Monday, September 29, 2014

A Chat with Henner Harders, Builder of Viols

Henner Harders is the mystery luthier on the cover of Catacoustic’s season brochure. He is a viol maker in Germany and created Annalisa’s beautiful lirone.

How did you become interested in building viols and historical string instruments? Did you build violins and cellos first?

I grew up in a musical family together with two brothers and two sisters. My mum taught all of us and the neighbors kids recorder. My father was playing the cello and double bass. He got interested in this mysterious instrument called viola da gamba because the cello parts he played were often originally meant to be played on a viola da gamba. Being a Professor for crafts in the university of Bremen, his interest in the instrument made him take part in Fidel making courses. After a few years and after having made quite a few and also after having started making his own versions of Viola da gambas he started giving the courses himself. At the same time, he started playing the instruments, and our
whole family started playing them. These instruments had steel strings and fine tuners;
later on, when most of us got proper viol lessons, they were changed to gut strings. So, we had my mum and dad building these instruments as a hobby, and we had a well-equipped woodworking workshop. Us kids spent a lot of our free time in the workshop using the fretsaw and cutting out lots of things of plywood.

Making a viola da gamba is unusual enough. How did you become interested in making a lirone?

One of my first customers asked me to make her a lirone, so I went to the museum in Leipzig and measured the 2 existing instruments they have and the left overs of a destroyed original lirone. Based on these, I made my first lirone, which was 20 years ago. Over the years I kept changing little details to improve the instrument. I like the sound of it. It sounds more like a keyboard or like a whole consort with its clear and very carrying sound.

Do you model your instruments on historical examples? If so, how do you get your detailed information to craft the instruments? Paintings? Museums?

My models are usually based on instruments I have measured myself in museums or private collections or on detailed drawings. I may change things to accommodate the customers’ requirements.

You live in a small village that is quite secluded from city life. Is this an inspiration for you? What are the pluses and minuses of this small-town country life?

I grew up in the countryside and always liked it a lot. I work from home, and as my customers come from all over the world, I don't depend on having a shop and I can concentrate on the making of new instruments. I really enjoy the peacefulness of living in our small village of about 120 inhabitants. The downside is that one has to do a lot more driving to get the kids to their music lessons or school and that it is more difficult to find other musicians locally which share the same interests.

You are a team with your talented wife Susanne Küster, who is an in-demand scroll carver for many instrument makers throughout the world. Does she carve the scrolls for all of your instruments? How does your partnership work? Is this how you met?

A Susanne Kuster original
Yes, she does do all the carving jobs on my instruments, which is a privilege. I prepare the pegbox and after having found out what the customer would like, she makes a sketch and either she or I cut out the outline. Susanne was trained in the same carving school as my little sister, she was just a year above her and moved to Bremen and was looking for work. This is how we first met. After she had done some carving jobs for me, she also started making instruments and decided to learn violin making properly in the violin making school in Newark / England.

Do you play the viol? How did you learn about historical instrument making and repair?

I started playing the viol at the age of 7 and had proper lessons from 9 - 12 until my teacher moved away. Later on I had cello lessons, but after leaving school came back to playing the viol. I have had lessons with a pupil of Wieland Kuijken while we were living in Viersen before we moved to our own place in the former east of Germany. I was trained to make viols at the London College of Furniture back in 1986 for 4 years, where I visited the early fretted instruments workshop. When Susanne went to Newark, I followed her and also enrolled in the violinmaking course while still making my own instruments. At the same time I started working for Dietrich Kessler in London 2 days a week making viols. This was a very inspiring time for me, as he had seen so many old viols and had some fantastic old viols himself, which I could look at while making a copy of them.

How many instruments have you made? What is your dream project in instrument building? What are your favorite projects?

Henner Harders, the day Annalisa took delivery
So far I have made about 80 instruments. Before I started building viols, I was making electric basses. I do not really have a dream project, as long as I always have instruments on order, I am happy. It is always exciting to find out what exactly the customers want from their instrument. Depending on the kind of repertoire they want to play, on their ideals of sound and possibly with some individual decoration or carving. I find it very helpful to be able to play the instrument myself, which gives me a good idea of how the set up could be optimized to aim for best playability and response.

More information about Henner’s instruments, along with his contact information can be found at his website at

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