Bass Viol by Georg Sellas, c1680



The table is of two pieces of fine-grained Haselfichte with from 10 to 8 growth rings per cm. The soundholes are F shaped and the single purfling is black-white-black.

The back is made from nine alternating strips of fruitwood (plum?) and plain maple, starting with maple on the edges, which taper slightly from bottom to top. The center strip does not quite align with the neck heel. The single edge purfling is black-white-black.
The six ribs are of three strips, two lightly-flamed maple and a central one of fruitwood.

The modern neck and head are of maple. The pegbox has floral relief carving on the back and sides, and the head is a lion. The seven ebony pegs have bones pips and collars.

The modern fingerboard and tailpiece are of maple with ebony veneer, and a zig-zag edging in bone and ebony. The hookbar is ebony.
The varnish is pale brown.

Body length 72.7
Body width
      upper corners 32.4
      center bout 22.9
      lower corners 41.4
String length 70.7
Rib height
      top block 8.0
      fold 12.3
      upper corners 13.1
      lower corners 13.1
      bottom block 13.1

Georgius Seelas In
Insprugg [printed]

Bought in September 1973 from Tony Bingham, London


Numerous members of the Seelos family were active as makers of stringed instruments (more often of the plucked than the bowed type) during the 17th century, both in Italy and in Austria. The best known among them, working in Venice from the sixteen-teens until about 1650, were the brothers Matteo (I) and Giorgio (I)—probably baptized as Matthäus and Georg—whose surname appears spelled in many different ways, in modern publications mostly as Sellas, elsewhere also Selles, Selos, Selas, etc. Matteo’s workshop was continued by his son Domenico until some time after 1675, while Giorgio was succeeded by a series of relatives continuing well into the first half of the 18th century. Their surviving output includes numerous varieties of lutes and guitars, but no bowed instruments.

Meanwhile, a first cousin of Matteo and Giorgio (I) by the name of Georg (II) Seelos had established himself in Innsbruck. (Members of the family’s German-speaking branch evidently preferred to spell their surname Seelos; although variants such as Selos, Seloss, and Seles also occur, the spelling "Seelas" on the present label is not found elsewhere.) In 1647 Archduke Ferdinand Karl granted him a monopoly for making stringed instruments. This Georg was the son of Magno Seelos from the village of Rieden a few miles north of the important violin-making center of Füssen, which in turn is located just north of the modern border between Austria and Germany and about 60 miles northwest of Innsbruck. After Georg’s death about 1668, his widow continued the business with the help of her two sons until 1681, when the elder, Johann Georg (Georg III, born about 1650) officially took it over after receiving an imperial appointment as a lute and violin maker. Unfortunately, his productivity was hindered by mental illness that first manifested itself a decade later and eventually resulted in his being institutionalized several years before his death in 1724. Georg III’s younger brother Johann (or Johannes, born in 1654) moved to Linz in 1679, where in 1698 he was awarded a similar regional monopoly that remained in this branch of the family for at least the next half-century.

Violin-family instruments survive from all three workshops, as well as two barytons (both dated 1684), a bass viol (1691), two lutes (1699 and 1710), and a viola d’amore (1712) by Johann Seelos in Linz. However, the only extant viols associated with the name Georg Seelos of Innsbruck are a tenor now at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague and the present bass. The tenor is dated 1660 and must therefore have been made by Georg II, since his son and namesake was only about ten years old at the time, but the situation is less clear for the Caldwell Collection’s bass. Its printed label reads simply "Georgius Seelas In Insprugg"; because no date is specified, the instrument could have been made by either the father or the son. The suggestion that it dates from about 1680 is probably based on the existence of a label reading "Georg Seelos in Insprugg 1680," which has been reproduced in several modern reference works and which must come from an (unspecified) instrument made by Georg III, since the date falls more than a decade after his father’s death. However, while the bass viol’s label does indeed use the same spelling for the city name, the form of the maker’s first and last names found there (Georgius Seelas) is currently unknown from other sources.

