WOODWORKER OCTOBER 1991, pages 1026 & 1027 by Zachary Taylor
Many makers of musical instruments cannot play their own creations. However Zach Taylor has met a host of musicians who make instruments, and now, in the first of an occasional series on such craftspeople, he meets Christophe Toussaint who makes the Épinette des Vosges.
Christophe Toussaint was born in 1959, in Gérardmer in the Vosges. He trained as a cabinet and instrument maker, and took from his grand-father Marcel Gaspard, who was the last representative of the tradition of épinette making in the country of Gérardmer. A professionnal instrument maker since 1978, he specialised in making épinette des Vosges, both copies of traditional instruments, and new creations, aimed at teaching. He completed his training (maîtrise) in 1990 and was awarded the « Prix lorrain à l’innovation » in 1993. He also runs courses for instrument making and playing, both in schools and in his own workshop.In 1989, he obtained a State diploma in traditional music teaching (épinette option), and works as a teacher in music schools in his region. He plays in concerts in France and abroad. He too, uses his own instruments.
The term ‘luthier’, acceptably pronounced in either its French, or, English form, is now accepted universaily to mean ‘maker of musical instruments’. Originally, it meant one who made, exclusively, the lute, which comes from the arabic ‘al’ud’, meaning literally ‘the Wood’.
Despite a fairly natural assumption that instrument makers are likely to play the instruments that they make, this is hardly ever the case. The skills needed for using tools to fashion wood, after all, have nothing what so ever to do with music, nor, vice-versa.
I will admit, however, that the basic knowledge of how the musical instrument functions is very desirable, and in my own case it is fundamental, since I was a professional player before I made my first guitar.
The group of people that are both luthier-musicians is therefore very interesting with two important facets of involvement in the art of music-making; at once independent, yet interdependent. My good fortune has been to know several of this endangered species, most of them living in out-of-the-way, out-of-the-limelight, situations, and opening the portals of their lives very little, and very rarely.
If you are seized with the urge to acquire an Épinette des Vosges, or indeed if you only require to know what on earth it is, the chances are that you will need to devote some time to research.
Folk-musicians, confronted with this musical instrument for the first time, might be forgiven for calling it a type of Appalachian dulcimer, but at this point we need some terminological clarification.
When looking into the family of instruments which are called ‘dulcimer’, that is the variety that is plucked, rather than hammered, we discover that it is not a dulcimer at all. But by definition, musical instruments which have:
a fretted fingerboard;
are rested across the lap or on a table; are part of the zither family.They are also the basis of early keyboard instruments, the spinet for instance. And that is the clue to the épinette, (French for ‘spinet’) and of course the rest of the nomenclature tells us that its origins are in the Vosges, the range of mountains in the east of France.
Imagine it is Springtime. Having ambled through beautiful Picardy and sampled true champagne on your way to Switzerland, let’s hope you have time to visit Gérardmer, an attractive resort with a huge lake, surrounded by pretty, tree-clad mountains.
En route, from the village of Sapois, look out for a hand-written sign to the workshop of the luthier Christophe Toussaint, one of the very few makers of the Épinette des Vosges.
I found him sitting in the Spring sunshine, playing with his children, with the air of relaxed bonhomie, typical of those who have found contentment in a craft.
Christophe has created a life-style that many might envy, in that he is master of the necessary to make his instruments, with his well-equipped workshop attached to his home, and surrounded by all the raw materials he could ever want. Add to this, his art in playing and composing for the Épinette des Vosges, coupled with tuition given to young players, and you have a remarkable example of te true music-maker!
A typical Épinette des Vosges is a slender rectangular box about 660 cm in length; standing some 6Omm high and about 75mm wide (26″ X 2 3/8″ X 2 15/16″). It has six strings running along the top, which serves as both the soundboard and fretboard. Wire frets are let into the top (beneath the first three strings), and arranged to play a diatonic scale, that is, a white-note scale without sharps. These three strings may be ‘stopped’ by either pressing down with the fingers of the left hand; or by using a small stick about as big as a pencil. The right hand then strums all six strings creating a melodic effect from the higher, stopped, strings and a rhythmic drone from the lower pitched adjacent strings which are unstopped, or, ‘open’. Normally, strings that play the tune are called the Chanterelles, and those that play the accompanying drone, the Bourdons. This is so for most stringed instruments which have the facility to play a melodic line with accompaniment.
There are many variations on this arrangement of strings and fretting. Some of the possibilities for additional frets to increase the chromatic range, with sharps and flats, have been developed by Christophe. He is a man alert to the possibilities of improvement, but sensitive to traditional confines in what is an essentially folkloric element.
Let us dwell for a moment on the frets. They are made from plain round brass wire, and laid across the fingerboard with each end tucked into holes in the fingerboard, pulled through and turned over to keep the fret flat and secure. Simple and effective.
Christophe Toussaint learned to work wood as a student of his grandfater who was a furniture-maker, and who obviously laid down for his grandson some fine fundamental techniques and, no doubt, some inspiration as his master. It ought not to come as a surprise that conversion from furniture-making to musical instruments is a fairly natural affair. There are many instruments which are very uncomplicated in terms of acoustic science, and very accessible to cabinetmaking or joinery. They may be excellent as vehicles for fine craftsmanship and opportunities for individual expressions of design and technology.
Take for instance some of the ideas incorporated into the epinettes from Christophe. He has a student model, which has a musical stave printed at the end of the instrument, with the hitch-pins, to which the strings are attached, placed so that they are located on the printed slave relevant to the recommended string-pitch. This means that if you are unsure of the tuning you may refer to the illustration as a permanent rnemory-jogger.
There are others with raised, Braille notation on the fingerboard to make this delightful instrument readily playable by blind musicians.
As mentioned above, materials for the luthier are plentiful and various. In keeping with all stringed instruments there is the need for spruce or similar straight-grained softwood, to make a responsive soundboard and the quality of the mountain-grown, consistent, narrow-grained spruce from this area is excellent. There is also cherry and sycamore, for the backs and sides, where a strong, reflective contribution is required. Walnut is available for the head of the instrument which carries the tuning gear, and holly forte bridge which conveys the vibrations of the strings to the soundboard.
The excellent finish on all the instruments I saw in the small showroom next to the workshop, was enhanced by a transparent cellulose varnish, not the sticky-looking kind, but a satin type, smooth to the touch.
The tuning gear is of the conventional guitar variety, with steel rollers around which the metal strings are wound for adjustment to pitch.
In addition to the Épinette des Vosges, Christophe also makes the langleik, and Appalachian dulcimer, near-relatives in the same family, and some varieties of harp. He believes in encouraging others to create their own music and their own instruments and to further their developments, produces books of music and one on making the épinette. He also takes students in his workshop for those who need the personal attention of the master.
As I took my last look at the attractive setting of the Toussaint home with its ground floor workshop, cradled by the green-mantled mountains, and blessed peace, I remembered the saying from a lecture by Ernerson: « If a man write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbour, though he build his house in the forest, the world will beat a footpath to his door. »
Lucky for Christophe Toussaint that he is not sermonising or making mousetraps, or that quiet path to his door would soon need Tarmac.