• James Armstrong

Tuning up a recreation of Samuel de Champlain’s fiddle


PHOTO BY JAMES ARMSTRONG

A reconstructed fiddle created by Gary Dover (left) harking back to voyageur days of the area came to life in the hands of Becky Fletcher.

Saint-Lazare resident Becky Fletcher brought a replica of a fiddle from the time of Samuel de Champlain to life by playing it Monday, June 18.

“I’m gobsmacked,” said its builder Gary Dover of Vaudreuil-Dorion upon hearing it for the first time. “It has a totally different voice with a real sense of lament to it. It’s an emotional experience,” he added.

Fletcher, a classically trained violinist and fiddler said that playing it was a fascinating experience. “It’s heavier than a violin or modern fiddle – good for developing biceps,” she said with a smile. With a body carved from a single piece of basswood and a top cut from eastern white cedar, the instrument is longer, deeper wider and heavier than any modern classical violin or fiddle.

Champlain and his fiddle

Dover began his Champlain’s fiddle project two years ago as a proposal to have the fiddle become Canada’s national musical instrument.

“It arrived here with Champlain, the founder of New France, in the early 1600s,” said Dover pointing out that the fiddle has played a role in the development of the country and can be found in its many cultures. According to Dover, the fiddle would have travelled in the canoes of the voyageurs as they embarked on their long journeys into wilderness in search of furs. “It had to be a sturdy instrument to withstand the trip,” he noted.

History of Champlain’s fiddle

Among his many sources, Dover found a painting created by 19th Century Canadian artist Charles William Jefferies titled ‘The Order of Good Cheer.’ The order was created during the winter of 1606-1607 to keep up the spirits of Port Royal colonists.

“The fiddle in this image is an historically accurate French medieval vielle,” said Dover noting that Jefferies was known for researching his subject matter in great detail. As Dover described it, the fiddle predates the modern violin. Dover’s reconstruction of Champlain’s fiddle has five strings as opposed to the four-stringed violin. The fifth string wasn’t meant to be played with the bow but was rhythmically plucked or used as a drone.

“It would have been made with the tools of the day,” he said. “They had the wood, the tools and the time during the winter to make a fiddle. We have the richest fiddle tradition in the world,” said Drover.

PHOTO BY JAMES ARMSTRONG The fiddle amongst the many handcrafted musical instruments in Gary Dover's workshop.

Minor adjustments

Once Dover had constructed the reproduction of Champlain’s fiddle, it was time to put it into the capable hands of a fiddle player. That was when Fletcher was invited to participate.

“It takes someone like Becky to tell me what needs to be adjusted,” said Dover. Tuning the instrument to modern standards proved to be a problem. With four strings in place and the fifth not yet installed, the stress of the combined tension resulted in a tuning much lower than a modern fiddle. “This is experimental archeology. We are recreating it as best we can,” said Dover.

Live demonstration

Once some of the issues regarding loose pegs were resolved and the fiddle was in tune, Fletcher played a haunting rendition of a Scottish air, Da Slockit Light followed by a rousing Saint Ann’s Reel.

“It’s a very light sound,” she said, “I was expecting it to sound like a violin.” She said the instrument required experimenting with different techniques such as how to hold the instrument, play the not-yet-installed fifth string and deal with bowing issues. Dover had created a bridge that had less of an arc than that of a modern fiddle. The bridge carries the strings above the fingerboard to the tail of the instrument where they are anchored. Fletcher soon discovered the bridge arc needed to be increased to avoid inadvertently playing double notes. Dover agreed to changes inviting Fletcher for a return engagement.

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