Bass Viol by Joachim Tielke, Hamburg, 1691



The table is of three pieces of straight-grained wood with 8 to 6 growth rings per cm. The wedge-shaped center section may have been bent and joined to solid outer sections. The soundholes are C shaped. The edge purfling is double black-white-black. The grain of the original bassbar is interesting in that it is horizontal rather than vertical.

The vaulted back is made of thirteen narrow staves, tapered slightly from bottom to top, starting with dark wood, probably walnut, at the edges and alternating with medium flamed maple. There is no purfling.

The ribs are of seven strips of wood similar to that of the back, the dark outer strips slightly wider than the alternating light-dark inner strips.

The maple neck and carved female head are modern, as are the marquetry fingerboard and tailpiece. The latter are cut from bone and snakewood with ebony edges. The pegs are ebony with bone pips. The hookbar is ebony.
The varnish is dark golden brown on the table, somewhat paler elsewhere.

Body length 65.7
Body width
      upper bout 30.7
      center bout 22.2
      lower bout 38.0
String length 67.7
Rib height
      top block 8.0
      upper corners 11.0
      lower corners 11.0
      bottom block 11.1

in Hamburg/ An. 1691
[printed except 91]

Bought in September 1976 from Harry Oster, Iowa City, Iowa

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1691 Tielke: inside of top before restoration. The new wood, I believe, is from the Iowa City repairman. Note the original bass bar.

1691 Tielke: before restoration by Ingo Muthesius. Note the terrible bottom piece added by a hack in Iowa City. I was so happy to rescue this viol before more heinous repairs were done to it.

1691 Tielke: note the nails attaching the neck to the body.

1691 Tielke: detail of interior carving.

1691 Tielke: detail of bottom.

1691 Tielke: detail of neck heel.

1691 Tielke: inside of top after Muthesius restoration.

1691 Tielke: inside of back after Muthesius restoration.

1691 Tielke

1691 Tielke

1691 Tielke

1691 Tielke: original joining of neck heel and body. It needed to be separated in restoration and the neck heel is now a unique artifact.

1691 Tielke

1691 Tielke

1691 Tielke

Inlaid tailpieces and fingerboards in Ingo Muthesius’s workshop. Ours could not be made from tortoise shell or ivory because of USA customs regulations. We were more comfortable with wood as well.

1691 Tielke


Joachim Tielke has long been acknowledged as one of the most highly regarded and important viol makers of the baroque period in Germany. He was and still is famous especially for the extraordinarily lavish decoration found on most of his bowed and plucked string instruments, of which a total of more than 150 have survived into modern times. Most of these are documented in Günther Hellwig’s 1980 monograph on Tielke, whose instruments he had spent many years studying and restoring. In 2011 the author’s son, Friedemann Hellwig, himself a distinguished conservator of musical instruments, published an extensively revised and expanded edition, which remains the only book devoted entirely to a luthier whose primary product was viols.

Tielke was born in 1641 in Königsberg, a city located on the Baltic Sea in East Prussia (since World War II part of Russia and known as Kaliningrad), where his father Gottfried was a judge. By about 1666 he had moved to Hamburg, where the following year he married Catharina Fleischer, daughter of the instrument maker Christoph Fleischer and later aunt of the harpsichord-making brothers Johann Christoph and Carl Conrad Fleischer. Both spouses lived long enough to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1717, for which occasion a book of congratulations was printed that serves as an important source of biographical information. Joachim died in 1719 and Catherina in 1724; although none of their children took up the family trade, the oldest son (named Gottfried after his grandfather) became a professional gambist and worked at the court of Hesse-Kassel beginning about 1700, just after the death of the internationally famous viol player August Kühnel, who had been Kapellmeister there.

Tielke became a citizen of Hamburg in 1669, and his earliest known instruments date from that same year. Friedemann Hellwig’s book records 93 extant bass viols or fragments thereof, 3 barytons, and 8 smaller instruments that are an early form of viola d’amore without sympathetic strings, as well as 5 violins and a cello, 3 pochettes, and 56 plucked instruments (including lutes, theorbos, guitars, and citterns). Most of the viols are decorated with bas-relief carving and elaborate inlays, using ivory, mother of pearl, and exotic woods, supplemented at times by precious materials such as gold, silver, and even jewels. Nearly all have carved heads atop their pegboxes, usually either an easily-recognizable woman wearing a pearl necklace or else a lion. From the mid-1680s onward they normally have arched backs, with a patch inside to provide a flat surface for the soundpost to rest on. Most were made with six strings, but at least three were originally built as seven-string models. Body lengths vary from 59 to 71 cm, revealing that these instruments were not made on a mold.

The Caldwell Collection’s c1685 bass is noteworthy for being one of the earliest to incorporate an arched back, and the fifteenth-oldest surviving viol overall. The 1691 bass is likewise distinctive as one of only four built with a striped back and ribs, in this case using a layout of 13 staves on the back and 7 on the ribs that is matched only by an instrument dated 1697 and now in the Leipzig musical instrument museum.

