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Musical Instrument
Building Courses
at Marholmen, Sweden -
Unique in the World

By Kenneth Sparr ©

Stockholm, Sweden 1997.
 2009-12-01


This article in Swedish
Report on Making a Clavichord after NM 264.785 in Musikmuseet at the Instrument-building Course at Marholmen, July 26 - August 12, 1999
Johan Gabriel Högwall - fortepianomakare i Göteborg
Kenneth Sparr´s Page


In 1980 I participated for the first time in the musical instrument building courses at Marholmen. The courses had started already the year before, in 1979, and on many occasions I've been told about the ordered chaos that prevailed during the first summer. It was a daring project initiated by HansErik Svensson and Arne Lindberg, which in 1996 for the 18th time could be fulfilled successfully. When you count the instruments that have been built more than 50 clavichords, 74 lutes, 11 guitars and three citterns; you have all reason to get impressed. We are many people who should be grateful for the pioneering work of HansErik and Arne to revive the old traditions of crafts concerning the building of musical instruments and particularly with respect to the clavichord and the lute. The courses at Marholmen are without doubt unique in the world concerning both the length of experience, the result and the quality of the work. They certainly deserve a much greater attention than they have had up to now.

Playing 1997

The author playing his Martin Hoffmann-theorbo in 1997 (photo Anders Lindfors).

Freedom and food

I can well recall my first summer at Marholmen. I had ordered a clavichord kit from the USA and it arrived in the last second before the course started. My whole family (my wife Anneli, my seven-year old daughter Sanna and my three-year old son Gustav accompanied me. My wife participated in another course that was held at the same time as the musical instrument building course so it was a good combination of interests. The travel to Marholmen with the family was also a bit of an adventure: from the barren nature of the Nynäshamn archipelago through the metropolis Stockholm to the much luxuriant nature of Roslagen and Marholmen. We nearly didn't find our way: the signs showing where to go were almost non-existent and we drove the wrong way several times. I always experience this particular feeling of not quite finding the way to Marholmen. Perhaps this has something to do with places that mean something special to you and the joy is great when finally find your way. I have had some experiences of summer courses before, but Marholmen was a quite new and perfect experience with the combination of excellent food, bathing, great freedom and to work with both your brain and your hands. There is always a sense of great expectation and joy when you on the first day of the course arrive at Marholmen's courtyard situated between the beautiful and characteristic buildings. Then it really is summer and holiday!

The First Instrument

During the first couple of years the instrument builders were working in the lecture room of the main building as the new house still was not built. Delicious scents came from the kitchen and the food was always nearby. The beautiful, but no so well adapted lecture room was really thronged with builders. I was placed in the middle surrounded by other keen pupils, older and younger, women and men. The crowding grew as the pupils dispersed their things, tools and instrument parts, but this situation was manageable due to the nice company. It was a diversified collection of instruments, which the pupils worked on. There were me, Johan Denke, Anders Eriksson and Martin Haag with clavichords, Lars-Gunnar Bergmo with a portative, Birsen Battal, Mats Guilletmot, Ulrika Holmer, Ingemar Nilsson, Rickard Stålbrand, Nikolai Suursööt and Peter Thelenius with lutes, Marie Selander with epinette des Vosges, Bengt Matern with harpsichord and János Mártony with fiddle. I was a beginner and I had not much experience in woodworking and particularly not in lutherie.

The Lute Kit

The parts which will become a lute.

At this point I did not realise the importance these courses would have in my life, but I certainly was quite enthusiastic already from the first day. The fact that the instrument was finished during the course was of course an important factor. However this clavichord did not function so well as a musical instrument, but the leaders of the course are not to blame. The clavichord kit had several drawbacks. My son Gustav, then three years old, often stood beside me when I was working, and held on to my ear lobe. It was not easy then to concentrate on the work.

 

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Gustav at the left and Arne Lindberg at the right with the clavichord in the middle.

 

Gustav did not really think it was so funny when his father built instruments instead of playing with him. After that summer my son associated "Marholmen" with "summer holidays" and during several years he did not want to go on "summer holiday". No, the combination of musical instrument building and small children is not uncomplicated. My daughter Sanna on the other hand amused herself with HansErik's daughter Åsa and they even, to their joy and horror, succeeded to catch a few small perches, which they immediately showed us with a terrified pride.

