Science, rebellion and harpsichords: Visiting master instrument maker Matthias Kramer in Berlin
Updated: Mar 4, 2021
Hyperlocrian.com paid a visit to multi-award winning master harpsichord instrument maker Matthias Kramer in his workshop in Berlin - and spoke with him about his remarkable career, his love of research and science, and the special nature of his instruments.
Scientist, perfectionist, rebel among instrument makers: These three characteristics roughly describe the work ethos of renowned master harpsichord maker Matthias Kramer. The urge to research lies in Kramer's DNA. His parents were scientists at the Max Planck Institute, and the family lived in a house with Nobel Prize winner for medicine, Konrad Lorenz.
The fact that Kramer came to harpsichord building is owed to two factors: his mother's love of music and his father's thirst for research. "My mother wanted a harpsichord, but in the eyes of my father, the option if buying was one was too boring. There was brief consideration of getting a kit and building the instrument after that, but he didn't like that either. Since we had access to the workshops at the institute, we said, 'Then we'll build it ourselves.' That was part of my upbringing, you could say. My fathered offered it to me to do something like that with him - and I found it incredibly exciting. So we built it together."
Kramer, then about twelve years old, and his father learned harpsichord building virtually from scratch: "We knew nothing about it. We only had a picture of a harpsichord, and we knew what such an instrument sounded like. But we didn't know how it worked. We had no idea about the mechanics. As physicists, the rest is not that difficult, you can figure it out somehow, the thing with the strings and string lengths. It wasn't that complicated."
After a year, the instrument was finally finished. I ask him if he can remember the moment when his father and he finished the instrument. "Not really," he replies. "The journey was much more interesting to me than the destination. Figuring out how it works and then building that: That was exciting." In any case, after this project it was clear to Kramer, what he wanted to do in his professional live.
Apprenticeship and rebellion
What followed was a total of four years as an apprentice in two German companies. "I was incredibly dedicated, I enjoyed it a lot. But to be honest I didn't learn anything there regarding building harpsichords. What I learnt was how to handle the tools“, Kramer says of his apprenticeship. "I have to be clear about that: there wasn't much going on in terms of harpsichord building." The young apprentice was dissatisfied - and pushed himself out of the company to move on to another firm.
"What was great was that I came into the second company after two and a half years of apprenticeship and there was a piece of paper on my workstation that said, 'Build this harpsichord.' That's all it said. That was the only instruction I got. That's when I quickly learned to organize myself and build harpsichords myself. I'm pretty grateful to both companies for that: For one I learned to be a perfect craftsman - and secondly I learned to work independently. But the harpsichord building I taught myself."
With this move, however, Kramer did not necessarily make himself popular with the guild of harpsichord builders. This became apparent during his master craftsman's examination, where he initially failed because of one subject due to pressure from his colleagues. This did not stop his career.
Shortly thereafter, he was already managing one of the largest companies in Germany, in which several master instrument makers were his employees. Because this had a stale aftertaste according to the guild, they tried to persuade Kramer to take the master craftsman's examination again. He refused at first, but then agreed - and provoked the commission by handing in blank sheets of paper. "I allowed myself this fun. I could afford it," he says. He was awarded the master's title anyway.
Life and work in Berlin
In the meantime, Matthias Kramer has settled in Berlin, via a detour to Hamburg, and has long been highly successful internationally. One of his workshops (his main one) is in the Prenzlauer Berg area of Berlin, A second one, where the large machines are stored and operated, is also located in the German capital. Soon he plans to move his workshops.
What does his daily routine as a master instrument maker look like? "It's simple: I go to the workshop in the morning and come home again in the evening, seven days a week. I simply enjoy it. I'm here from early in the morning until late at night." Kramer usually works on several orders at the same time - that's in the nature of things: "An instrument like this also requires a rest period. First you prepare the wood, which then has to rest for a whole day. Then you can assemble the encasing. The encasing has to sit around for a year, so the wood can settle. Then you can continue working on it. In the meantime you can build a keyboard, that has nothing to do with it. But the body should stand for a few months, preferably a year. And that's exactly how I do it."
In the past, the order time for a harpsichord was about three to four years, but sometimes the construction could take a whole decade or longer. Who are the regular customers are, I ask him. "It varies. With me, it's almost exclusively professional musicians who became aware of me through word of mouth. I never went to exhibitions, I didn't even have a website until last week. I didn't have a price list, not even pictures of my instruments. It was never necessary. There were always more than enough orders."
What makes his instruments so special
What is it that makes his harpsichords so special? "Probably it's the fact that I understood the physics of the instrument. It simply makes them sound better," he explains. "They are more powerful and freer in tone. I also use a special wood. That's not a new story, it's historically justifiable. It's a sound enhancement of the soundboard, in which I treat the wood in a way that was described in earlier sources. I have roughly replicated this apparatus that they had at that time, and I have tempered the wood in this way. This can also be clearly verified and measured. The sound conductivity of the wood actually improves by 30 percent in the case of poor wood, and by ten to 15 percent in the case of high quality wood. That's quite an achievement when the soundboard wood, which produces the sound and emits it to the environment, gets so much better. That's an open secret."
Kramer, unlike many of his colleagues, doesn't see the harpsichord as a merely historic object belonging in a museum. His focus lies on unusual 16-foot instruments - and again, here his love of scientific research becomes evident: "There's a sales ad from 1750 that describes what registers it had, what it roughly looked like, and who had built it. So I took those blueprints, looked at how it was made, and then constructed the 16-footer in this spirit. Because there are no originals, it's not a copy, it's a free reconstruction."
Who is actually more conservative, harpsichord builders or harpsichordists? "That's a question I've been asking myself for a long time. I suspect that harpsichord builders are more conservative than harpsichordists."
He also shows me his masterpiece, which he had been working on since the late 1990s: a 16-foot harpsichord that had been completed for some time. Unfortunately, the buyer backed out due to a Corona bankruptcy. It's a fabulously beautiful instrument with a rich, voluminous sound and plenty of tonal shaping possibilities.
At the end of my visit, we talk about a project close to the heart of the master instrument maker: the so-called "Opera 4.0" by Italian conductor Giuliana Retali, in which he is involved as producer and organizer. The goal, in a nutshell: To revolutionize opera with a focus on more understandable language and make it more appealing for a wider audience. Two performances in which Kramer has been involved have been very warmly received: Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro" in 2017 on Mallorca and Rossini's "Il Barbiere di Siviglia," which was performed first on Mallorca and then at Berlin's Admiralspalast in 2019.
More information about Matthias Kramer can be found on his website www.cembalo.de.
If you want to know more about Opera 4.0, please visit the website www.oper4-0.com.