Training Tales: Sam Laming on Historic Musical Instrument Making at West Dean College
13th April 2023
Sam Laming received a QEST William Parker Scholarship to support the final year of his FdA in Historic Craft Practice (Musical Instruments) at West Dean College of Arts & Conservation. It also funded a study trip to further the knowledge of his specialisation, a lesser known musical instrument called the Englische Violett. He travelled to Nuremberg & Prague to visit the two largest collections of Englische Violett in the world, holding respectively four and three instruments, and uncovered new evidence with strong implications about the instrument’s history. Here he tells us more about the history and resurrection of this nearly lost musical instrument.
I first discovered West Dean College Of Arts & Conservation when I accidentally stumbled across a particularly fine looking instrument online, which was made by an ex-West Dean student. It was perhaps the only place in the world where I could learn the techniques I needed to make a high quality Englische Violett.
I knew I had to study at West Dean or I’d regret it the rest of my life, but the tuition fees made it a daunting prospect. I went for it anyway, and the first year was a struggle financially, but due to some luck, grants, and nice work I had managed that year, things went well enough. The second year was looking less hopeful – it was the time of Covid and I was considering my options, unsure if I’d be able to afford to stay on.
However, I had previously measured an Englische Violett in Munich, and when I told the museum curator there that I wished to build a replication of this instrument, he mentioned that in a year’s time there would be an exhibition at the museum where my Violett could be played by a professional player to an audience…if it was finished on time. I absolutely hate throwing away opportunities so this sharpened my determination.
I applied to QEST and it is no exaggeration to say that this changed the course of my life. The scholarship funded the tuition fees for my second year at West Dean, as well as covering a study trip abroad to measure some of the finest Englische Violetts known. My instrument was very close to completion by the end of the academic year and things were looking up.
Alongside other tutors, I was taught by QEST scholar Shem Mackey at West Dean, and his openness to sharing his methods of work, approaches and philosophy of making has been utterly priceless to my development – I can’t imagine how far back I would be in my making if I hadn’t had the opportunity to study here.
I became fascinated with Englische Violetts years ago, and to give some background, there are only around 57 historic examples surviving today, predominantly held in different museum collections across world. They most commonly have seven playing strings which are bowed or plucked, and fourteen or more sympathetic strings, which are almost never plucked nor bowed, but resonate when a playing string has a close relationship to the sympathetic string’s pitch. This consequently gives the instrument a church-like, in-built resonance.
Before my own instrument was finished, I went on my instrument measuring adventure abroad. I measured four incredible instruments in Nuremberg – the largest single collection of Violetts in the world, followed by my last stop in Prague. At the Czech Museum of Music I measured one of the most prized instruments in the collection – *Museum Number E 1394* – the 1727 Eberle Violett.
This is one of the most impressive Violetts known. They all have a ‘fingerboard’ (a piece of wood where the left hand presses the strings of the instrument down) and a small ‘tunnel’ underneath for the sympathetic strings. These are usually plain and show nothing interesting, but I always look anyway using an endoscope and my curiosity paid off when I found something wonderful on this particular instrument.
I called the museum curator over, and we excitedly went through the endoscope’s image and the translated the Czech to see what was written – Jan Kuljk, Maker Of Musical Instruments…1860.
This was a fingerboard extension repair label (it was common at the time to have fingerboards extended for playing higher notes) and whilst Jan is a well known maker and this is mostly nothing unusual, the important part here is the year, 1860, which meant the instrument was still being used 133 years after it was made.
The curators had been unaware of this label. It’s so rare to make such a significant discovery, that has such wonderful implications for the instrument’s history – I was overjoyed. This was the 10th Violett I measured and the last of my trip.
I drove back to the UK hugely inspired and committed to finishing my own instrument. By now I had finished my studies at West Dean and was working alone, focusing on creating the final components and solving a few issues. Shem went beyond the call of duty to help with the finishing touches and the instrument was strung up the day before my trip to Germany. I made some adjustments on the ferry across before delivering the instrument to the violist who would be playing it in the concert. She absolutely loved it and expressed interest in having her own, the Concert was a great success (an extract can be found here and I left overflowing with happiness.
Off of the back of this, I’ve also had performances on the instrument in the UK at various concerts, exhibitions, and most recently myself and Rachel Stott made a video in an Anechoic Chamber which really highlights the instrument’s main feature: its huge resonance consequence to the large number of sympathetic strings.
I hope QEST will continue far, far, far in to the future with it’s cause – I’m just one of a huge number of other scholars working in many crafts, all excelling further thanks to this wonderful organisation. I hope you enjoyed my story, thanks for taking the time to read this and once more, my unending thanks to QEST.