The World Around Disappeared

But Marholmen to me is just not building musical instruments even if this is the most important part. Already the first year I appreciated the other features of Marholmen: the abundant, particularly delicious and nearly culinary catering, the simple, but beautiful and cosy rooms, the close and friendly contact between staff and pupils, the freedom and openness, the lovely nature with bathing and sauna at our very doors, the nice excursions on sea and on land. During the first years there was a problem with fresh water and I can still remember the taste of the slightly salted water you brushed your teeth with, if you had the time for these trifles. The nature was rather wild around the school and the big conference centre nearby was not yet built. However, the geographical area you moved in was normally very small: between the workshop/dining-room, the hostel and the bathing-place. Those who didn't bathe only moved between two points. Another experience was that the pupils soon show very little interest in the events of the world. You don't look at TV, you don't read newspapers and Marholmen itself constitutes the world. The pupils also become closely connected to each other as you live together (work, talk, eat, bathe and take a sauna) all day and night with the exception of a few hours of sleep. There was plenty of fun and we tried to outdo each other with odd jumps from the high-board and who could get the most heat in the sauna and put up with it. A memorable occasion in 1985 was when ca 15 naked men tried to sink a small rowing boat by just standing in it. However, we didn't manage to sink it in spite of numerous trials. There have been a lot of music-making from Birsen Battal's playing on a saw, the simple plucking on a lute or playing on a clavichord to musical peak performances in the villa.

A Playable Lute

Since then and during the following 17 years I have been to many of the courses and the results have been several finished instruments but also restorations and repairs. We are a few persons who have been diligent participants during many courses. The remembrances from all summers run into each other, I must confess. During a few summers I was only visiting the course, but immediately I became envious of those who were building instruments. In 1984 I built my first "real" instrument a ten-course lute after Hans Frei, active during the 16th century. We could now work in the new building, more appropriate but less beautiful. I have always worked keenly and relatively fast (and sometimes a bit carelessly). The lute was playable at the end of the course and I was very proud. It was the first musical instrument I had built nearly from scratch. However, I have to admit that it was the merits of Arne Lindberg that made the building process work so well.

Planing bars

The soundboard bars are planed

In the building of a lute there are some critical moments which can be very stressful for the pupils, but particularly for the teacher who is more aware of all the labour, sweat and almost tears which will be needed to correct any mistakes. The only moment you can't get done is the finishing of the instrument (French polishing etc.). Some of this could be done at home during the winter, but it is always a good excuse for returning to Marholmen the following summer, if only for a few days. So I did in 1985.

Smell the Wood

What a feeling it is the first day of the course to stand before the little pile of wooden parts which eventually together with much and joyful labour will become a finished musical instrument! To feel, to contemplate and to smell on the wood, to choose timber for the back of the lute all this creates a delight which is difficult to describe in words. Many of the newcomers perhaps don't realise the amount and the length of the preparations Arne and HansErik have gone through in the winter and the spring. They have spent many hours and days at the band saw, the planer and planning for the next course, surely a both tiresome and tedious work, which still demands concentration and accurateness. Arne's and HansErik's preparations before and work during the course are quite crucial for the results that the pupils obtain. The participants get opportunities to develop many aspects of the human nature, which is another feature of the course. It is not only a matter of the work of the hands but equally important are the intellectual processes. One is impressed by the ingenuity and creativity which many students show during the favourable conditions that are offered by the Marholmen courses. Those who are interested in human behaviour in different situations have an abundance of object for observation as you hardly can hide your true personality during the process of building, it's a mixed blessing really!

A Pile of Wood and a Booklet of Instructions

The construction process of course varies according to the type of instrument. During the years Arne and HansErik have developed a self-instructive written material which describes the construction process step by step. It sounds comfortable and simple enough: a pile of wood and a manual. Well, it is just to start the process! But, it is an almost impossible task to describe the construction process minutely in words and images. The manual also has to be completely intelligible and clear. Unforeseen surprises occur all the time and inevitably you will make bigger or lesser mistakes or other deviations in the construction process. The comprehension of written instructions varies from person to person and it is strange to see how many different interpretation people can find of the same text. The written manual is however a good aid and means that Arne's and HansErik's knowledge can be used in a more efficient way. For the beginner it is always difficult to decide where, when and how the important moments occur and you may easily waste a lot of energy on sanding and sanding parts of the instruments that never will be visible or where you instead could have used a cutting tool. There is always a tendency that the beginner without due cause complicates matters which after all are quite simple and on the other hand simplifies moments where consideration and concentration are required.

