Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Lacote Decacorde in St. Cecilia's Hall, Edinburgh

I continued my instrument museum holiday in Scotland by visiting St. Cecilia's Hall, Edinburgh to see examples of several guitars that have I been collecting information about; Lacôte's decacordes and guitars built by members of the Benedid family.

The two Lacôte decacodes that I examined recently in Paris differed from each other in various important details (my post of Feb 23). From published photos I knew that this guitar presented yet a third option for some of the same features.

The undated guitar (UEDIN:288) was built by José  Benedid in Cadiz sometime before he moved to Havana where he died in 1899. I thought this instrument could represent a point of reference for interpreting other guitars by the Benedid family that I intend to examine in the future. Since I want to describe both of these guitars in detail I'll write a separate  post for each.

A technical drawing of the Lacôte decacorde is available from the museum (UEDIN:767). I had a copy at hand while I studied the guitar and this saved me a lot of time in noting general details. The disposition of strings on Lacôte decacordes vary from 5 fretted and 5 open to 6 and 4 or 7 and 3. This example is arranged for 5 and 5. As listed on the drawing, the fretted string length is 630 mm while the open strings, set on a slanted nut, vary from 683 to 715 mm.
The book-matched soundboard is impressively close grain spruce that widens only a couple of centimeters from the edge to 1.5mm between grain lines. The sound hole rings and edge banding are in the typical Lacôte style, composed of multiple narrow strips of  alternating ivory and ebony. The bridge appears to be original as it is precisely shaped in the Lacôte style and size. Interestingly, the bridge pin holes are not equally spaced. This feature is certainly intentional. The first through fifth holes are 12 mm apart while the sixth is 11 mm from the fifth. There are 10 mm between each of the remaining holes. The Lacôte decacorde in Paris, E.986.5.1 which is also arranged in a string disposition of 5 and 5 has a similar spacing although the holes are not as accurately spaced.

The back is a single piece of mahogany veneer glued over a piece of close grain quartered spruce, probably utilizing a shaped form in its preparation that results in an arched back. Across the lower bout the crown is 4mm high while at the waist it is 3.5mm and across the upper bout it measures 3mm.

The side ribs appear to be solid mahogany. Shining my pen light through the sound hole I couldn't be sure because of the accumulated grime and discoloration. Had the side ribs been constructed with a layer of spruce I presume this feature would have been visible because the grain pattern of even dirty quartered spruce is recognizable.

The design and construction of the neck and peghead for a guitar with this many strings is a challenge and Lacôte's solution is elegant. Although only five strings on this example are fretted while the remaining five are played open all ten strings lie over the fingerboard. It is structurally necessary to support these strings but acoustically it isn't.  Modern ten strings guitars that have all strings fretted are built with full width necks where the neck stock, whether it is spanish cedar or mahogany, fully supports both structurally and acoustically, the width of the fingerboard with no attempt to reduce the mass of the neck.
 Lacôte recognized that this wasn't necessary and chose to reduce the mass of the neck stock and ease the burden on the player by cutting a channel into the bass side of the neck from the peghead joint to the heel. In each photo, part of the ebony fingerboard is visible at the bottom of the channel. The heel is fully formed and centered on the body while the peghead is attached with the usual long "V" joint. Looking closely at this construction you can see that the neck channel was carved with the fingerboard glued in place because the under-side of the fingerboard has been gouged out in the process of carving the channel.

A similar solution is found on the signed instrument, E.986.5.1. Here the channel was cut and finished before the fingerboard was glued in place allowing the maker to fully contour and delineate both the principal part of the neck and the bass side support. Both of these examples demonstrate an elegant solution to a tricky design problem.

 The simplest solution is found on the unsigned Paris instrument E.1044. Here the neck width is made no wider than necessary to accommodate five strings. The continuation of the neck stock material to form a support for the bass strings is completely omitted. What you see in its place is the bottom of the ebony fingerboard supported on the edge by a separate, narrow piece of sculpted ebony.

The heel end of this arrangement shows an equally simple  construction. In this example, however, the heel is off-set to the treble side of the body to maintain symmetry.

photo of E.986.5.1, Paris
An interesting feature of this guitar is the pitch-raising mechanism, an idea borrowed from the harp, that Lacôte patented for guitar. The Edinburgh guitar retains only one of its original three mechanisms so I am using my photo of E.986.5.1. The mechanism is a brass lever, operated from the underside of the peghead that swings across an open bass string pushing it down onto a secondary nut and raising the pitch of the string a half step. Each lever swings in both directions so the three can alter the pitch of all five bass strings, three at a time.

