7-String Bass Viol by Nicolas Bertrand, Paris c1720



The table is of two unmatched pieces, with 10 to 5 growth rings per cm, the grain showing a distinct waviness by the bass soundhole. The soundholes are C shaped. The single black-white-black purfling has a wide central strip. There are two saddles over the bottom block, a higher one of boxwood for the tailgut, and a lower one of ivory for the sympathetic strings once fitted to this instrument.

The back is two pieces of maple with an irregular medium flame slanting sharply upward along the center joint. The wood is quarter sawn but with wavy grain. There is no purfling. A piece of new wood has been grafted at the neck heel.

The ribs are six pieces of maple of medium to broad flame with random slant.

The replacement neck is flamed maple, the pegbox topped by a wide-open scroll. The top of the scroll and back of the pegbox are carved with strapwork in relief, the ground stippled with a sharp point, and there is a large flower is carved on each eye of the scroll. A slot in the heel of the pegbox holds watchkey tuners for seven sympathetic strings, with room for five more (cf. the twelve hitchpins in the bottom block). According to the Sotheby’s catalogue of November 17, 1977, the neck, scroll, and pegbox, as well as the fingerboard and tailpiece, are Dolmetsch work. There is also a repair label by Gibertini of Genoa dated 1838, and the style of much of the work fits that period better. This is especially true of the fingerboard and tailpiece. The fingerboard is of pine edged with maple and covered with ebony veneer, with a broad decorative boxwood panel at the bridge end. The fingerboard has been recently extended over the end of the pegbox to increase the string length. The tailpiece is ebony, with a central fluted panel and boxwood veneer and stringing. There are seven boxwood pegs. The boxwood hookbar has provision for an endpin.

The varnish is dark red brown.

Body length 69.5
Body width
      upper bout 33.7
      center bout 24.7
      lower bout 40.7
String length 70.4
Rib height
      top block 8.3
      fold 12.8
      upper corners 13.2
      lower corners 13.2
      bottom block 13.2

Carlo Bergonzzi fecit
Cremona 1727
[printed except 27]

Repair label
Restauró e corresse nell’Anno 1838 in Genova
Premiato più volta in Milano con Medaglio etc.
[printed except 38 and Genova]

Bought in November 1977 at Sotheby’s, London


Nicolas Bertrand, “faiseur d’instruments ordinaire de la muzique du Roy” (instrument maker in ordinary to the king’s music), died in 1725 and his earliest dated viol was made in 1687, so he was probably born no later than the mid-1660s. We know nothing of his parentage or education, and in fact the earliest document that mentions him dates only from 1700. Judging from his extant output, Bertrand seems to have specialized in making instruments of the viol family, of which the workshop inventory taken at his death lists no fewer than 72 basses and 44 examples of smaller sizes, though at least 20 of the former, described as “modern English viols,” were obviously not his own work. Bass viols with heads (which Bertrand carved himself, unlike most of his colleagues) were valued at 30 livres, those with a scroll at either 20 or 25, while pardessus were considered to be worth between a half and a quarter of these prices, a relationship that would be reversed in the inventories of other makers over the following three decades. Although no Bertrand violins are known today he clearly made them as well, because in addition to several dozen such instruments by other luthiers the inventory notes the presence of more than 500 tables and backs waiting to be assembled. Also enumerated were five cellos (worth 25 livres each) and nine bass violins (ranging from 15 to 30 livres), as well as component parts for guitars, lutes, and even harpsichords.

Today Bertrand’s name is relatively familiar to people interested in the viol, both because a significant number of original instruments still exist and are being actively played, and because many modern makers have chosen one or another of them as a model for their own production. In all there are at least fifteen basses, far more than survive from any other French maker, together with two trebles and four six-stringed pardessus. Although he lived very frugally, Bertrand was clearly a successful businessman, because when his daughter (and only child) was married in 1721 he was able to provide a very large dowry for her. After his death four years later the workshop was purchased by Claude Boivin, in financial partnership with his uncle, the composer Michel Pignolet de Montéclair, although there is no evidence that Boivin had previously been a student or employee of Bertrand.

Most of Bertrand’s bass viols have a body length of 70 or 71 cm, slightly greater than that of the present example, at least in its current condition. However, his earliest bass is significantly smaller (64 cm), while two are quite a bit larger at 74 and 78 cm respectively. The latter were probably intended for playing basso continuo parts, while most or all of the others would have been used mainly for solo work, a distinction explicitly mentioned by J.B.A. Forqueray in describing the instruments played by his father, the brilliant virtuoso Antoine Forqueray. Nearly all of these instruments are currently set up with seven strings, which is probably how most of them were originally made, even though only two or three retain their original necks and pegboxes.

