insight - Marc Soubeyran
Written by Ron Toft
Occupation - Violin maker
When Marc Soubeyran was 16 or 17, he taught himself to play the violin. At around the same time, after a summer spell in a furniture factory, he also became interested in wood and woodworking.
These two seemingly unrelated experiences were not only to stand Marc in good stead but destined to dictate the entire course of his professional life.
“To be honest, that period of my youth is a bit of a blur,” he admits. “The one thing I do remember, however, is a growing desire to become a violin maker.”
As a result of getting in touch with a French violin maker related by marriage to the furniture factory director, Marc applied for and obtained a place as an apprentice at the Swiss School of Violin Making in Brienz, Switzerland.
“Looking back, it was the crème de la crème of violin making schools. What’s more, I was incredibly fortunate that the two tutors, both of whom were master violin makers, had just eight students whom they taught for 40 hours a week. One modern violin making school I know of teaches its students for only 18 hours a week and has a much higher student-to-teacher ratio,” he explains.
Marc – who was born and raised in France and holds dual Swiss-French nationality but lives and works in Ludlow, Shropshire, England – had an affinity for working with wood from the very start of his apprenticeship. “I didn’t find learning how to cut and shape wood a struggle at all. It seemed completely natural.
“I have never been a great academic, but I have always been good with my hands, ears, and eyes. I often hear people say they would like a career change. To me, a violin maker of more than 30 years’ standing, this is a completely alien concept. The day I started as an apprentice violin maker, I somehow knew that is what I was destined to become and do for the rest of my life.”
Marc’s first job after completing his apprenticeship was with top violin maker Dietrich Kessler. “I was incredibly lucky to go from an apprenticeship with one great master, Hugo Auchli in Switzerland, to work for another great master, Dietrich Kessler in London.
“From Auchli, I learned the absolute foundations of my profession – how to hold a piece of wood, how to hold a tool, how to work. From Kessler, I learned about instruments and the finer points of my profession.
“Kessler was well-known as someone who could adjust and set up instruments beautifully, and his skills and passion rubbed off on me. To this day, correctly setting up instruments – changing the bridge, sound-post, and strings to create the precise musical character required by a musician – is one of my pet loves, and also one of the things for which I am noted.”
In 1987, Marc felt he had sufficient experience and expertise to strike out on his own. “Although, upon reflection, I was fairly green and innocent, it was the right thing to do at that time.” Since then, Marc hasn’t looked back. Today, he is a highly regarded and much sought-after violin maker, with top musicians beating a path to his door not only for new instruments but to have existing instruments repaired and ‘set up’ and bows re-haired.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to make instruments that musicians want, whether it’s an exact replica of a historic model or something new. The way an instrument sounds is of paramount importance to a musician. The way an instrument looks, I always say, is the product of a violin maker’s vanity! If you are able to marry the two things, you are onto a winner.”
Marc makes violins, period instruments of the viola da gamba family, and cellos. “Every instrument is unique, like a fingerprint,” he says.
Violin fronts are traditionally made from spruce, and violin backs, necks, and ribs from sycamore. “The spruce on the front of a violin resonates like a drum skin, while the sycamore on the back can be likened to a loudspeaker membrane.” Marc makes three or four instruments of various types each year. How long does it take to make each new violin, viol, or cello? “I always say it takes a lifetime, for each instrument is the result not just of carving and shaping a single piece of wood but of more than 30 years’ experience as a craftsman.”
A new violin costs around US$13,435 and a new cello US$23,700. Marc works both on a commission and a speculative basis. “If I’ve got commissions, I do those first. If I haven’t, I make instruments on spec and sell them eventually. The market is certainly changing. Twenty to thirty years ago, most makers would work solely on commissions. Nowadays you have to take the instruments you have made on spec to the various shows and hopefully catch the eye of browsing musicians.”
Looking to the future, Marc says all craftsmen “crave recognition, and I am no different to anyone else. The better you become known and the more highly regarded you are, the more commissions you get and the more instruments you sell.”
Although Marc works completely on his own, he may have some home-grown competition in the not-too-distant future, for his 12-year-old son, Louis, “has an undoubted ability to hold and use tools. Whenever I bring parts of instruments into the house from my workshop, he always asks me really interesting questions. We are currently making a violin together. It would be wonderful if he ends up following in my footsteps.
“As far as I am concerned, I shall continue making violins until the day I die.”
Over the moon
One musician Marc has known for many years owns a cello which once had “the most hideous bridge. Every time I saw the instrument, I wanted to change that bridge, but the lady was very happy with her cello. Until, that is, she damaged it in an accident. Her instrument needed major surgery, including a new bridge and sound-post. I thought ‘Yes, at last’. When she heard the sound made by her repaired cello, she was over the moon. Eventually I told her I had been dying to change the bridge for years. She said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ The reason I hadn’t done so earlier is because many musicians are insecure or nervous. It can be difficult getting them to alter an instrument that is already working properly.”
British Violin Making Association
In 1995, Marc founded the British Violin Making Association (BVMA), and was its chairman for six years. “I was amazed that Britain was the only European country without such an association. The association spent a long time at the discussion phase! It began with social meetings, the idea of which was to bring along an instrument, plus some wine and food and have a good time talking about anything related to our work.” Four years after its launch, the BVMA mounted a major retrospective exhibition of British instruments. The book that emerged from this exhibition “is still regarded as the reference book for our profession.”