A mistake in the history of lutherie!
A chat with Eliakim Boussoir, pioneer maker of viola pomposa/cello da Spalla and string maker!
Eliakim Boussoir, from the beautiful countryside near Metz. You graduated in Mirecourt in 2000 with a dissertation on viola pomposa (or violoncello da spalla as we call it today), and you made one as your final exam product. How did you come to this decision? Was it for curiosity, passion, desire to make something different?
😂😂😂 I arrived at the viola pomposa by force of circumstance! It was not me who went to her, it was her who came to me in a way! It was a wonderful adventure and still continues. Let me explain :
Every year in Mirecourt, a jury of luthiers and other experts meet for the final exam of the violin maker's training, which was then done in 5 years.
The student had to present either a restoration or a fabrication project that he was doing in his last year with a dissertation. During this meeting, the jury examines the projects proposed by the students for the following year and gives their agreement.
I have a slightly provocative nature, I like to do things differently. Therefore, I had proposed for this last year the making of a hardingfele, the traditional Norwegian violin. It's a very decorated instrument, with mother-of-pearl drawings, a dragon's head and sympathetic strings.
My project was refused. The jury found this proposal too folkloric and asked me to choose a more classical violin!
So, I had to find something else quickly, but I wanted to do something other than a simple copy of a violin!
I had done an internship with a violin maker in Nancy, Samuel Péguiron, who had made a viola pomposa in 1994. Therefore, I proposed this instrument as a new project. I then worked for this luthier who was an excellent boss!
Later on, I also worked for Jean-Claude Condi, specialised in traditional and popular instruments, where I was finally able to make a hardingfele!
How did your tutors at school welcome your decision?
Compared to the hardingfele, the viola pomposa looks like a big classical violin. The jury accepted this new proposal, but nobody knew what it was, neither did I.
This last year of school allowed me to research this instrument, going to see instruments in Museums, looking in libraries, etc ...
Did your research find any interest outside, like interested musicians, valuable connections?
When I passed the presentation of my research, describing that the viola pomposa was a small cello played on the shoulder, the reaction of the jury (composed of luthiers from the classical quartet) was not very enthusiastic and indicated to me that this instrument could never sound to the cello tuning. In other words, it was a mistake in the history of lutherie!
On the other hand, I had passed my exam, which was the most important thing for me.
Then the instrument had to stay five years at the school behind a window, which sadly makes little sense for a newborn instrument, an instrument under an incubator! But it was the school's regulations to exhibit the work of old students, and after all, it remains a good school all the same!
The instrument could not be shown to musicians. But as that last year allowed me to do in-depth research on the viola pomposa, I now had a dissertation as a presentation of my work that I could give to musicians, as well as to the workshops where I applied.
I was able to work for Alain Meyer, a luthier specialising in baroque instruments, open and generous, where I was able to have a completely different vision of violin making.
I have the feeling that in France, the use and production of this instrument were never abandoned. It doesn’t feel like a novelty at all for French people! Could you tell us a bit about its story in France?
In 1703, Sebastien de Brossard wrote in his dictionary: "Violoncello: C'est proprement notre Quinte de Violon ... " The Quinte de Violon was well known in the musical groups intervening at La Cour de France: 24 violons du Roy, Grande Bande, Petite Bande ....
But the Quinte de Violon disappeared because there was no more music written for it. The revival of baroque music and the reconstitution of ensembles of the time brought this instrument back to life.
And how is the actual da spalla French ambience? (Concerts, events, kind of music, schools...)
I am delighted to regularly hear spallas that "could never sound as a cello" (the jury dixit).
The viola pomposa is present in several ensembles, recordings, and conservatories rent them to offer them in their early music department.
Anything you’d like to add about Spalla?
We are only at the beginning of the revival of the viola da spalla with great possibilities for musicians, ensembles and teaching.
Moving on another topic, you are one of the few producers of strings designed for the Spalla, and you have two variants: silk core and gut core. We introduced them in the first issue of this newsletter.
How did you come to string making?
When we are interested in baroque violin making, in early music, we are necessarily interested in strings!
The evolution of strings has always preceded changes in instruments, music, new compositions.
It was the spalla that pushed me to make strings! Although my first pomposa'strings (2000) were made by Bernt Kurschner and the C was double spun, I later bought my strings from Aquila, as Dmitry Badiarov had worked with before.
