Expert’s report and part restoration of a Laux Maler lute
This lute, in poor condition was sold at an auction on june 14th 2003.
Catalogue description :
« Rare and interesting lute, XVII th century, transformed into a guitar in the XVIII th century (10 courses). Wood rosette, ash body and spruce soundboard. A lot of repairs ».
Later converted into a guitar, the instrument looks sound in spite of the countless cracks in the burr ash shell cut on « dosse ». There are no traces of worms, only some changes to match the evolution of musical practice, (various transformations) and a lot of accidental damage. The shell is old, at least 17 th century, the neck, the head and the bridge were made between the end of the 17 th century and the beginning of the 18th century, the soundboard seems to be in good condition for its presumed age.
*Jacques Dumesnil, luthier in Paris, in activity around 1630/60 died in 1663.
2) the shell est entirely lined with rough linen cloth.
Laux Maler is an important luthier, one of the creators of the modern 9 ribs lute. He is a very prolific craftsman ; he worked with his son and it is said that supplies for 1000 instruments were found in the workshop after his son died.
We dismantle the guitar neck (5 courses), after taking off the wrought iron nail that hold it together. There ought to be 3 nails initially for each side of the nail, 2 holes are filled in by 2 wooden pegs.
Luthiers often made changes for musicians playing antique intruments, adapting them to the taste of the public and new practice for less money. The lute bridge has perhaps pulled splinters off the soundboard when it was taken off, for under the guitar bridge and its « moustaches » , a large piece of pine is inlaid, half deep, as if for hiding the damage caused by a hasty or too brutal ungluing. Unfortunately, the grain is perpendicular to the grain of the soundbox and we have to remove this wooden inclusion and make another one in the right direction.
A few Laux Maler lutes are found here and there, and we understand that reassembling will mean enormous difficulties, for we have not one single complete lute for accurate reference. We asked for photos of the Laux Maler in Vienna but as it is a taller and very different specimen, the photos did not help. We wrote to the Nuremberg Museum and Klaus Martin replied that their specimen (very close to ours according to the photos, but reassembled as a theorbo) is also incomplete. Andrew Dipper (USA) to whom we also enquired, told us that in his opinion, a narrow neck seems closer, more logical in accordance to the original. Klaus Martin agreed on that.
So we started with the body restoration, removing the numerous external pieces and add-ons, the fillings and other apocryphal substances, making the missing parts (we had an old piece of ash in stock, similar enough to restore this body). We lined in part (the least we could) the glue joints with very thin parchment, very thin oblique cotton canvas or even thin gauze (very loose woven cotton, very light but solid)
In the meantime, we thought about the soundboard. It seems to be in a relatively good condition compared to the shell. (a few missing bits and add-ons up and down, a few breaks). Of course, this ash wood is very brittle and fragile, which accounts for the numerous breaks of the body, but such an old piece of spruce should also be that way, and we are still puzzled by the difference of condition of those two elements. The bracing looks more recent than a 1520/1530 bracing should look, but again, precise and reliable data are sorely lacking.
Supposing the sounboard was changed, would the luthier (Dumesnil ?) not have preferred making a more contemporary bracing than this one which was on the soundboard to be replaced ?
According to our documents, the soundboard of the Nuremberg lute is very thin, the one we deal with is definitely thicker (an average 2 mm) but the different transformations in time and the numerous worm holes perhaps account for the thinness of the Nuremberg soundboard.
Normally, the lutes of that period (1520 – 1550) have a narrow neck for 11 stings. This lute, like others, had at least two modifications before its conversion into a guitar ; the block has been cut again, lowered (therefore enlarged), the shell and the upper part of the soundboard (shortened) too. The two ebony triangles on the upper part of the soundboard have been moved and cut again and are superimposed which proves at least two successive assemblies.
In Robert Lundberg’s « Historical lute construction », published by the Guild of American luthiers, we can see that the angle made by the neck on the batten in the lute as it is now, is much more acute than what it should be. We therefore decide to raise the body a little on the sides by making the upper block longer (the one which was reshuffled for guitar conversion). Once this block was made longer and the angle was modified according to the one described (and pictured) by Lundberg, we add small pieces of ash wood to complete the body, and so we obtain the definitive width of the upper part of the soundboard, therefore of the neck and the frets.
Once the block is rectified, we make the neck, calculating its size according to :
This gives us the half of the vibrationg string. The width of the neck allows for an 11 strings neck, which seems to be the most likely neck we wish to make.
We decide to make a dendrochronology which will definitely eliminate the doubt :
The dendrochronology by John Topham indicates 1529 for the sounboard (1360 for the oldest rings). This is in adequacy with Laux Maler times of activity, the style and the connections being obvious, we conclude that this soundboard was really made by Laux Maler. It seems therefore that this lute has undergone 3 changes : at least twice as a lute to follow the musical practice, then as a guitar (not mentioning various breaks and repairs of more or less importance caused by accidents rather than by modifications.)
On Ian Watchorn’s initiative, we get in touch with Stephen Barber, Sandy Harris and Klaus Matius who are, together with Thomas Norwood and Wolfgang Fruh, the most interested luthiers in this Laux Maler, and who would probably like to examine it before we close it again. So we decide to meet around the instrument. Joel Dugot invites us to his laboratory at the CNSM Museum in Paris during the Musicora 2004.
Once together, the luthiers examine the instrument for a long time and agree that, during the modifications, the body has been narrowed in the width of the first and last ribs, and also at the brague. As a matter of fact, the contre-brague is missing and the block is very small. Probably 15 to 20 mm are missing at the lower block and at the wider part of the ribs. The soundboard is somewhat thicker than with other instruments, except on the edges which have been thinned during various disassemblies and reassemblies. This seems to confirm the idea that lutes had a solid soundboard to stand the tension of tight strings, and not the thin and fragile and out of shape soundboards such as we see nowadays.
By general request, and especially Joel Dugot’ s, the curator of the Music Museum, as we realise the historical interest ot this instument , we accept to sell this open lute to the museum, to allow access and studying to all searchers and students and we give up the idea of completing the restoration.
Our work as experts and restorers therefore ends here.
Françoise et Daniel Sinier de Ridder