Joerg and Steffi Koplin have come a long way from East Germany – they now make and repair violins and cellos at a workshop in the back streets of York, writes Julian Cole.
It’s an upstairs, downstairs life for Joerg and Steffi Koplin. They make and restore violins and cellos on one floor, and do their living on the next. Koplin Violins is tucked between two terrace streets not far from the Barbican Centre in York. After wandering along a lane, the visitor enters the premises through a metal gate into a small courtyard. Beyond that lies the door to the shop and workshop.
Steffi is 38 and was born in East Berlin. Although she knows how to make violins and cellos, she specialises instead in restoring instruments, working in a small studio facing the courtyard. A note above the door says that only Steffi is allowed in here, but she lets me in to see the tools neatly lined up on the wall, including old butter knives to prise the violins apart, and the workbench where sickly instruments come to be mended.
The “injured” arrive after assorted mishaps. “Accidents, they drop them, weather, temperatures, shrinking frets or you get old instruments that have been in the loft for ages,” says Steffi. Can she always rescue these casualties?
“I’ve never had one that you couldn’t. It’s just a matter of money, obviously, but yeah, it’s wood so you can put everything back together.”
Next to her studio is the shop, where violins and cellos for sale line the walls. The floor here is an intricate pattern of wooden slats originally from a church, mixed with small squares of hardwood cut out by Joerg, and arranged in a striking parquet pattern.
Joerg was born in the small East German town of Anklam, near the Baltic coast, where he spent his childhood working with wood or engines in his father’s workshop. Later, he ran a parquet flooring business, but didn’t fancy being on his knees at the age of 50. He is a year older than that now and sits down to make instruments and help Steffi with the restoration.
Beyond the shop is the larger workshop, where Joerg and a colleague busy themselves. This is where Joerg makes cellos and violins and re-hairs bows too, using horsehair from as far away as Mongolia, Canada and sometimes Siberia.
His workbench looks out into one of the alleyways that hem in this delightful building. A violin made by Joerg costs around £7,000 while a cello will set you back between £12,000 and £15,000. How long does it take to make a cello?
“Now that’s a good question, and the next question will be how much does the material cost, and oh – you’ve got a good income and you should be loaded,” says Joerg, dryly. “It takes approximately two months, but it takes much longer because I have to help with the repairs, and there’s so much to do, and then the bows, and the varnishing.”
However long it takes, something miraculous happens: inanimate wood is fashioned into an instrument capable of producing the most beautiful sounds. And the wood is crucial.
“You always use spruce for the front,” says Joerg. “Spruce is just the best sound quality and it is light for the vibrations. It’s been used for hundreds of years. That’s really important. But for the rest of the instrument you could use basically every hardwood. It has to be seasoned. Maple is still the most common hardwood.”
Joerg brings out his latest cello, a beautiful piece, almost finished and just needing the shine taking out of the varnish. The front is made of spruce and the back is formed from a single slat of maple.
This cello will go into the shop soon. “Already there is someone who wants to play it, and somebody else,” Joerg says.
The Koplins, who came to York in 2010, live upstairs in an apartment that feels like something from Channel 4’s Grand Designs programme, with skylights in the ceiling.
“I did all this myself,” says Joerg, bringing over the coffee as we sit in the kitchen. “Downstairs was basically a recording studio and we knocked everything out. Bare walls, bare ceilings – we’ve done everything ourselves.”
“He’s a genius,” Steffi whispers to me in a delighted giggle.
At the table, Joerg tells how their story began. “We met in Berlin and she was already a violin-maker and then I thought: ‘Oh that’s a good idea, working with wood’.”
Joerg came to the UK to the violin-making school in Newark, studying for three years.
By that stage, Steffi had already studied violin-making at Cremona in Italy for three years, later adding another two years at Newark. She further honed her skills working at violin shops throughout Europe.
Before all this, Steffi was set on a life as a classical violinist and, as a talented child, came second in the Jugend Musiziert competition for young musicians. She still plays and is a violinist with the Academy of St Olave’s, the chamber orchestra led by Alan George, of the Fitzwilliam Quartet, whose bow is downstairs on Joerg’s workbench, awaiting new horse hairs.
Joerg leaves the music to Steffi, saying: “I can’t play an instrument but I am good with my hands.”
“But he’s musical still,” says Steffi.
“Yes, I am. I can hear the sound and the pitch and everything.”
And he did have double-bass lessons for a while. “I can pluck it a bit. I wouldn’t say I can play the double bass because I cannot.”
“He’s too perfectionist,” says Steffi.
“No, I’m just too lazy – that’s why.”
Building work and running the business impeded his practice, and when he returned from a lesson with what he had learned, Steffi would take the double bass and show him how to do it properly, and that put him off.
As they talk a teasing intimacy animates this couple. At one point, Steffi ribs Joerg about his language skills when they first arrived on these shores.
“I wouldn’t say not a word, but it was bad,” Joerg says. “And I felt stupid.”
“It was funny,” Steffi chips in.
“OK it was maybe funny for you and a few others, but for me it was just a pain.”
Joerg’s English seems good now, and the couple love living in York, a city full of music, and they often repair instruments belonging to people they know. Their life is very different to the old ways of East Germany. While no one would wish to return to the now banished state-controlled era, Joerg says there were advantages.
“You would know all your neighbours. If you had a problem you would go to your neighbour. It was not easy to get parts for your car so you had to know somebody. So, we could improvise loads. After the Wall came down, everybody looks and says: ‘What have I got – how can I have more? Do I have a nice car?’”
Back in the studio downstairs, I ask Joerg if he would recognise one of his violins if it was being played in a concert.
“Oh yes, but there aren’t that many around because I’m not doing it over 30 or 40 or 50 years. But I’d go, oh yes, I know this one.”
And Steffi always recognises the cello played by Susan Monks, principal cellist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, on the Last Night of the Proms.
“She plays my cello,” Steffi says. “You know that big cello solo when everybody starts crying? That’s my cello.”
Koplins Violins deal in violins as well as making them, and will offer advice and evaluation on instruments. koplinviolins.co.uk