For lucky owners of Barak Norman’s violas there is the tantalising possibility that theirs was the one celebrated by Berlioz after the first London performance of Harold in Italy. One instrument in particular may shed light on Henry Hill’s fabled 1848 performance.
Harold in Italy has spiritual connections with England because it is based on a set of poems by Lord Byron published between 1812 and 1818 that was well within the zeitgeist of 1830s London, and for Nicolo Paganini the identity of the wandering poet who had died in 1824 was already strongly inferred. In 1829, the reviewer of the Frankfurter Oberpostamtszeitung remarked that, “All of his compositions are possessed of an enraptured basis, that lends them an endlessly touching and artistic nature. We must say that these beg comparison with the memory of the poetic creations of the immortal Byron, where likewise in every line is expressed the pain of a wounded spirit.” Hence, by this time at least, Paganini had been cast as Byron’s spiritual successor.
In England, where Paganini arrived in 1831, Byron’s legacy was still strongly felt in cultured society. At the Royal Academy the following year, J.M.W. Turner exhibited his painterly interpretation of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – Italy to enormous acclaim (now in Tate Britain). The sculptor, Richard Westmacott spoke of how the painting, Turner’s “Italy” is the most magnificent piece of landscape poetry that was ever conceived. It is like nothing but itself, so I cannot compare it with Claude or any other painter, to help your notion of it. To admirers of Paganini it would have been easy to see his wandering life as a comparison to the ‘Childe Harold’ on his pilgrimage through Europe in search of distraction after becoming disillusioned with his life of revelry and frivolity.
As Turner’s painting hung in the Royal Academy in 1832 Paganini was sitting for George Patten’s portrait, a dark and gothic portrayal of the violinist that became another celebrated painting when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the following year. (Patten kept the original until his death refusing to part with it, but painted a copy for Paganini in 1834). One further event for the year 1832 was Paganini’s purchase of a 1731 Stradivari viola from the dealer George Corsby in Leicester Square. This acquisition led directly to his invitation to Berlioz: “But I have no suitable music” he wrote. “Would you like to write a solo for viola? You are the only one I can trust for this task”.
Paganini undoubtedly had in mind a show-stopping exposition of solo virtuosity along the lines of his own caprices for the violin. Berlioz had different ideas for his piece, “by writing a solo for viola, but one which involved the orchestra in such a way as not to reduce the effectiveness of the orchestral contribution” he was able to produce a piece of music that was more within his own concept of orchestral music – the ideology that had driven his composition of Symphonie Fantastic in 1833 exploring the virtuosic depth and richness of the whole ensemble and consistent with the values expressed in his Grand traite d’instruments et d’orchestration modernes which he eventually published in 1843.
This being completely contrary to Paganini’s ideas of virtuoso self-promotion, the pair parted ways. Harold In Italy was first performed on 23 November 1834 with the Orchestra de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire with Chrétien Urhan taking the viola solo. A piano transcription with viola accompaniment was written by Franz Listz in 1836 but it was not for another couple of years that Paganini finally heard the work on 16 December 1838. On the occasion, he was so overwhelmed by it that following the performance, he dragged Berlioz onto the stage, and there knelt and kissed his hand before a wildly cheering audience and applauding musician. Days later he sent Berlioz a letter of congratulations, enclosing a bank draft for 20,000 francs.
It is without question that Paganini’s purchase of a Stradivari viola was central to his inspiration to commission Harold in Italy, and it was upon this instrument that Urhan performed it’s premiere, but the whole story of Paganini’s infatuation with the viola and his quest for a distinctive sound goes further back. In 1832 before he came to London when he was writing his 24 Caprices for the violin, he had engaged Francesco Borghi to produce a large instrument that became known as the ‘Controviola Paganini’, equipped with a fifth string in order to help accommodate it’s size. The implication of Paganini’s experiment (the instrument does not survive, and violin experts have long puzzled about who exactly Francesco Borghi liautio di Forlì really was) is that Paganini was exploring the possibilities of a larger-than-normal viola capable of producing virtuosic music with a distinctive sound quality that was separate from either the violin or the violoncello.
Paganini’s purchase of his gran viola (and the creativity that led to it’s commission) come from the months before his purchase of the Stradivari, and provide a narrative of his searching for an ideal of what the viola should be. Whilst the Stradivari viola had obvious prestige, it seems that it still left problems unresolved, for when he returned to England in 1834, it was the gran viola that was impounded by British customs (according to his letters to Luigi Germi his lawyer and confidant in Paris). With the full irony of so many unintentional viola jokes, he wrote “At last I have retrieved the gran viola which I have believed had been lost by the London Customs officials…I got it back on the 1st of April…”. This led to the completion of his Sonate per il gran viola which he performed on the 28th April, or as The Times reported: “Last night Signor Paganini introduced a performance on the viola, which was the first time he played this instrument in public.” The evidence suggests that although Harold in Italy had been inspired by his acquisition of his Stradivari viola, nonetheless, he was more attracted to his ideas of the ‘Controviola Paganini’ and was actively exploring these through his own composition experiments in London. Had he performed Harold in Italy himself when Berlioz finished it in the same year, it is uncertain whether he would have considered performing on his Stradivari or on the entirely different tonal properties of his ‘gran viola’.
