3. Bass Viol by Barak Norman, London, 1699

We had heard that a Rose gamba was available at W.E. Hill and Sons, the most famous string instrument dealers in London, who had been in business for over 100 years. (Sadly, they closed in 1992.) On one of our trips together in Europe we went to London to see it. When we arrived we were told that just the day before, a man who "buys old gambas, keeps them a few years and turns them in for another" had taken the Rose and turned in a Barak Norman. We were very disappointed about the Rose but decided to give the Barak Norman a try. We took it to a church near the Hills’ shop, and invited our friend, Lillian Nassau, the well-known New York dealer in Art Nouveau antiques, to come with us to observe how an instrument transaction works. We had started collecting Art Nouveau glass and furniture at about the same time that we had started finding the viols. Our travels usually combined both of those interests and we had such pleasure in meeting collectors, museum people, and dealers in both worlds of antiques. Lillian became not only an important mentor to us, but also a good friend. (On her seventy-fifth birthday, we surprised her in her shop on 57th Street in New York with a private concert. We played Sainte-Colombe duets for her on our French viols while surrounded by a hundred or so Tiffany lamps. It was an unforgettable experience for us all.) We had often watched Lillian closing a deal as we sat in her shop, so we thought it would be interesting for her to see how we decided to buy an instrument.

We had already heard several Barak Normans and thought this one was more beautiful than any of the others. It is slightly larger than most and we attributed the superior sound to that. Because the viol was in perfect playing condition and would not need the usual trouble, time, and money that a restoration always entailed, we paid a premium price for it.

The bill of sale for the Barak Norman. That was a lot of money then!

In the first cold weather of 1972 a small seam opened. We were new in Cleveland and I took the viol to a local repairman whom we didn’t know. He called the next day to tell us that he had not had his humidifier on and the instrument had opened up in many places including the back seam. I picked it up and indeed, the back seam was already 50 mm open. We called Simone Sacconi, the important string restorer at the Wurlitzer shop in New York who had worked on our first old viol. He said that the best method was to open it up loosely and let it rest for three years until it adjusted to the American climate. So much for the premium price! After seven years of discouragement we took it back over to England, and Michael Heale not only put it back together, but also put on a new neck, together with a beautifully inlaid fingerboard and tailpiece. He also replaced the damaged original back brace with a slightly thicker one. Although he did nice work, the viol never sounded quite as wonderful as it did in that first month we had it!

Kenneth Slowik and Alice Robbins playing Tobias Hume’s music for two on one viol: the Barak Norman. This feat was accomplished during one of our Oberlin Consort of Viols holiday get-togethers.



The table is made of three pieces of fine-grained pine with 15 to 6 growth rings per cm, the wider grain confined to the outer edges. The wedge-shaped central strip was probably bent and joined to solid outer blocks, and the whole then carved in the usual way. The soundholes are C shaped and surrounded by a single line of 16black-white-black purfling. The double edge purfling is black-white-black, and the two lines cross over at the corners to form two points. Below the end of the fingerboard is a four-branched tulip motif inlaid in black-white-black purfling, with the ground within the design cross-hatched with a knife so the varnish collects in the cuts and darkens those parts of the design. An unhatched circle in the center of the design bears the stamp Barak Norman Londini Fecit.
Extensive internal rebuilding was done in the Dolmetsch workshop in 1947.

The back is made of two pieces of English maple with medium flame angled slightly upward from the center joint. The double purfling crosses at the corners as on the table, and the inner line runs across the body above and below the fold, both lines turning down across the center joint to form a tulip. At the bottom block the two lines turn up to form a tulip of slightly different design. In the center of the back is the well-known purfled BN monogram. At the neck heel the purfling turns down to form two interlaced V’s, and a flower is carved between the V and the point of the heel.

The ribs are of straight, close flamed maple, with a border of double purfling framing a bold geometric design on each rib (cf. the 1600 Rose).

The neck appears to be pearwood and is surmounted by a composite pegbox consisting of an original Barak Norman back section, which carries an unusual downward trailing vine design, replacement cheeks with carving in the Norman style, and a separate antique head of a winged cherub, most likely not original. The boxwood pegs are by the Hills.

The modern marquetry fingerboard and tailpiece by Michael Heale are also in the style of Norman.

The varnish is a dark orange brown.

Body length   68.2
Body width
     upper bout 30.6
      center bout 23.0
      lower bout 37.5
Rib height  
      top block 8.3
     fold 12.3
      upper corners 12.5
      lower corners 12.6
      bottom block 12.4
String length 69.5

Labeled in ink 
            Barak Norman
            At the Basse viol
            in St. Paul’s Ally
            London Fecit

Bought in September, 1972 from William E. Hill & Sons, London. W.E. Hill and Sons prepared papers with the sale to us.

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Papers from W.E. Hill and Sons for the Barak Norman. Documentation from a prestigious firm such as this one is very important in the string instrument world. We were very happy to receive this.