Testing

Clavichords and Grobert Guitars before a try out concert.

I believe that building a musical instrument of your own, particularly if it's a true copy of an old instrument, give you some ideas how experienced artisan may work. My admiration has grown steadily for the skill, intelligence and the aesthetical knowledge of the old artisans who under more primitive circumstances could create and make so beautiful and appropriate objects. This knowledge may as a matter of fact also be used in many other contexts of life. The construction and building of musical instruments furthermore will give you fundamental and important skills in general cabinet-making, finishing, the use and care of hand tools and other devices. The clavichord builders also will learn about fundamental chromatology, to mix pigments, test different colour combinations etc. The professional musician should never underestimate the value of learning how his instrument is constructed and how it operates.

The Guitar of Paganini

For a couple of years I had tried to persuade Arne Lindberg to include a copy of an older guitar type in the program of the course. The reason was entirely selfish: I was very keen on building this kind of instrument. However, later it was obvious that other people also was interested in building a guitar of this kind. I was quite aware of why Arne hesitated a bit: a new type of instrument means a lot of preparatory work for the teachers. However, my nagging was successful in the end: Mats Guilletmot and I became guinea pigs and built the first two guitars in 1987 after a drawing of the famous guitar by Grobert, an instrument formerly owned by both Paganini and Berlioz.

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Mats however, bathed and jumped too much with the result of a broken arm and he could not finish his guitar. He was in a terrible pain and we all felt pity for him. Well, this a typical of Marholmen: the few physical injuries which have occurred during the years seldom or never have any connection with the construction of instruments itself in spite of that there many opportunities to cut, saw and plane yourself and others.

Stringing a clavichord

The stringing of a clavichord needs a nimble hand.

One summer at Marholmen I devoted to repair a few old guitars . This was a useful experience and addition to my knowledge of old musical instruments. I think it was this summer that Javier Hernandez came directly from Cuba to build a lute. Besides being a good guitar player he also was a skilled and creative instrument builder. In addition he had brought strong and tasty Cuban cigarettes which he frequently offered. Javier later worked as an assistant to Arne and HansErik during a couple of summer courses.

An Ordeal for Married Life

I had sold my first clavichord and in the course of time I had with some envy looked upon those who were building clavichords. It looked easy enough compared with building a lute: make a box and then fill it with small wooden parts, strings, wrest and hitch pins, you name it! In 1992 I got the opportunity together with my wife to build a clavichord after an original by Philip Jacob Specken under the constantly inspiring, challenging and competent guidance by HansErik Svensson. What could have been an ordeal for our married life instead became a pleasing co-operation even if my wife's enthusiasm for building musical instruments lies far behind mine. She showed however both an excellent taste and skill when it came to paint the clavichord. It was an entirely different experience to build a clavichord compared with building a lute. It was less complicated in some respects and with more room for sound improvements with the finished instrument.

In the music museum in Brussels I had in the beginning of the 90s found a drawing of a baroque guitar from 1761 made by the French luthier Gérard J. Deleplanque. I was keen build a copy of this guitar too as I often had admired Arne Lindberg's beautiful copy of a guitar by Voboam. As usual I nagged at Arne to get the opportunity to build a copy of the Deleplanque guitar and this project could be realised in 1993. The guitar was sparsely ornamented, but the few inlays, which should be made, took a lot of time to finish.

This guitar is the only of this type to have been built, which is a pity as it always is interesting to compare similar instruments. Surely, there are more beautiful baroque guitars to copy, but I take offence when my wife calls it "a paddle"!

Clavichord

A finished replica of a Swedish clavichord by Specken, built by the author.

When you have built your clavichord you need something to put it on and the instrument then also can form a whole. In 1994 I built a leg stand and again I showed my ignorance in believing that this would be an easy task finished within a week or so. It of course took longer time than that and my esteem for good craftsmanship increased at the same time. A few more pictures of the finished Specken clavichord:

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The Masterpiece

In 1995 it was time for the "masterpiece" of the lute building: the 13 course baroque lute after Martin Hoffmann. Only one had been built before and both Arne and I were anxious to hear the sound of it. I had made some preparations at home. There were some decorative ornaments on the peg boxes of the original instrument, which I wanted to copy both for the appearance, but it also was a challenge and an opportunity to gain some more experience and knowledge. It took its time, but went reasonably well. The problems appeared when all things should be fitted to the instrument. Wood is a living material and it decides itself how it will form and you have to suit yourself to that.

Hoffmann-Lute

A 13-course baroque lute after Martin Hoffmann is tested in the workshop.

 

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My finished Martin Hoffmann baroque lute

In the summer 1996 I was, together with Daniel Noblía, "relegated" to the building called "Reträtten" (the retreat) where we both worked with the restoration of two old square pianos. I had rescued an old square piano built by Johan Gabriel Högwall from the 1810s and Daniel worked with a later instrument by Pehr Rosenwall. This relegation was however very tolerable and we had a nice co-operation. If you needed more company there were only of few steps to the other participants of the course.

Musical Orgies in the Villa

However, the main task of musical instruments in life is not to be built but to played. During several summers we have had the privilege to have the Finnish organist Mikko Korhonen as a tester and he has given us many musical "orgies" through his improvisations on all sorts of clavichords. These highlights have been performed in the best room of the beautiful villa, where you have been able to lean back in the uncomfortable, and rather ugly, but impressive sofas inspired by the Rococo.

A Collection

A collection of lutes and Grobert-guitars from the courses.

In 1996 Mikko Korhonen gave a beautifully sounding combined organ and clavichord concert in the lovely church of Länna. To reach the church we travelled through the ancient scenery of Roslagen. During the trip back we were accompanied by a fabulous sunset, a worthy conclusion of a very nice concert. Another memorable concert is the one Mikko gave in the restored vacation home the same year. A few skilled lute players have worked as testers of plucked instruments. Beate Dittmann from Germany visited the course in 1995 and gave a concert of her own with early music for the lute, but also tested the finished lutes from the course.

Internet Recruits

A thrilling and exciting feature of the courses has been the international participation of pupils from Germany, Cuba, Switzerland, Norway, Finland and the USA A whole Finnish colony with above all Pekka Vapaavuori as a quick builder, always enthusiastic and inspiring has been present at the courses during many years. One of the participants in 1996, the 70 years old Robert (Bob) Buzzard from New Mexico, USA, had been recruited with the most recent information technique: through Internet and the e-mail network that exists between lutenists all over the world. Pleasant breaks in the building process have been the many people, which have visited the course one, or a couple of days: relatives and friends to the participants, past participants, musicians, people from museums etc. On some occasions the visitors have brought interesting things as for example when Felix Wolff from the Music Museum in Stockholm came with his string making machine, constructed after an old model in the French Encyclopaedia and which we all with great enthusiasm got the opportunity to test.

Concert

Recording in the Grödinge church with lutes from Marholmen .

Last but not least it is important to call attention to the elements of experiments and developments of the courses. If you participate very occasionally this may not seem obvious, but those of us who have taken part in many of the courses this is quite evident. Arne and HansErik strive continuously to develop the methods of working and to search for an increasing improvement of the qualities of the musical instruments. The building process becomes a fruitful dialogue between teacher and pupil where many new ideas crop up all the time. Some of these ideas are worth developing, others are thrown on to the rubbish-heap. Small changes and adjustments are made upon earlier experiences, tests are made, one listens to the results, some changes are adopted others are discarded. This aspect of the courses also make them unique: nowhere else in the world has it been possible to collect all this experience and knowledge in a similar way. For my own part these courses have led to a serious addiction and since many years I find it difficult to imagine a summer without this course.

The 1998 Course

During the summer course 1998 there were fewer instruments built than before, which meant a slower pace than usual. Three lute builders attended the course: Alan Jowett from Canada, Jorge Bertholdo dos Santos from Portugal and Mikael Forsberg from Sweden. All three had discovered the course on Internet through this web-page! I myself attended as a guitar builder again but this time making a copy of an old guitar in my own collection. I was anxious to compare the differences in sound between a copy and the original instrument. It is of course nearly impossible to produce an exact copy and all comparisons are very difficult to make.

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The author is making bindings on the guitar. Photograph: Alan Jowett.

Because of the international participants the language of the course became English and gave us Swedes good training. As usual some participants from earlier courses came to finish and paint their instruments. Mikko Korhonen played the clavichords during unforgettable evenings and Pekka Vapavuori lectured on his experiments with the clavichord, and illustrated his talk with his own, new CD. A couple of new clavichords were built of which one was a modification of the Specken model. It became a bigger instrument, but not as big as the late Swedish clavichords. It will be very interesting to hear this clavichord when it has matured. Almost all lutes, all clavichords and the guitar were playable at the end of the course and duets were played on the lutes and the guitars.

