Casa Parramon is Spain’s oldest lutherie workshop and one of those of longest tradition in all Europe. Its director, Jordi Pinto, reveals to us some of the secrets of a craft that has hardly changed since the 16th century.
In 1897 Ramon Parramon opened a workshop in Barcelona that now takes pride in its 120 years of unbroken history. The workshop’s heyday was in the 1920s and 30s when it made nothing less than 400 string instruments and even created an all-new one, the tenor viola. The Spanish Civil War and the post-war period put an end to the demand for new instruments since they had become a luxury that few musicians could afford, and the business shifted its focus to the sale, maintenance and restoration of violins, violas and cellos. Today this continues to be its main line of activity.
For Jordi Pinto, the secret of the workshop’s continued existence is its “dedication, close cooperation and reliability. As my grandfather used to say, our work is like a long-distance race: we shouldn’t ever think of sprinting”. The establishment is located in a flat at Carrer del Carme, just a few steps away from the bustling Rambla. On entering, one finds a spacious room with a collection of instruments from around the world which was built up by the second generation of the workshop on their trips to exotic places. After that one comes to the workshop itself and a room featuring perfect acoustics where musicians try out new or repaired instruments.
Four luthiers work here. One is an “archetier”, who is entirely devoted to making and repairing bows, while the other three are specialized in string instruments. Their working methods are based on those of the 16th and 17th centuries, when the canons, proportions, shapes and materials of the craft were established. Of course, there are a few technological advances that simplify certain steps in the processes involved: “A software program allows us to insert a camera into an instrument in order to see any damage on the computer monitor”. This is a process that was formerly carried out with mirrors and lights, which meant that an instrument often had to be opened to complete the inspection.
These craftsmen are like physicians for musicians, “or at least that’s what we should be—says Pinto—, although some choose to ‘self-medicate’ and end up damaging their instruments. Our cure then comes to take more time and money. For a musician, his instrument and his bow are the tools of his trade and if they’re well honed, his performance will be better”. Indeed, instruments become damaged by use, moisture, carriage and neglect: “An instrument that has been lying in any attic for 80 years cannot be restored in 10 days; its original shape must be recovered little by little with successive moulds and counter-moulds to avoid harming the wood and this is a process that takes a number of weeks or months.
For centuries this craft has been passed down from one generation to the next, as is shown by the great families of European luthiers. There are two ways to obtain training: “You can study for 3 to 5 years in an official Central European school or else, just as has been done since the 16th century, you can start from scratch as an apprentice in a workshop”. No official school exists in Spain for the training of luthiers so a person here who feels a calling to this craft must study in Germany, Italy or France. It isn’t strictly necessary to know how to play the instrument that one repairs but it does help a lot because “when a musician tell you there’s a sound problem, you should know what he is talking about and how to provide a solution”.
In addition to being ‘physicians’, luthiers are also architects who build small structures. “Instruments have a base, walls and a roof. Even the bass bar —a brace under the sound board— acts like a beam supporting the pressure of the bridge and the strings, while the sound post connects the sound board to the back, acting like a column”. This is an evolving architecture because the engravings from the 14th and 15th centuries show instruments that look like violins with flat tops. It was in the 16th century that the famous Italian luthier Nicolò Amati arched the soundboard, giving it a solid structure: “Arching means doing what an architect does with a bridge, placing an arch beneath it to keep it from becoming deformed”.
Wood is the instrument’s essential material, of course: “We have a valuable store of old wood from, the 19th and early 20th centuries, because you can’t restore an instrument from the 18th century with fresh-sawn wood”. The sound board of violins is usually made of spruce from the area near the Alps, where there are workshops and storehouses engaged in sawing, storing, drying and distributing wood specifically for luthiers. For master craftsmen, time has a different meaning. Casa Parramon has spent as much as five years on the restoration of a cello from the 18th century. However, “before doing anything, we make an overall assessment of the instrument to determine whether its value justifies the necessary technical intervention and the investment in time and money required to restore it”. Extreme restorations are reserved for extreme instruments – the ones of great organological value.
Parramon tenor viola
The CraftRoom was a musician and composer. According to Jordi Pinto, “he considered that there was a timbric imbalance in the string quartets: the two violins emphasize the treble register, the viola da braccio approaches them and the cello is left alone with the bass notes”. So Casa Parramon created the tenor viola, an instrument that “fills this void between one extreme and the other”. The first prototype was built in 1932 and, up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936), 50 tenor violas were made, one of them for the great cellist Pau (Pablo) Casals. Some of these instruments are still being played: “In Barcelona there is a cellist who inherited a tenor viola from his grandfather and he plays it professionally from time to time. Another one is owned by a musicologist of the University of Portland, Oregon”.