In 1974 Jim Caldwell wrote that "It is not possible to determine whether this viol was [originally] made with seven strings." If the suggested date of 1680 is at all close to the truth, it seems unlikely that it was, because the seventh string for low AA is believed to have been added by the Sieur de Sainte-Colombe only a few years before 1687, the date of Jean Rousseau’s treatise in which he is credited with this innovation, which presumably would have taken some time to reach foreign musical centers such as Innsbruck. Even in Paris, the earliest extant viols originally with seven strings date from no earlier than the 1680s (made in 1683 by Michel Collichon and 1687 by Nicolas Bertrand), while a 1693 instrument by Gregor Karpp in Königsberg appears to be the earliest made outside France whose seventh string can be considered original, followed by examples dated 1696 and 1699 by Joachim Tielke in Hamburg.

Tony Bingham wrote us a number of appealing letters about this viol, and Jim was quite taken by his descriptions. He was particularly interested in the fact that it was so similar to Stainer’s viols, being made in Innsbruck (only a few miles from Absam where Stainer worked) and having F holes like some Stainer viols. August Wenzinger and his colleague, Hannelore Mueller, had &rrquo;matching“ Stainer viols that Jim had long admired. (Wenzinger’s now languishes in a glass case in the Vienna museum collection, silenced forever.) We were working with Paul Reichlin at the time on restorations of the Lambert viol and the Wachter cello. Paul assured Jim that it looked like a marvelous instrument and the price was right. As I recall, Paul started on a restoration of it right away. It needed a new neck and a lot of minor body work on the striped sides and back. Jim was working with Paul on bridges at this time and made the bridge for the Seelos himself. Jim particularly enjoyed the wood on the belly with its Haselfichte grain that is so favored by the Cremonese makers. He always thought it was our most Italian instrument.

There is a possibility that this is the same viol that is pictured being played by Hélène Dolmetsch in Margaret Campbell’s biography of Arnold Dolmetsch. The picture’s label mentions her playing her “Bergonzi” viol, but in fact the Bergonzi label is in our Bertrand viol. The F holes and shape of the body are extremely similar to the Seelos. We never found out from Tony Bingham if this had been in the Dolmetsch Collection, but he certainly handled the sales of many of those instruments.

I enjoyed playing the Seelos immediately and if I were not also a cellist I would have used it extensively for the Italianate basso continuo lines that I normally play on cello. It has a very rich sound that has the fine quality of an Italian cello. Since I choose cello for much of this music we didn’t play it very much and some of the cracks on the striped back and sides started to open up. It sat unplayed for a number of years until we were told about a restorer in Prague, Petr Vavrous, who did good work. José Vásquez took it to Prague for us and I picked it up there in 1999. Vavrous had cleaned up all the cracks, carved a new head (the previous head was a newish and oversized ugly creature) and made a new neck and ornamental fingerboard and tailpiece. The instrument sounded better than ever and I discovered that it was the answer for “Komm süßes Kreuz,&rd the aria from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion that requires (and exploits) a seven-string viol. I had been frustrated playing that aria on a French viol—even a great one like our Bertrand—because the typical French sound is too nasal and thin. But the Seelos has the kind of richness and depth of sound that makes the viol match a baritone voice. It even sounds good at a′ = 440 Hz if not left there very long.


» Swipe for more pictures.

Johann Sebastian Bach knew the music of the great French gambist and composer, Marin Marais, and in the aria “Komm süßes Kreuz,” from the St. Matthew Passion, he referenced the French chordal style and exploited the low A string that is typical of French viols. I decided to play the solo viol sections of the aria which, because of the chords, create the bass line, and simply to skip the vocal parts. It is the piece I particularly perform on the Seelos, so it seemed appropriate.

I have been pleased to play this big viol in a number of performances of the St. Matthew Passion. Its rich sound is less nasal than French instruments, and the bass notes speak well. It also is capable of sounding decent at a′ = 440 Hz, at least for a few days, if I am playing with a modern orchestra. During this recording it was strange not to be pushing for a huge sound as I would be required to do in a big hall with a strong singer. I also noticed that without the basso continuo I needed to be bringing out the bass more than usual.