An explanation of the mechanism is much more complex than the mechanism itself: The small blackened lever at the top is integral with the brass cylinder as is the threaded screw at the bottom and the squared section just above the former. The cone shaped feature is a separate brass washer that slips in place when the mechanism is assembled. The mechanism fits into a hole in the peghead the same diameter as the narrowest part of the assembly. The collar under the small lever holds the assembly in place when it is inserted. The cone-shape washer fits over the brass cylinder and rests in a similarly shaped counter-sink in the back of the peghead. Below the washer the cylinder is squared in order to fit snuggly in the corresponding square hole in the larger bottom lever. This arrangement allows the bottom lever to rotate the entire mechanism when the wing nut (item on the left in the bottom photo) is loose and locks everything in place when it is tightened.

During my visit I was situated in a room adjacent to the hall where the instruments were exhibited. The museum was closed to the public that day so I was able to wander at leisure during my breaks from work.
I would like to thank curator Darryl Martin for his time in arranging my visit and for his generosity is sharing his knowledge of the museum's extensive guitar collection.

Edinburgh University Collection of Historical Musical Instruments

Checklist of Plucked Instruments

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Unverdorben Lute in Dean Castle Scotland

Sue and I were in Scotland last week combining holidays with my museum appointments. I am fascinated with the 16th century lute maker Marx Unverdorben and I have made the examination and documentation of his lutes a special project. Unverdorben lutes are seldom used as models by current builders even though he is represented by as many surviving lutes (9) as his more illustrious contemporaries; Hans Frei (12) and Laux Maler (8). Note: totals from Klaus Martius'  lute database

Dean Castle houses an interesting Unverdorben that prompted our visit to Scotland. I was doubly fortunate because when I arrived I was escorted up a narrow winding  stone stairway to the top of the tower where space had been  prepared for me among the museum's wardrobe storage. Where would there be a more atmospheric place to study a 16th century lute?

I spent the day measuring and making templates of the bowl. Some lute makers built elaborate contraptions for recording bowl contours, but faced with a trans-atlantic flight I wanted to find a simpler way. I used the same principle but substituted laminated card stock for templates that I had prepared in advance.These were supported in grooves cut in pine blocks that were positioned on a paper grid. Throughout the process I used the grid to record reference points.

I cut pointed strips of thinner card stock and positioned these at close intervals against the bowl and taped them in place. Alternating from one end to the other then to the center of the arch this apparatus stabilized itself allowing me to create an accurate contour of the bowl's axis. I was particularly careful at the neck joint and at the point where the ribs bend over the edge of the front block.

I followed the same procedure for creating cross-sections. Here I found it necessary to use two markers per rib, each placed so that the marker's edge aligned with the rib joint. Sometimes this procedure was complicated by mis-shapened or ribs that were poorly aligned.

After finishing each contour I traced the result on heavy paper. Besides the axis contour I made four cross-sections; one at the deepest point of the bowl, another at the front block, a third between these two points and a fourth at a point equal to the bridge position.

I had seen museum photos and read descriptions of the lute so I knew in advance there were features of the instrument that were either not original or suspect.
 Mike's Oud Forums . I finished the afternoon examining these.

I was interested in determining if the bowl retained its original contour because the outline of the belly appears too full for a lute of this era. Lute bowls are flexible and were often forced into a different shape and fitted with a new belly during later re-buildings . The rear view of the bowl also suggests a degree of forced distortion and the belly displays a dip of 6 mm  or more from the imaginary plane when I put a straight edge on it. Luthiers achieve this latter effect by either cutting down the edge ribs or pushing the edge ribs out to a wider contour. You can see in a previous photo that the ribs have not been cut down by any appreciable degree.

 Is the belly original? It is very fine grain wood, but the design of the inset rose and the style of the guitar type bridge makes me suspicious. The current rose and bridge could occupy and obscure the position of the originals. I will compare the positions of these with the information that I have gleaned from other Unverdorben lutes that I have examined and analyze the contours of the bowl further before I reach  a decision.

I have no doubt that the neck is original. Its dimensions agree with surviving original six course lutes and it has a characteristic "V" shape like that found on the lute by Georg Gerle.

A convincing feature is how the 19th century guitar peghead fits into the original recess of the lute pegbox. The angle at the end of the ivory neck is 9 degrees. A line representing the seat of the recess is visible too. The edge strip of ivory veneer would have continued across this area to the nut, but it has been replaced with ebony in order to blend with the guitar peghead.
Certainly you have noticed the design covering the ivory ribs. This is a floral motif painted in black and gold. It appears on the fingerboard and around a small part of the circumference of the rose and a small portion along the soundboard binding. It is worn in areas that were subject to abrasion. Painted ribs are unusual, perhaps for the very reason evident here, but decorated ribs are not. Interestingly, Unverdorben has indulged before as represented by his lute, formerly in the V&A.
Unverdorben Lute V&A 193-1882

I would like to thank Jason Sutcliffe, Museums Development Manager, for arranging and making my visit so enjoyable and especially for sharing his passion for Dean Castle so enthusiastically with Sue and me.

Dean Castle
Dean Castle Country Park