Stefan-Peter Greiner on individuality in violin making

Greiner in workshop

For Stefan-Peter Greiner, instrument making is not about copying; it’s about individuality, experimentation and intuition. In conversation with Pauline Harding, the German luthier discusses his ideas on sound adjustment, ‘Stradivari frequencies’ and creating the ideal working environment

There is much evidence to support the creative merits of the garden shed – sculptor Barbara Hepworth, composer Benjamin Britten, authors Virginia Woolf and Roald Dahl and many more have blossomed in such a setting. As I sit in the glass-fronted garden workshop – a hi-tech shed of sorts – of luthier Stefan-Peter Greiner (b.1966), looking over his workbench at his lawn and house in Hampstead, London, I can understand why. Tools and partially completed instruments surround me, Mendelssohn’s piano trios hum gently from a sound system, and I have an overwhelming urge to get to work. 

Greiner’s abode is deliberately secluded, he tells me: not long ago he was based in a bustling workshop in Bonn, where increasing numbers of visitors were making it difficult for him to focus. ‘From the commercial side it was interesting,’ he says, ‘but I felt after a while that I wasn’t doing anything by myself. Now I work in my garden studio, and I meet my clients at J.&A. Beare.’ All in all, it is a far more peaceful and productive set-up – though he remains busy, with a waiting list of five years to buy one of his instruments through private sale. Current owners of his wares include members of the Alban Berg Quartet, cellist Frans Helmerson, violinists Kyung Wha Chung, Christian Tetzlaff, Leonidas Kavakos and Antje Weithaas, and violist Kim Kashkashian.

Success with modern instruments is no mean feat in a sphere with a natural bent for antiques, and it is something that Greiner has accomplished through years of determination. He was 14 years old when he took his first steps in lutherie, with the help of a local carpenter and a violin maker in his home town of Kirchheimbolanden, Germany. Proud of his first creation, a violin, he took it to school orchestra and used it in rehearsals. Before long the conductor told him that he could play a solo in the next concert, but on one condition: that he did not play it on that. ‘It was the worst thing he could say to me,’ says Greiner. ‘He told me I could only play if I used a “real” fiddle. That experience hurt me very deeply, and it gave me so much energy to prove that I could do better.’ Later rejected by the highly competitive Mittenwald Instrument Making School when he applied in his mid-teens, he eventually found himself an apprenticeship with a Swedish maker in Bonn when he was 21. ‘He had a very strong idea of what a good instrument should look like,’ says Greiner. ‘He was not able to make one, but he was very good at criticising me. That was important.’

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