Bass Viol, by an Anonymous maker, Bohemia, c1750



The table is of two unmatched pieces, the tighter grain on the bass side having from 12 to 2 growth rings per cm, the treble side 9 to 5. The long soundholes are F shaped. The single black-white-black purfling has a wide center white strip.

The back is two pieces of lightly flamed maple with single black-white-black purfling. There are two ebony pins in the bottom block, and in the top block two each side of the purfling. There is an ebony heel cap on the neck heel, and an ebony strip across the fold.

The ribs are six pieces of plain maple with butted corners. A wide ebony strip blends the end of the top ribs into the neck heel.

The replacement neck is flamed maple, and the pegbox with a cello-style heel is surmounted by a blindfolded, long-haired head of ambiguous gender. There are six ebony pegs.

The fingerboard is solid ebony, as is the slanted tailpiece (longer on the treble side). The ebony endbutton, which is drilled for a wooden endpin, is set into an ebony panel between the bottom ribs.

The varnish is a medium golden brown.

Body length 72.0
Body width
      upper bout 34.1
      center bout 22.8
      lower bout 38.9
String length 70.0

Rib height
      top block 10.9
      fold 12.6
      upper corners 13.0
      lower corners 13.0
      bottom block 12.8

Lor.° e Tom.° Carcassi
In Firenze nello Anno 1740
Alla Insegna del Giglio
[printed except 40]

Bought in June 1984 from Gerhardt Niemeyer, South Bend, Indiana

This viol was sold to us by Gerhardt Niemeyer, a participant at the Baroque Performance Institute, after he had retired from playing. It has one of the best-documented provenances in the collection. An interesting coincidence is that the previous owner, Henry Regnery, lived in Hinsdale, Illinois, the suburb of Chicago that was my home while growing up. So, in all likelihood, it sat a mile away from me during my childhood. The viol has a set of papers from Fritz Reuter and Sons, Chicago, from 1967, that declare it to be by Johann Georg Hellmer (1687–1770) of Prague, but this has not been substantiated since then, and we never called it that. It is, however, thought to be Bohemian and quite late since it is almost a hybrid viol/cello. It has overhanging edges, large F holes, and, as currently set up, is very heavy. The head is not thought to be original and the neck certainly is not.

Appraisal of the Bohemian viol. We never paid very much attention to this paper as we presumed the Reuter shop would not have had a lot of knowledge about viol making in the 1960s. It remains interesting, however.

Since this is an instrument that neither Jim nor I played very often, we decided to lend it for an extended period to Sergei Istomin, a young Russian émigré. He had left Soviet Moscow to pursue studies in the United States and ended up studying with me at Oberlin. We admired his talent, his courage, and his tenacity, and when we helped facilitate his being hired by Tafelmusik, Toronto’s baroque orchestra, we decided to let him have this viol for a while as he established his reputation. He succeeded as we knew he would, and he sent us a copy of his recording of the Bach cello suites he had made for the Canadian Analekta label. We were surprised and puzzled to see that he had credited us on the CD for the five-string cello used in the sixth suite, until he finally explained that he had asked a Toronto luthier to make a five-string bridge and nut for the viol. He played it overhand, but still with frets (Quantz mentions fretted cellos). He apologized for not asking our permission, but I simply asked him to give us the five-string bridge and nut when he returned the viol. The instrument sounds very good on the recording (a first-class performance) and I doubt if anyone would know it really is a gamba!

Letter documenting the provenance of the Bohemian viol. Henry Regnery lived in Hinsdale, Illinois, in the 1950s at the same time I was growing up there. My mother played chamber music with him on occasion. She later attended the Baroque Performance Institute at the same time that Gerhart Niemeyer, also a participant at BPI, was playing this instrument.


» Swipe for more pictures.

The last famous viol player in the 18th century was Carl Friedrich Abel, who lived until 1787 (see catalogue no. 23). Born and trained in Germany, he moved to London to further his career in 1759. There he was well known for his improvisations as well as his good taste. He wrote in the rococo style, which emphasized grace and charm, with beautiful melodies unencumbered by rich harmonies or studious counterpoint. This menuet in rondeau form illustrates that simple charm. It is known that Mozart studied Abel’s symphonies as a young child and copied some of them out in his own hand.

Jim liked this viol because it is loud, but I find it singularly shallow in sound compared to the rest of the collection. I must admit that I was surprised at its good tone on the recording, because it is not very satisfying to play. Its neck is quite short and it might respond better with a proper viol neck on it. It has a very smooth sound that is difficult to modulate. It is not an unattractive sound, but I find it very challenging to create much expression on it. As the newest of the old viols, it seems to have a very homogenous sound, which makes sense as the aesthetic of sound was developing in precisely that direction at the time it was made. In the early English instruments every note creates a different vibration in the viol, but with this one, every note feels the same.