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Traditional Craftsmanship: Salzburg’s Master Violinmaker

The violin is an important component of any orchestra. It is practically impossible to imagine classical European music without it. And probably why “playing first fiddle” is such a common turn of phrase. Peter Svatek is someone who learned the traditional violinmaker’s craft from the ground up. We were lucky enough to peek over his shoulder in his workshop in the Andräviertel quarter of Salzburg.

From his workbench, he has a view of Hohensalzburg Fortress that might, in any other circumstances, turn you green with envy. But not in this case. Peter Svatek talks about his profession with such passion and devotion, you cannot but grant him this beautiful workshop in the center of Salzburg from the bottom of your heart. Actually, he found his calling relatively late in life, recounts Peter Svatek. He only began learning the ancient, traditional craft of violinmaking when he was 28 years old. Since then, he has been building and restoring by hand some genuine masterpieces – which he continues to do, even after many decades, with an absolute love for his profession. Incidentally, the modern violin or fiddle was first created in the 16th century, or so we learn, in the country of its birth, Italy. Peter Svatek’s expertise and many years of experience are prized by customers and violin aficionados from around the world. Fiddle owners from Ireland and South Africa have turned to him, while even visitors from Abu Dhabi left Salzburg with a Peter Svatek violin in their luggage.

Violinmaking is a true craft. What are some of the essentials aspects?

Peter Svatek: The absolute foundation, of course, is having a love for this profession. In my opinion, that applies to practically every violinmaker I know of. Violinmaking is both craft and art – and you learn it, because it intrigues you. Aside from a love for the profession, of course, exceptional manual skills are vital, along with the ability to work very precisely and have a great interest in your materials. In my case, it is also important to like dealing with people. Customers regularly stop by my workshop – when that happens, I set the instrument I am currently working on to the side and provide the customer with the best advice I can. And that’s something I enjoy doing.

You have had your own business in Salzburg since 1988. What are some of the advantages of being based here in Salzburg?

Peter Svatek: Well, there are several aspects. On the one hand, Salzburg is world-famous for its culture. Music is held in high esteem here, including by the locals. On the other, in the Mozarteum University we have a world-famous educational institution, while Musikum Salzburg is an outstanding music school with dedicated leadership and excellent teachers. I also find the size of Salzburg ideal – not too big and not too small.

When it comes to materials: Do you have a favorite wood?

Peter Svatek: The belly, in other words the top part of the instrument, is always made from spruce, while the back is generally maple – both of which are woods native to Austria. Only the tuning pegs are made of exotic ebony. I generally like working with wood – I think being able to relate to the wood personally is important for violinmakers. You have to want to touch and smell it.

What advice do you have for someone wanting to buy a violin?

Peter Svatek: You should take time making your decision. And I give my customers all the time they need, too. I never sell a violin spur-of-the-moment, so to speak. Normally, I advise them to take the instrument home with them and to play it in the setting, and with the acoustics they are accustomed to – that is something very individual and personal. Then there is the question of budget, of course. If you have to define your limits. That said, if someone goes to a violinmaker, they are generally looking for a certain level of quality. Very often, parents come because they want to have a high-quality violin for their children. I then lay out a selection of instruments, and the aspiring player can give them all a “test drive”.

In your eyes, what makes the city of Salzburg such a good place to live?

Peter Svatek: I have the sense that, the more I see in my life and the more I travel around, the more I appreciate being able to live here in Salzburg. I moved with my family to the United States in 1987, but it didn’t turn out to be what we expected. So, on the advice of my former mentor in Stuttgart, I came to Salzburg. And that was a very good decision. I love to get out into nature, and here we are blessed to live in such a beautiful area – with lakes to the north and mountains to the south. Salzburg also gives me plenty of fantastic opportunities to ride my bicycle or motorbike, both of which I love to do. And everything is so close by! I can pretty much get anywhere I want to be within 15 minutes. And I can even ride my bike to go skiing – on the Untersberg. Well, maybe not anymore. But I used to! (laughs)