David Van Edwards

The Lute Maker

Norwich-based David Van Edwards is one of only a handful of professional lutemakers in Britain. Interview by Thea Abbott

Were you always interested in early music?
I started listening to music seriously in my school days and was drawn to baroque music, especially Bach. Then at university in Exeter one of the lecturers ran a private seminar series listening to early music and I found myself drawn more and more to the early polyphonists, Bach’s forerunners.

When and where did you make your first lute?
While I was at York University doing research I started to make a lute in my bedroom. It was really hard work, and I was surprised to find that I got blisters planing the wood. So much for the romance of it all!

How did you learn what to do?
I went to see Ian Harwood in Ely and he showed me round his workshop for an hour and explained the principles. I sat in the car for another hour making notes and then started more or less copying what I had seen, but using my own rose design as a signature. I based this on a peacock with spread tail. I didn’t really know what a peacock looked like, so I went to the museum gardens in York and stalked them with a camera as they skulked in the bushes avoiding the tourists. Finally I cornered one by a motorcycle side-car and got a fuzzy snap of a very cross looking bird which became the basis of the design.

The casual listener is satisfied to hear lute music played on the guitar. Why is there such an antipathy to the guitar in lute circles?
Until recently the guitar was the most easily accessible instrument on which to play the lute repertoire. Apart, that is, from the piano. Most lute music published in the 40’s and 50’s was in the form of piano transcriptions only. In revenge there was a malicious proposal to publish Chopin in lute tablature! So the rise of the lute partly represents a shouldering aside of these instruments to come closer to the original sound. But if the differences were not easily heard by the non-specialist (or, to be honest, by most people in the case of Julian Bream’s records) they were the more furiously fought over as essential. Thus lute buffs have become more partisan than strictly necessary, though if you listen to, say, Chris Wilson’s lute playing it has a delicacy that would be quite impossible on any modern guitar. Technically the lute’s structure emphasises the upper harmonics of the notes while the guitar’s emphasises the fundamental, which gives a totally different feel to the music, almost a different structure.

What is it about the instrument which inspires such loyal devotion among its players and makers?
It’s partly that, like the guitar and the piano, it can offer a single player a complete musical experience, whereas the orchestral instruments are less self-contained and have their true identity in the company of others. In a way the lute is the natural instrument for the lone bedsitter!

It seems that the research you do before making a copy of a lute requires detective skills. Why is this?
Most lutes in museums have been altered to fit changes in musical fashion during their lifetimes; the labels on the display case, which usually relate only to the original maker, are often inappropriate to the form of the instrument in front of you. There are even many 19th century fakes still on display around the world. So detective work is necessary to uncover the various layers of evidence in each instrument and determine which bits are original. There are other problems of construction too, which can only be answered by close analysis of surviving lutes.

Rose detail

The lute was written for, and played in, Europe from 1250 to early in the 18th century. Which is your favourite period?
My taste has changed over time. At first I concentrated on the English repertoire of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, composers such as Dowland and Holborne, and built lutes based on those made in Italy by expatriate Germans. Of their type they are unsurpassable. More recently I find myself drawn to the high Baroque German repertoire of Bach and Weiss which was written for larger, quite different instruments with more range, power and depth of sound.

How do you come to be living and working in Norwich, when your customers come from all over the world, from Japan to Mexico, from Norway to Israel?
Unusually perhaps, I actually decided to come and set up in Norwich. I was living in Suffolk when I realised that I didn’t actually like rural life and wanted the social companionship and artistic breadth of city life. So I looked around for a good city. Norwich had North Heigham Sawmills, one of the best specialist exotic timber yards in Europe, which was already central to my work. It also had the fledgling Norwich Arts Centre and I felt that I might be able to help. My home town of Cambridge was so dominated by the university that by contrast Norwich seemed lively and optimistic.

You make instruments as nearly as possible like the originals, and yet you have your catalogue on the Web, and communicate with your customers by e-mail. You use materials that lute-makers used in the 16th century and yet you have a workshop with modern machinery. How come?
Well, I’m a 20th century person and no amount of research into, or even nostalgia for, the past, will delete modern consciousness or create time travel. That’s why I feel so out of sympathy with dressing up in period costume to play early music. It feels like bad faith. I wouldn’t dress up in doublet and hose to make the instruments. As for the machines, they are really electric apprentices; the old makers ran their workshops like third-world sweatshops with cheap labour and my bandsaws just replace this manual work. I use original glues and varnishes because they are simply better for instruments than any modern equivalents. The primary impulse of those interested in early music was to discover something different from the prevailing musical sound world, something new. So my interest in things modern is just another facet of that curiosity, but headed in a different direction!

You say that anyone can make a stringed instrument with guidance, tell me a little about your teaching.
When I first came to Norwich in 1978 I rented a workshop in the Arts Centre and started an evening class for people to make instruments as part of the Centre’s programme. I’ve continued the class in the various workshops I’ve had since. Obviously there are different levels of skill, but, over the years, I’ve found that anybody can make a passable instrument with appropriate help and information. I’ve tried to make the processes intelligible and manageable. Some of the university students learn to play the viol as part of their course but cannot afford to buy one and the classes make it possible for them to make an instrument for themselves. A lot of good instruments have emerged, and at least one student has made a successful professional career as a viol player, partly using a viol she made in the class.

Treble lute in A

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