Treble Viol by Joachim Tielke, Hamburg, 1686



The table appears to be of three pieces, with the wider grain (<5 growth rings per cm) on the treble side and the finer grain (<15 growth rings per cm) on the bass side. The edge purfling is double black-white-black. The soundholes are C shaped.

The ribs are lightly figured bird’s-eye maple. Where the lower bout has been restored a piece of mismatched flamed maple was used.
The neck is flamed maple, and the original pegbox, which has floral relief carving on the back and sides, is topped by a dragon head similar to the ones on the Tielke baryton in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The modern pegs are boxwood with bone pips and collars.

The modern fingerboard and tailpiece are maple with ebony veneer and bone edging. The hookbar is ebony.

The varnish is a very opaque dark red brown.

Body length 39.0
Body width
      upper bout 18.5
      center bout 13.7
      lower bout 23.6
String length 38.2
Rib height
      top block 3.9
      fold 6.3
      upper corners 6.5
      lower corners 6.3
      bottom block 6.3

in Hamburg, An. 1686
[printed except 86]

Bought in September 1974 from Rembert Wurlitzer, Inc., New York


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.

One chuckles at the idea of true collectors reading the obituaries for leads on new acquisitions, but in a sense this is one of those tales. While we were visiting the Wurlitzer violin shop in New York for other things in the early 1970s, Ken Jacobs showed us this small and exquisitely-carved viol that was part of Rembert Wurlitzer’s private collection. We were told that Wurlitzer did not want to part with it, but we remembered it well. A few years later we were on a rare vacation in Door County, Wisconsin, and happened to see an article in the New York Times about the Wurlitzer shop closing its doors. Jim found a pay phone and immediately called to ask about the Tielke. He was the first to call and went to New York City as soon as he could. He was signing the check when Günther Hellwig, the Tielke scholar, called about the viol. Hellwig was very disappointed that Jim had gotten there first.

We knew immediately that it “matched” the baryton in the Victoria and Albert Museum that we had seen in pictures as well as at the museum. The two instruments are dated in the same year, bird’s-eye maple is the main wood for both, and the creatures on the scroll are the same, with bat wings and tongues. (The baryton has three of these creatures on its massive head.) The back of the instrument had two folds when we bought it, as if it were a da braccio instrument to be held on the shoulder, but we thought it was a viola da gamba. When we gave the viol to Michael Heale in 1981 to restore, it was apparent to him that the second fold was not original, and he agreed to add to the ribs so the back could be reflattened.

This fascinating instrument, with its fanciful head and distinguished cousin in the V&A, is very loud, and we found it to be not very useful in a consort. Mary Anne Ballard, our friend who usually plays the second treble part in the Oberlin Consort of Viols, enjoys relating this story when she coaches viol consorts and wants to encourage the treble players to play softly. Since I love playing the French treble on the top of a consort, we gave her the Tielke when it was first restored to play on the second line. Much to our shock we found it was really loud! In fact, the memorable words that Jim uttered were, “Giving a Tielke to Mary Anne is like giving a loaded gun to a baby!”

This was a troubling letter we received from Günter Hellwig, who had been such a help in guiding us towards building the collection. We never knew how to respond, and a letter from him a few years later shows that he also was troubled by it. Friedemann Hellwig has nearly convinced me that the Tielke treble should be considered some sort of viola d’amore and played on the shoulder.

Friedemann Hellwig has seen it and believes it to be a viola d’amore without sympathetic strings. However, all the other small instruments that Tielke made have much shallower ribs than ours. Hellwig believes it should be played on the shoulder despite its depth, and that is a possibility; its aggressive sound makes this theory quite reasonable. For the recording I played it with frets and held on the knees, but it would be interesting to hear it unfretted and held at the shoulder.


» Swipe for more pictures.

Among the works that appeared in Telemann’s Der getreue Music-Meister is a sonata written for the treble viol. Although contrapuntal consort music for groups of viols was completely out of fashion by the 1720s, the treble viol was still used occasionally in ensemble music, especially by the Germans. This lively Scherzando is the fourth movement of the G Major sonata for treble with basso continuo. Harmonically the work is simple enough that I believe the bass line can be imagined.

I’ve never been comfortable trying to make this instrument sound like a typical consort viol. We tried using it in the Oberlin Consort of Viols when it was first restored, but it failed to match the subtle tonal characteristics of the rest of the instruments we were using. I was therefore struck by Friedemann Hellwig’s opinion that it might really be a type of viola d’amore. It has an extremely bright and aggressive sound that is difficult to “tame.” Its loud sound has a fine quality and proves to be perfectly suitable for the small body of literature for the solo treble viol written by 18th-century German composers.