Michael Heale sent us this information when he started the restoration of the Barak Norman after it had such a short time being playable in the USA. Perhaps his changing the back brace caused it to lose some of the special quality of sound it had when we first bought it.


Barak Norman is today the best known of all English viol makers, primarily due to the large number of his instruments that have survived, including more than 50 bass viols as well as lesser numbers of violins, violas, and cellos. In recent years it has been ascertained that he was born in 1651, but his family background remains unknown, perhaps French Hugenot but more likely English, and almost certainly not Jewish as some have suggested. In 1668, at the age of seventeen, he began a seven-year apprenticeship to William Hardin, a bailiff of the Weavers’ Company, but there is no evidence that he ever practiced, or even learned, that trade. Rather, he is likely to have used this arrangement simply as a way of gaining membership in one of the established livery companies, or trade guilds, which would give him the right to work within the limits of the City of London. While it is unknown from whom Norman learned how to build stringed instruments, a likely candidate is Richard Meares, a leading English maker of the previous generation whose work Norman’s earliest viols resemble.

In 1684 Norman married Mary Turner, and by 1690 had established his own shop near St. Paul’s Cathedral, probably at the corner where St. Paul’s Alley opened into St. Paul’s Churchyard (the address given on his labels changes from the former to the latter about 1710). This area was home to a number of other viol makers during the last third of the seventeenth century—including Thomas Cole, John Pitts, Edward Lewis, Francis Baker, and Richard Meares Jr.—and Norman would remain there for the rest of his life. In 1701 his first wife died and he married Sarah Watts, who herself died in 1702. The following year he took as his third wife Elizabeth Seale, with whom he had two daughters.

Around the turn of the century Norman’s business expanded significantly, adding instruments of the violin family to his output of viols. (The earliest extant violin bearing his name dates from 1704, though he may have made others earlier for sale by different London music shops, a practice we know he engaged in for viols during the 1690s.) While specific documentation is lacking, it was probably in 1705 that he took on as an apprentice the sixteen-year-old Nathaniel Cross, who continued to work for Norman after completing his training, leaving to set up his own shop only after Norman’s death in 1724. No viols are known bearing Cross’s own label—in fact, viol making in England virtually ceased after Norman’s death in 1724—but the existence of a bass labeled “Barak Norman and Nathaniel Cross ... fecit 1725” implies that he must have collaborated with his master’s widow, perhaps on a contract basis to complete instruments already in progress, during at least part of the six years that Elizabeth Norman continued to operate the business after her husband’s death.

As mentioned above, more than 50 bass viols (and two trebles) made by Norman still exist, outnumbering the legacy of all but two other viol makers, Joachim Tielke and Louis Guersan, both of whom are also represented in the Caldwell Collection. Those instruments that retain their labels date from 1689 to 1723, while nearly all of the others can be securely attributed based on the presence of “Barak Norman London Fecit” stamped on the table as part of its floral decoration, and/or because the instrument’s back bears an elaborate inlaid design that can be read—when viewed from either the treble or the bass side—as the maker’s initials, BN. In body length they vary widely, from 60 to 73 cm (with about half falling between 66 and 70 cm), and thus clearly were not made on a mold. Nor are there any clear points of division along this continuum that might serve to differentiate a group of division viols from their larger relative the consort bass, or from the smaller lyra bass; rather, each instrument was probably custom-made to the size that best suited its original owner.

Norman made two distinctive models of viol. One was highly ornamented, featuring a male carved head atop the pegbox and inlaid geometric patterns on the ribs, while a plainer model with an open scroll and without rib decoration usually had more modest ornaments on the back and front of the body. Either kind could be further enhanced with a fingerboard and tailpiece decorated with complex marquetry decoration of a very high quality, supplied by a subcontractor. The tables of Norman’s viols are typically made of three pieces of wood, in contrast both to the earlier English practice of five-piece stave construction and to the two-piece design used for instruments of the violin family and many viols as well. Half a dozen Norman basses are currently fitted with seven strings, but none of these setups is likely to be original.


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Christopher Simpson flourished in London in the middle of the seventeenth century. His tutor The Division Viol had two printings, one near the end of the Commonwealth in 1659 and the other during the Restoration in 1667. A few changes were made for the second printing. Among other things, in the frontispiece illustration of Mr. Simpson, he lost a hat and gained an eighth fret at the octave. The book was written to teach the art of improvising on a ground bass. This was the English seventeenth century type of ornamentation in contrast to Ortiz’s sixteenth-century style. Simpson also wrote some solo pieces, as did Ortiz. They have a similar contrapuntal texture but the harmonic language is quite different. Although the contrapuntal style was waning in Restoration England, one can presume that viol players were still playing Simpson at the end of the century, if only to improve their technique.

The Barak Norman has a very well balanced sound from top to bottom. It feels lighter in sound than the earlier English viols but is just as loud. There is more resonance, but the initial articulation has less chiff. It feels smoother to play. There is still the English clarity, but has a more baroque sophistication to the general sound.