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Arne Lindberg and Kenneth Sparr plays lute duets in the villa. Photograph: Alan Jowett.

The two foreign lute builder spent many hours on packing their instruments for the flight transport. Lutes and flight transports are a difficult area if you want to arrive with an unbroken instrument. Much thought and packing creativity was performed! However, both lutes from Marholmen arrived safely to their final destinations.

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From the left Jorge Bertholdo dos Santos, Alan Jowett and Kenneth Sparr with their fresh instruments. Photograph: Arne Lindberg

The guitar soon accompanied its builder to France. There it had its debut at the wedding on 26 August between the daughter of the builder, Sanna, and Pascal Olivier.

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Kenneth Sparr with the guitar. The father of the groom, Dominique Olivier, is helping with the music

Pictures of the original instrument and the copy of it:

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The 1999 course

The 1999 course was quite different from the earlier. HansErik and Arne had been informed that this should be the last course at Marholmen due to economical difficulties. However, it is quite obvious that the management of the school never was really interested in the courses or understood the true value of these unique events. It is very strange indeed that a world unique activity is closed with a few lines with a pencil. It does not even get a worthy end and nobody is there to thank HansErik and Arne for their valuable work with the courses, which have been going on for the last 20 years. Hopefully there will be others who can appreciate this unique activity and provide good opportunities for HansErik and Arne to continue.

Due to the uncertainty whether the courses will continue or not only few new instruments were built in 1999: one lute and two clavichord. Several participants from earlier courses came to finish or adjust their instruments. A seven-course lute was built by Christian Vanderkerkhove, a Belgian who had found information about the course on Internet. Here a few pictures of Christian and his lute:

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Mikko and Minna Korhonen built a five octave modified Specken clavichord. I built a small clavichord after an anonymous instrument in the Music Museum, Stockholm. In fact, the instrument was built for the museum as a record of the courses at Marholmen and to provide the museum with a playable copy. The work included a photographic and written documentation of the whole building process. The museum is planning an exhibition in the beginning of 2000 where original instruments together with copies of these instruments and among them the small clavichord. You can find more information about the exhibition on the homepage of the museum.

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The table meeting the builder on the first day.

The material for the clavichord was of superb quality and it really was a joy (and a great responsibility) to work with it. The building process was going on well and the clavichord was playable and even painted during the course. The finished colour was a bit of a surprise. It turned out to be more blue than we had planned. As a beautiful Swedish summer sky!

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Mikko Korhonen prepared to play the small, newly painted clavichord.

As before Mikko Korhonen offered the course participants many occasions to listen to his magnificent playing on the clavichords. He found time and energy to do that although he and his wife Minna at the same time were building a large clavichord! Almost every evening there was a small concert, but we also had opportunity to go to Furusund and listen to the Swedish early music ensemble Mare Balticum as well as a combined lute, organ and clavichord concert at Länna church.

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Kenneth Sparr and Arne Lindberg tuning lutes from Marholmen at the concert in Länna church.

The 1999 course was very calm and harmonius. The work was only interrupted a few times when we had visitors, among them Felix Wolf and John Huber from The Music Museum in Stockholm.

Interestingly enough we had opportunity this last course at Marholmen to watch and listen to the development of clavichord build during these two decades. Several vintages of clavichords were represented which clearly showed the development but also gave  evidence of the good start. The Specken clavichord made by Bengt-Olof Sahlin from the first course in 1979 was an excellent example.

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Three Specken clavichord of different vintages.

Finally I would like to express my sincere thanks to HansErik and Arne for many, wonderful summers at Marholmen. A thank should also be directed to Mikko Korhonen for all the musical highlights he has offered.

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Mikko Korhonen, Arne Lindberg and HansErik Svensson.

Read more about the courses

Those interested to get more information about the courses may consult the following articles by the author:

Konsten att bygga luta på 14 dagar [SGLS 18/1985 nr 3 s. 14-26]

Gitarrbygge sommaren 1987 [Gitarr och Luta 21/1988 nr 1 s. 34-50]

Gitarrbygge på Marholmen 1993 [Gitarr och Luta 27/1994 nr 1 s. 3-6]


© Kenneth Sparr