Bass Viol by Gregorius Karpp, Königsberg, c1700



The table is of three pieces, with a wedge-shaped central strip that may have been bent and joined to solid outer portions. The soundholes are flame shaped. The edge purfling is a single band of black-white-black-white-black-white-black.

The back is two pieces of birch with a broad curl slanting slightly upwards from the center joint. There is no purfling.
The ribs are six pieces of similar wood.

The modern neck is maple, grafted to the original head and pegbox. The lion head sports an ivory tongue and teeth. The sides of the pegbox are carved with a vine motif, the back with scales, and the top of the cheeks with a double line of darts. The six modern pegs are ebony with bone pips.

The varnish is a pale golden brown.

Body length 70.0
Body width
      upper bout 30.9
      center bout 21.2
      lower bout 36.9
String length 68.2
Rib height
      top block 8.4
      fold 12.2
      upper corners 12.1
      lower corners 12.0
      bottom block 12.4

Gregorius Karpp ca. 1700
Restoriert 2003 Ingo Muthesius

Bought in January 1973 from Tony Bingham, London

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Karpp: top before restoration.

Karpp: inside of the top before restoration.

Karpp: back before restoration.

Karpp: inside of the back before restoration.

Karpp: sides before restoration.


Nothing is known about Gregor Karpp’s life except that he worked in Königsberg, a city located on the Baltic Sea in East Prussia (renamed Kaliningrad after World War II and now part of Russia), and was active at least between the years 1683 and 1696, as revealed by the labels in four of his eleven surviving viols. These consist of three tenors and eight basses, most of which have flame-shaped soundholes and a lion’s head, with backs and ribs made of birch rather than the more usual maple. Their tables are typically very thin and sometimes of three-piece construction, both features reminiscent of English building practice at about this time and possibly the result of Karpp’s acquaintance with instruments owned by English musicians employed during the late 17th century by the Elector of Brandenburg, who was also the ruler of East Prussia.

On the other hand, two of the basses (one of which is dated 1693) were originally built with seven strings, suggesting that some of Karpp’s clients wished to perform the new French solo literature requiring notes below low D. Interestingly, these are the smallest and the largest of his extant basses, with body lengths of 67.8 and 70.5 cm, respectively. Two of the tenors have body lengths of about 55 cm (though one of them appears to have been cut down in size), both with C shaped soundholes. The third, however, is much smaller at about 45 cm, and has flame shaped soundholes and an arched back made of ten staves of alternating birch and walnut. In view of its size, and especially because it has only five strings, it may have been intended as a viola d’amore without sympathetic strings, a type of instrument quite common in Germany starting shortly before 1700.

In addition to viols, surviving instruments by Karpp include two pochettes, a lute, and at least one violin.

This beautiful instrument was in our possession longer than any other before restoration. It was in relatively good condition when we bought it except for a considerable amount of worm damage on the back. The marvelous head is original and has ivory or bone teeth as well as a tongue that shows traces of red paint. Jim had seen a similar Karpp in Berlin, and after buying ours we found there is another in the museum in Nuremberg with wood that looks like it might be from the same tree as ours. The flame holes are distinctive, as is the curl in the wood of the sides and back. We sent our viol to Mark Norfleet for restoration while he was working on the c1600 Rose. He started by taking the Karpp apart and mounting the belly on a plaster form to keep it stable while he worked on the worm damage. After we had a major disagreement with him over the Rose viol, he sent the Karpp back to us in two pieces including the plaster form. It sat in that condition for fifteen years as we continued to look for a restorer to tackle it. Finally we were told about Ingo Muthesius in connection with the 1691 Tielke that also awaited restoration. When we realized what a fine job Muthesius was doing on the Tielke, Jim decided to take a chance. On our trip to Paris to pick up the newly restored Tielke, we showed up with the Karpp pieces without asking Muthesius beforehand. Jim presented the pieces to him saying in his best persuasive manner, “You know you can’t ignore this viol. Please do it for the sake of music.” Muthesius groaned because he knew how much work it would be, but he agreed to it. It was finished in 2003 and has become one of the important instruments of the collection, both decoratively and musically. I find it especially satisfying in Buxtehude and 17th-century German music.


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Although music of Dietrich Buxtehude would have been the perfect match for the Karpp viol made in the extreme northern part of Germany, that esteemed composer wrote no solo music for viola da gamba. He did write a substantial body of work for the viol in ensembles (including a marvelous piece for two sopranos and six bass viols), but none of the single parts would be effective for these purposes. Instead, I have chosen a solo piece by the northern European virtuoso, Johann Schenck. He was born in Amsterdam and spent much of his career in the service of Johann Wilhelm II, the Elector Palatine, traveling all over Europe as one of the leading virtuosi of his day. This aria is from a solo sonata published in Echoes of the Danube, which he wrote for the Italianate court in Vienna.

The Karpp viol has a very direct sound that feels closer to the early English viols than to the other German instruments, with a bass register like a double bass or organ. It has a rather bad wolf on the low D. The middle register is extremely clear and easy to play, but the high D is not as beautiful as on some other viols. I believe the instrument’s carrying power is substantial, although it does not sound very loud under the ear. When I have used the Karpp in an ensemble with violin (such as one of the Buxtehude trio sonatas), I have been told that there is no problem hearing me. The sound is compact and simple but very satisfying, especially in the middle range.