Jim was in Europe a lot in 1977. He was on a special research-status sabbatical for the academic year 1977–78, traveling there at least twice to pursue his project of examining gambas and baroque oboes in collections throughout Europe, focusing especially on national styles of instrument making. He had been at the Paris Conservatory collection and looked at its Bertrand. On his way home he stopped in London to see the Sotheby’s auction preview where they were listing an “old English viol” that he immediately recognized as a Bertrand. Keeping his mouth shut while he was examining the viol, he came home to say that we had to get it. We put in a phone bid far over the high estimate so that we would be sure to get it, which we did. (With a phone bid, one bids as high as one is willing to go, but only pays one increment higher than the next highest bidder). Then we found out that since it was being sold as an English viol, it would need an export license. In the 1970s the Europeans and English were very anxious about the drain of their heritage antiques, especially to America, so these licenses were checked carefully. It took Sotheby’s so long to get this paperwork done that the Bertrand was given the nickname Bigfoot, because we knew it was out there somewhere but it was certainly elusive. Finally we were told it had arrived at the airport. As we were picking it up, former President Nixon arrived in Cleveland for a visit and the airport was closed for an hour, so Bigfoot lived up to its name once again.

The viol had been in the Dolmetsch Collection and its leather carrying case has Haslemere Station railway stickers on it. In addition to the probably genuine Bergonzi label, there is a repair label from 1838 in Parma. The viol is set up in an interesting and certainly non-original way, but because, since the beginning of our time with it, it has sounded so good, we had very little done to it in terms of a real restoration. At some point it had been turned into a “viola bastarda” with room for sympathetic strings to pass through the hollow neck from the scroll, under the bridge and to pins on either side of the hookbar. Oddly enough there are twelve of these, in contrast to only seven pegs in the pegbox (though with room for five more). There are two nuts under the bottom of the tailpiece that are grooved for these strings. The scroll and pegbox are clearly not 18th-century French and they are much too large for the instrument. The fingerboard and tailpiece have interesting decoration that reminds me of 19th-century Empire or Napoleonic style, so our non-scholarly but knowledgeable opinion was that the restoration label from 1838 Italy reveals when the change to viola bastarda was done. The Dolmetsches possibly removed the sympathetic strings and made a new bridge without doing much else. Our only change was to increase the string length by extending the fingerboard at the top of the neck. There was enough room on the massive pegbox to easily add 2 cm of string length. Peter Tourin, an American viol maker, did that for us, and the sound improved to the wonderful tone it has now. We determined not to risk a new neck.

Although the typical Bertrand stamp at the top of the back was removed with the addition of the newer hollow neck, there has been no question that the instrument is by him. Recently Thomas Mace, another American viol maker, has measured the body and found it to be within a few millimeters of the one at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. We have also compared it to Wieland Kuijken’s and side-by side photos are astonishing. So Jim’s amazing eye was correct in matching the Paris Bertrand to the Sotheby’s “English” viol.

Here is a mystery about provenance. There is a picture in Margaret Campbell’s biography of Arnold Dolmetsch that shows his daughter Hélène playing a viol identified as a Bergonzi. However, that viol has F holes rather than the more common C holes of our Bertrand (with its Bergonzi label). It does have seven strings and a rather large carved scroll and fluted tailpiece. It looks a lot like the Seelos viol in our collection that we bought in 1973 from Tony Bingham, who sold many of the Dolmetsch instruments. But the Seelos had a large lion’s head and only six strings at the time we bought it. So is the picture of the Seelos? Or was the label moved from one viol to another? Or was there simply a miscommunication between the author and her informant?


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Marin Marais’s set of thirty-two variations on the La Folia bass is one of his most famous works. Because it is quite familiar and the harmonic structure is readily apparent, I thought that I could use some of the variations to illustrate the breadth of expression that makes the Bertrand viol such a pleasure to play. The marvelous basso continuo line is, of course, missing, but I tried to choose variations that might stand on their own. La Folia was published in 1701 in the second of Marais’s five books of Pieces de Violes.

I continue to love this gamba. I am not used to playing it without a harpsichord’s high harmonic partials that mix with those of the viol, symbiotically covering the edge to the sound. Without a second viol on the basso continuo line to enhance the pitch, the bass of the Bertrand is somewhat cottony. The less I press into the bottom notes, the more likely they will speak well. As I always think with a French viol: use more bow! The top string is exceptionally beautiful and capable of many different colors. I chose the variations to show the range, not only of register, but of expression as well.