Apart from violins and pochettes, about half of Tielke’s smaller bowed instruments have a body length of about 34 cm, while the rest are slightly larger at about 39 cm. Most have rib heights ranging from 3.5 to 4.5 cm, comparable to that of a viola and thus suitable for playing under the chin. In contrast, the Caldwell Collection’s example, in addition to being the earliest of this group, is significantly deeper, measuring fully 6.4 cm. For this reason Jim Caldwell felt that it should be considered Tielke’s only surviving true treble viol, intended to be played on the legs rather than on the shoulder. (It is also currently unique in having six rather than five strings.) However, recent research by Kai Köpp and others suggests that the majority of smaller German bowed-string instruments from the late 17th and early 18th centuries that are clearly not violins and violas should instead be classified as violas d’amore. At that time sympathetic strings had not yet become the defining feature of this type of instrument, whose distinctive sound was instead due to the use of metal for its bowed strings, which typically numbered no more than five rather than the six or seven that would later become standard.

This is another story about the collection that shows that good fortune often comes from the combination of knowledge, perseverance, and plain luck. By 1976 Jim had become widely known in the small world of instrument collecting for his interest in antique viols. He had published a catalogue of our collection in the 1974 Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society of America so dealers often let him know of instruments that were, or might become, available. Jim had heard from a dealer about a possible Tielke available in the unlikely location of Iowa City, Iowa. The dealer said he would be in touch when he found out more about it, but after six months we had not heard from him.

As fate would have it, I was going to be touring with the Cleveland Orchestra to Ames, Iowa, and had a day off. Jim had a vague recollection of the name the dealer had mentioned so I called the information operator in Iowa City and found Mr. Oster’s telephone number. I made arrangements to meet him and rented a car. He had a large collection of ethnic instruments and said he had turned the viol over to a local repairman to “fix up.”

I remember that it was a football Saturday and the traffic was impossible. The repairman was working on the viol in his garage and had started replacing the linen linings with wood 25 mm thick and had already replaced the bottom block. I immediately recognized it as a genuine Tielke (I had seen a number of them by this time and it had a Tielke label) and wanted nothing more than to snatch it away from the butcher job that was going on. I offered twice as much as what Jim had heard he might want for it, not wanting to risk losing it over a money misunderstanding. Mr. Oster accepted the offer and we discussed how I would take it with me. The viol was in two pieces with the top separate from the ribs and back. He did not have any sort of case. His suggestion was a laundry bag! Again fate was on our side, as the orchestra was returning to Cleveland on a charter flight where there was plenty of room for a Tielke viol in a laundry bag.

Ingo Muthesius at work in France.

The viol sat in pieces for nearly thirty years because we were so anxious to give it only to a restorer with a strong background and knowledge of Tielke. Günther Hellwig, the major Tielke expert, had retired, our other restorers were not Tielke experts, and we were not comfortable with anyone learning on the job. Finally we heard about Ingo Muthesius, who by that time was working outside Paris. He was officially retired from his work as curator and restorer at various museums in Europe, but we heard he was still doing beautiful restorations. So we contacted him, and he agreed to take the commission. He did a superb, museum-quality conservation job, preserving the old pieces of linen and tiny scraps of wood, and studying the original features it had.

The bassbar is original and its grain runs in a totally different direction from normal. The fragment of original neck was connected to the top block with a long nail inserted at an oblique angle. He was able to take x-rays and compare it with other Tielkes with similar features. He carved the usual Tielke woman’s head and had to be convinced that we would be unable to get a fingerboard and tailpiece made of ivory and tortoiseshell through U.S. customs. So he made a spectacular set of bone and ebony instead. The viol’s top had little damage but its striped back and ribs needed repair in a few places. The viol is small and I find it somewhat hard to hold. It has not been played a lot since the restoration, but when it is used, it begins to open up in sound.


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Georg Philipp Telemann is well known today for his prodigious output, and was famous in his own time for the quality of his music. He played most instruments, including the viola da gamba, which gave him insight into the particular sound that each type of instrument creates. Much of his work is relatively simple technically, but this solo sonata seems to have been intended for an advanced player. He published it in two issues of his bi-weekly musical magazine, Der getreue Music-Meister, in 1728–29. Since this piece was written in Hamburg, it is particularly fitting to perform it on the Tielke viols, as well as two slightly later instruments, which also provides an opportunity to demonstrate the subtle differences between these four German viols. The expressive recitative and aria that form the third movement need a responsive and lovely sound, which is the hallmark of the 1691 Tielke

The Tielke from 1691 is a very efficient viol, producing a lot more sound than its size would suggest. It is a beautiful, rich sound, although at the moment of the recording the bottom D string was a little cottony. Ideally it either needs a soundpost adjustment or a thinner D string if possible. It is so small that I need to use a lower chair to hold it comfortably, but I also need to use more amplitude in crossing strings. It speaks superbly and has much more range of sound and variety of tone color than the Hasert or anonymous viols. It is beautiful in the middle register and requests very expressive and legato playing.