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He makes lutes with 'a certain soul'

Some of the best lutes in Europe are made by a self-taught craftsman in a basement workshop in this village north of Frankfurt. Under a vivid painting of a lutemaker by his three-year-old son, Helmut Bohr is now working on his 40th- odd instrument in what promises to be a long line of chitarrones, theorbos, and just plain ordinary lutes.

For Bohr it's a dream come true. As a schoolboy in the '50s he became fascinated with the lute -- even before he had ever heard one, at a time when hardly any performers, let alone lutemakers, existed. The round-bodied, double- stringed instrument was then a bit of exotica, an object of interest only to a tiny coterie of antiquarians -- or else it was the very corrupted "lute" (little more than a pot-bellied guitar) of the inter-war Wandervogel nature and folksong movement.

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Then came the early '60s' harpsichord fad, however, and the trend toward historically authentic performances of early music, with instruments as close to the original ones as possible. By the late '60s the harpischord vogue spread to the lute, and a number of makers began turning out new models of this venerable instrument.

Unfortunately, quite a few of the newcomers assumed that their violin or guitar expertise would automatically transfer to manufacture of the much lighter instrument. In particular, they sought the greater brilliance of heavy guitar strings -- and the enormous tension of these strings doubled, quickly warped fragile lute bodies. So manufacturers thickened the wood to support the strings -- and in a vicious circle the coarsened sound then required still heavier strings, which then required still thicker wood.

It was at just about this stage of development that Bohr took up lutemaking as a hobby. He had started playing the instrument in the '60s, then did his military service, got a degree in education, became a teacher -- and only after these interruptions did he resume luteplaying, in 1972. Dissatisfied with the poor instruments available, he determined to construct a better one himself. He first rebuilt an old lute belonging to his teacher, and he gained general knowledge on a six- week vacation job in a guitar repair shop. And he experimented again and again with various glues and maple moulds and fir sounding boards and their special interrelationships.Always he strove to get the wooden body as thin and resonant as possible.

Bohr was thus ready to begin contructing his own complete lutes just as various other makers were wrestling with the strings -- weight-ratio. His solution -- like that of a few other young lutemakers -- was to cut through the vicious circle, to scrap modern preconceptions and apprentice himself vicariously to the old masters. He began touring European cities to study some of the 1000-1500 Renaissance and Baroque lutes still existent after the passage of centuries. In Nurnberg, Vienna, Brussels, Copenhagen, Bohr inspected collections, photographed instruments, measured proportions, traced rosettas. Some of his best teachers he found not in castle or library display cases, but in museum cellars: broken pieces of flat sounding boards and bellied moulds that he could examine from all angles to figure out exactly how they were made.

In addition, Bohr sought clues to construction in the old music or tablature, written out not in today's clefs, but in the 16th- and 17th-century representation of lute fingering. He reimagined the Renaissance lute society, with an instrument in every home, workshops that turned out hundreds of lutes, and common habits of music making and music composing (rather than today's passive listening).He then applied this vision to the copies he made (though with light nylon rather than gut strings) of those original instruments.

Bohr learned by trial and error -- and by induction. "I had so many questions," he says of his early years. "It was so interesting, especially the workmanship. In building lutes myself I could see what craftsmanship and artistry lay behind the old instruments. It fascinated me. . . . The most important thing is to have motivation. Then the means of reinventing old building methods come of their own accord."

Soon he had so many lutes around his apartment, Bohr continues, that "friends came and said, 'Don't you want to sell me one?'" And soon he had developed sufficient feel for the art that Cologne-area professional lutenist Kristian Gerwig, for one, became a steady customer. By now Gerwig and his wife also a professional musician, own and play five Bohr lutes. They value them for their "openness" and their possession of a "certain soul."

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Five years ago Bohr made the big decision to become a professional lutemaker. He quit his by then tenured teaching job (his wife Christina kept hers). In the mornings he now takes care of three-year-old Jorn and one-year-old Jutta. (Both children already treat lutes with care.) In the afternoons he builds lutes in his converted garage to his heart's content. He has just finished a replica of a 1599 instrument that he has been working on for three months -- and he's clearly very happy he made the leap.

There are no major surprises any more, Bohr says. All his 2500-6000 Deutshe mark ($1250-3000) lutes are quality instruments, and he knows they're going to be good as he makes them. By now he has basically worked out what he thinks are the best ratios of millimeter-fine fir and maple thicknesses and the height of the strings (low for ease of playing but not so low as to induce vibrations from accidental contact with frets).

What does remain unpredictable is Bohr's own continuous development, which now comes in such small increments that it is hardly appreciable to others. Bohr notices it, however, and is gratified.

What remains in suspense too until the first gavotte sounds out after the day-long drying of a completed instrument is the exact timbre of each new lute. This, Bohr explains, depends on imponderables such as an especially favorable marriage of woods. This varies with each individual lute; even identical instruments have differences. These differences may be very small, Bohr notes, but "for musicians they are very important. . . . They can make one lute twice as beloved as another."

And that, of course, is the aim of a Bohr lute.

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