Perhaps, you may have made my strings when you were there! 😉😉
In November 2011, when I learned that Aquila was going to stop gut strings production because of a European decree, I started making strings for the viola da spalla and other instruments.
Which are the sources that inspired you most for your work as a string maker?
In the Diderot and d'Alembert Encyclopedie, we see a spinning machine at the back of the workshop. It's described with how to use it.
I have gleaned information here and there, I also like searching and looking at plans of old inventions, patents, etc...
How did you come to silk?
It's also thanks to the spalla that I started to make silk strings.
There are only advantages to being interested in this instrument!
A colleague, Jean-Paul Boury, who was to rent a spalla for a conservatory, asked me to make stable strings for him and easy to play.
Which is your current belief about the historicity of silk core basses?
Silk strings have been used for a very long time in Asian countries.
To my knowledge, the first mention of silk strings for viola da gamba is 1615 by William Keeling. We don't know if they were spun.
The first mention of spun silk string is 1664 by John Playford.
Are you also experimenting with plain silk for trebles or planning to do so?
There are different ways of making silk strings. The way I make the silk cores for the bass is not suitable for the treble strings. I generally offer only basses because I feel it coherent: It was the luthier's work to spin the bass strings! I can also supply treble silk strings made by Serge Claderes.
Advantages and disadvantages of silk vs gut.
The silk is finer and more resistant than gut. We will have a softer string and easier to vibrate. This is very suitable for the spalla.
Silk is also less sensitive to hygrometric variations.
Gut has more tone and character and allows for better expression.
Do you design your da spalla strings with a modern or period instrument in mind?
The spalla is a special instrument whose dimension can vary, and it's now used for different styles of music.
Silk strings would work best for modern music and gut for early music, but the two are also interchangeable.
My goal is to make strings that suit the instrument and musician.
Is it possible to have custom strings from you for different instruments or simply of different tensions, and which is the extra price or waiting time for a custom order?
Yes, I ask the musician to specify what he wants. It's sometimes difficult for the musician to choose between the different tensions and types of strings, I try to guide him, and if he talks to me about his instrument, I understand better.
I don’t have strings in stock ready to be shipped, I make all the strings on order, so I don’t apply an extra price, or it doesn’t need an additional waiting time for a custom order. My regular waiting time is from 1 to 3 weeks, and the price depends on the note of the string's instrument, the aspect and the timbre, which is different according to the material used, as shown on the price list published on my website.
Can a custom string made by a craftsman like you be compared with a professional string made by a big factory? How can you guarantee a standard of quality?
It's like comparing an industrial violin and a violin made by hand. Both are valid but suitable for different people.
What has value is that each person is unique, each musician, each instrument made by hand. Each musician must find the instrument that suits him!
Sure, I can't compete in numbers with a big string's factory that is capable of making 250 strings/hour/worker! They have great CNC strings machines, very high precision, just changing a parameter to modify a string costs them dearly.
Making small series of strings is not advantageous for them. Working with gut core is very specific, requires a great deal of knowledge, know-how and human intervention.
The manufacture of gut strings is not profitable for these factorys, for some of them it's just their luxury product that made their moment of glory!
The machine that I made to make the strings is simple, it was used in the workshops of luthiers, it is a specific luthier know-how that luthiers have lost!
I am not trying to produce in mass and identical, that does not interest me but I seek to produce quality and personalized strings.
The relation between the musician and his instrument is made by the bow and the strings.
Changing a single string can change an entire instrument and allows the musician to more freely convey his feelings or the emotion he wants, it's fundamental to find the right balance to allow the right vibration!
Anything else you’d like to add about your string making experience?
The making of strings taught me a lot on the set-up and making of the instruments.
You can contact Eliakim and order his strings through his website:
At this link, his dissertation: https://docplayer.fr/59619735-La-viola-pomposa-diplome-des-metiers-d-art-juin-eliakim-boussoir.html
And here you can see his slide for a presentation about viola pomposa.
Thank you Eliakim!
Updates from our workshop
This week I still am at my parents’ trying to help, while Alessandro is in the workshop, busy with the new cello da Spalla.
Featured video of the week
Here the pomposa by Eliakim in action, played by the lucky owner Pascal Szymczack