Instrument making is a wonderful profession, says “father” of the new giant cimbalom

Some days ago, the new cimbalom was delivered to the building of Müpa Budapest, made by Ákos Nagy on the request of the institution. The 54-year-old master is the most well-known cimbalom maker of Hungary, although, as he points out, there aren’t as many people of his profession in the country as they should be. According to him, a cimbalom master can have a predictable life with a secure income. We were talking to Ákos Nagy about his newest instrument and his life as a cimbalom maker.

Was it a big challenge to make a cimbalom for the Müpa?

It was as much of an honour as a challenge. I took a good care of fitting the space, so that it looks good on the stage. Audience can rightfully expect to be served visually just as much as audibly at a concert. I tried my best to “dream” a cimbalom that fits Müpa’s concert hall. In my workshop there are only special orders, all instruments are designed for the individual customer. I never work on a series, that’s why I have a full schedule for many months in advance. This cimbalom made for Müpa has been the biggest, it has a range of four and three-fourth octave, it is a true concert instrument. I make smaller ones both in size and range, but in an internationally renowned institution like the Müpa, the best possible solution was needed.

The master’s name. (c) Gábor Kotschy/Müpa

What are the materials, how delicate are they?

This instrument is very delicate. It is mostly made of wood and includes 133 threads of stretched strings. The amount of tension is determined in kilograms, and this instrument has a tension of 12 tons, which is an enormous number. This is the reason why cimbaloms are relatively short-lived instruments, they last for 80 to 100 years. The constant tension deforms, warps, tears, cracks, even despite a metal brace on the inside. So we have to use the best materials, not only for the sake of the sound but of the lifespan. A cimbalom is much weaker than a piano. Anyway, in the end of the 1800s it was called “the Hungarian piano”, it was extremely popular, an inevitable tool in bourgeois salons, but then times changed, and nowadays it’s a big feast if a new cimbalom finds its great place like this.

Do you follow the future life of your works?

Yes, as much as I can. Most musicians know us well, our new instruments are discussed in the community. Cimbaloms are quite expensive so they are usually not sold. It is an important moment in a musician’s life when he gets his or her first cimbalom. Then they get back to my workshop for the obligatory maintenance and the 10-15-yearly renovation.

(c) Gábor Kotschy/Müpa

The pandemic has been very hard in the music industry. How do you feel the effects of that?

I’m very lucky for having enough requests for the upcoming time. I only had to change the scheduling because some musicians unfortunately still won’t need the instrument for a while.

Do you see any chance for more young people deciding to live from instrument making?

There is an instrument-maker school in Budapest with many possibilities. The cimbalom class has been empty since 2007. That hurts a lot. I don’t find it normal that there are only a few of us. Maybe it’s because we don’t advertise ourselves enough, even though this is a wonderful profession. We take natural materials and create something that can entertain millions of people, either in a street or in a concert hall. This might not be that exciting for the newest generation, though. They prefer the virtual world, and instrument making is a very material world. I always emphasize in discussions how much I love my job. Instrument making gives you such predictability and security that only few professions are able to these days.

Interview: Zsolt Várkonyi

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek