Viennese comparison.
Knock on Wood
Bellinghausen rough cuts and debarks the wood blocks herself. She tests the wood repeatedly by knocking on it, to catch the right moment when the top panel of the instrument is ready and she can stop planing. To create top-quality instruments like those that come out of Bellinghausen’s workshop, a good ear and understanding of music are vital, as are sensitive fingertips. Years of experience in handcraftsmanship, as well as curiosity and personal development, turn an instrument maker into an artist in their own right. Musicians, who have a very special relationship with the makers of their instruments, know how valuable this is. The violin maker knows what their instrument – their progeny – can do. No two violins sound the same, and that is the difference between craftsmanship and mass production.
When asked about the “secret” of making a violin, Bellinghausen says: “The elements responsible for the sound are invisible – built into the inside. The bass bar and the sound post. A bit like a black box, which doesn’t reveal its workings at first glance. I decide on the arching and the strength, and every last detail of the shape. And yes – a Bellinghausen sounds like a Bellinghausen.”
Even the varnish used plays a decisive role. Every violin maker has their own, closely guarded recipe.The basic ingredients are linseed oil and spruce resin, to which balsams and essential oils are added.
300 Years of Perfection
Bellinghausen explains that the famous classical instruments à la Stradivari or Guarneri found the perfect form. They cannot be improved upon, and still provide the basis for violin-making today: every new instrument is an interpretation of them. Anyone who wants a Bellinghausen violin has to put their name down on the three-year waiting list. The bespoke instruments, priced at around EUR 20,000, are in demand. For a musician, it’s a privilege to commission a violin to be made precisely to their requirements. A violin made for a professional concert violinist probably won’t be so pleasing to the ear for a beginner, as such instruments are designed to produce a strong sound that fills the space.
A Bed Fit for a Violin
The violin maker’s second love is her new business, ViolinCocoon Vienna. Fine instruments deserve coverings that are of equal quality. The cocoons, comprising an external cover and internal padding, moderate changes in humidity, protect against thermal shock, and provide a soft covering for the sensitive surface of the instrument. And they are a delight both to look at and to touch.
It’s incredible that until now, no one had really given thought to the eternal dilemma faced by professional musicians: guest appearances take them to concert halls all over the world, but the time an instrument needs to adjust to a different climate is usually not available. Just one possible scenario: the wooden pegs, set perfectly in the pegbox, all loosen at the same time due to a change in humidity – just before the performance. A ViolinCocoon can protect the instrument.
Fine Fabric for Precious Wood
The fair-trade cocoons are made by hand in Vienna as one-off pieces or small series, and no longer by Bellinghausen alone, but by an initiative that employs deaf seamstresses. Cocoon commissions are among their favorite orders, because the end product is exceptionally beautiful, and the materials are very high-quality. The various models are made of silk, satin, materials used for traditional Austrian dress, jersey, brocade, Alcantara, wool, deer leather, or brightly colored fashion fabrics.
The cocoons made from genuine vintage kimono silk are real eyecatchers. Bellinghausen shows us the four equal widths of material that a traditional kimono is made from – four are currently hanging in her cocoon workshop. She tries out different colors of dyed silk that contrast with the material, fetches some other fabrics, and shows us finished designs. Then, with a practiced, careful grip she places a violin inside: a beautiful, sensuous moment.
Bärbel Bellinghausen produces masterful creations in two different worlds – but both belong to high school of handcraftsmanship, made in Vienna.
Text: Susanna Burger
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