Capela – The violin maker

on Jul 1, 2011 in Now Boarding | No Comments

This story begins in 1924 when the sound post of a violin was repaired. Today, three generations later, there are Capela violins all over the world. How many there are, how much they cost and which great musicians make them sing, are known only to the Gods.

A chirruping superimposes itself on our voices, making them rise and then stop altogether. Our attention is drawn to the culprit: a travesso, a cross between a goldfinch and a canary. It doesn’t have a name, like the other two in the cage hanging from the ceiling at the entrance to the Capela workshop. But it does sing wonderfully and is enjoying a long life.

The explanations supplied by its owner get the conversation started – speaking low under the chirruping – and António Capela continues with the history of three generations of makers, something rare in the trade. Although he helped his son Joaquim António create his first violin, he no longer believes the same will happen with his grandson Tiago. He was given the wood, cut and ready to be carved, a few years ago but it still stands untouched in a corner of the workshop. “Young people today don’t think the same way; they learn an instrument, put it away after a while and want a different one; they play a sport for years, give it up, change”. António Capela recalls he was encouraged to do something else instead of making violins. His mother “insisted because she couldn’t see where the violin thing was going, thought it was too simple a profession”. His father, Domingos Capela, believed he “had inherited his gift” and early on encouraged him to learn, following advice from musicians who appreciated António’s work and told him to send his son to schools abroad.

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It was 50 years ago – on the 8th January to be precise – that António Capela left for Paris with a grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. He did a placement at the world-famous Vatelot, the best violin repairer in Paris. It gave him an excellent apprenticeship with the instruments of famous musicians, whose autographs he collected. “Some remarkable Stradivariuses have passed through my hands!”. But it is not these instruments, signed by the great Antonio Stradivari – the maker who established the standard for the violin at the end of 17th century – which are António Capela’s favourites. He prefers the uneven geometry of a Guarnerius – Giuseppe Guarneri – to the formal harmony of a Stradivarius.

He makes both models, but there are clients who prefer the Guarnerius and others Stradivarius, like the Japanese. Both come from the most prestigious school of violin makers in the world. At the International School of Violin Makers in Cremona, António Capela, once again with a grant from the Gulbenkian, learned the art of the luthier – violin-making has its origins in lute-making – when he managed to get an American store to buy all the instruments he could produce. That meant, he explains, that “I had steady work”. His wife wanted to stay in Italy, but António Capela returned to Anta, in Espinho, where the Capela story had begun in 1924 in Domingos Capela’s workshop.

One day, cabinet-maker Domingos Capela received an urgent request: “The Italian-Brazilian violinist, Nicolino Milano, came in and asked him to repair the sound post to his violin and the bridge as well. My father was an artist, with amazing precision! As a kid he went with my grandfather, a cooper at Niepoort wines, and turned a piece of wood into a sculpture of Christ”.

From repairing the sound post of a violin to making instruments happened in a trice. Domingos Capela founded the Tuna Musical de Anta (a local musical group) and wanted a violin to play in it. So he made one by following Nicolino Milano’s instructions. More violins followed, then cellos and violas. After the Tuna, Domingos Capela started making instruments for the recently-formed Orquestra Sinfónica do Porto and for musicians like Gilhermina Suggia, Henry Mouton, Rene Bohet and François Bross, carrying off top international prizes for best workmanship and the timbre of his instruments.

The vibration of the violin
Domingos Capela’s first violins were made from plane wood that he found near his workshop. But António, studying in Paris, dreamed of going to the Alps, the world centre for the sale of pre-cut wood for making stringed instruments. Since 1971 António Capela has been going to the Balkans to find the best maple and he has enough wood stockpiled to make violins for the rest of his life and for his son Joaquim António. It is a special maple with a ribbed grain, producing an alternating light and dark tone at the base of the violin. When he buys it, the maple is two, three years old at most. On arrival at Anta, it will age in António Capela’s seasoning kilns. “Here we only make instruments with wood at least 15 years old. It needs to age, like Port. The older they are, they more they sing!”

But the secret, the big Capela secret to making a violin sing like no other, is not hidden in the density of the wood. They can be at a congress with 500 makers or a small gathering with half a dozen enthusiasts and talking about all the stages of turning the wood into a violin, “but when it gets to varnish no-one opens their mouth”. Centuries have passed and theses written on the secret of Stradivarius, a secret that died with him. “The same will happen with the Capelas”, António assures me.

The vibration or sound irradiation of a violin is caused by the varnish which covers it; from its transparency, its deadness. More specifically, the varnish is the distinctive factor in the violin’s timbre. Winners of various prizes – the latest in Poland from among 200 makers – the Capelas speak of a formula which is passed from father to son based on the tips of famous violin-makers. The formula evolves, and is adapted and improved in the hands of each luthier.

Instruments are like birds
António Capela won’t reveal how many violins he has made, their price nor in whose hands he has made them sing. The price is perhaps higher if it is a Baroque instrument, like the one he made for his wife or for each of his children, with ivory inlay on the flanks, similar to the Stradivarius to be found in the Palacio Real in Madrid. A Capela violin is made on commission, takes months to assemble and is paid for on delivery. If the buyer backs out, another client will appear. The Capelas have no violins in stock.

So how many has he made – hundreds? Thousands? António Capela prefers dozens, even when confronted with the 200 violins numbered by his father: “Our instruments are not pieces of machinery, they can’t be numbered…It doesn’t matter how many we’ve made, how much they cost, who plays them…They are amazing musicians! I will only give the name of one, because he is dead and I had the pleasure of meeting him: Rostropovitch. We were chatting in this workshop in 1981”.

There are days, says the violinmaker, when his workshop turns into a real place of pilgrimage. Some want violins repaired, others to order one and then there are those who come from the capital to Anta just for a visit; to see the Capelas at work; to see his art. Because of the interest, António wants to open a museum and he managed to salvage some instruments made by his father from around the world. He bought them in specialist auctions in France and England. Some seek him out: “Do want to buy this violin? The seller was a girl who had bought it from a musician who, in turn, had got it from an undertaker. I remembered this violin; I was nine when my father sold it. Instruments are like birds. Here today, gone tomorrow”.

Sometimes, when he tracks down some of his violins, António Capela is saddened. Especially when he discovers an Italian or some other label stuck over the Capela signature. That is why his brand doesn’t achieve the fame it deserves: “A Capela stands out from other violins just by looking at it and if you are in any doubt, you only have to play it”. A unique sound, unrepeatable, like the chirruping of the birds from the ceiling of his workshop.

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by Ana Serpa

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