Back in Paris, Berlioz was equally disenchanted with modern standards of the viola and was also seeking new colours of sound for the orchestra. In his Grand traite d’instruments et d’orchestration modernes he railed against the status quo, seeking better alternatives:
“Here it must be said that most of the violas at present in our French orchestras have not the necessary dimensions. They have neither size, nor as natural consequence the tone power, of a real violas; they are mostly violins strung with viola strings. These Musical Directors should absolutely forbid the use of these bastard instruments, whose tone deprives one of the most interesting parts in an orchestra of its proper colour, robbing it of all its power, especially in the lower registers.”
Between Paganini, Berlioz and the violin maker Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume the continued interest in the idea of a fulfilling the missing elements of the full string orchestra, spawning a series of ideals and interpretations on the theme. Vuillaume was looking further than most, and his most remarkable experiment was the legendary sub-acoustic Octobass (tuned an octave below the double bass) that he invented in time for the World’s Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851. A second example made of the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1855 is called for in Charles Gounod’s mass for St Cecilia written that year, but as an instrument to reinforce the double basses of the orchestra there is little specific writing for it – it was nonetheless praised by composers of the period from Berlioz to Richard Wagner (Berlioz suggested all orchestras should have three of them). On this wave of inventions that directly responding to Berlioz’s demands for the orchestra came Vuillaume’s own ‘contralto viola’, curiously rejecting the large Italian contralto designs of the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries in favour of a shorter body length, deeper ribs and a wider body: Three such instruments made around the period of the 1855 Exposition Universelle survive. These appear to precipitate a Europe-wide interest in creating a distinctive large viola, along side his equally experimental soprano violon de Jullien comprising a similar body shape. Hermann Ritter in Berlin designed a viola alta which Richard Wagner specified for his orchestra at Bayreuth (which like the Contralto Paganini eventually ended up with a fifth string to ease playing the higher registers on so big an instrument). Alfred Stelzner and Thomas Zach also explored mathematical and scientific principles to create a distinctive viola with deeper and richer sounds.
Given this background some significant questions arise about the instruments that Berlioz had in mind through the 1830s and 1840s including what he really intended for Harold in Italy. Paganini had already established the principle of a ‘gran viola’ before Harold in Italy was written, and an interest in a distinctive acoustic carried on throughout that period of the nineteenth century. Berlioz was not a particular connoisseur of old instruments in the way that Paganini was, and his interest – leading to his Traite d’instruments was almost purely that of a technologist. Hence, when he wrote Evenings in the Orchestra, describing “Mr Hill, … an Englishman, one of the first viola-players in Europe, owning an incomparable instrument” it is likely to be commentary on it’s design rather than it’s rarified connoisseurly value: Berlioz has no reputation for making judgements about one Stradivari over another Guarneri, but the use of the word ‘incomparable’ sits comfortably within his zeal for technological innovation and novelty, as for example, he described the Saxophone when it was first exposed as an invention in the Journal des Débats in 1842 “… of such rare quality that, to my knowledge, there is not a bass instrument in use nowadays that could be compared to the saxophone”… whose “character is absolutely new, and does not resemble any of the timbres heard up till now in our orchestras…”.
It was Henry Hill who gave the first London performance of Harold in Italy under Berlioz’s Baton on 7 February 1848 at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Family folklore cited by the Hill brothers in their monologue on Stradivari claims that both he performed on the Paganini viola, as Urhan had at the Paris premiere, though this is countered by Berlioz’s fascination with the incomparable nature of his own instrument. But we know from the recollections of H.R. Haweis, who was also in attendance at the premier, that his memorable instrument was a Barak Norman, as he wrote in Old Violins and Violin Lore (1898):
Henry distinguished himself as an admirable quartet player, and well do I remember the splendid tone of his Barak Norman tenor at Willis’s Rooms far back as I think 1848, when Sainton, Piatti and Cooper – one of the best, as it was almost the earliest string quartet cast in London … Berlioz always spoke of Henry Hill in terms of the highest praise; he even went so far as to say that he considered him one of the first performers in Europe… It is seldom that a tenor player ever comes in for direct commendation. He acts as a sort of go-between to violoncello and violin’.
Of the few Barak Norman violas that survive, there is nothing particularly out of the ordinary about any of them, except for one as we shall see. His work is towards the Italian end of English making around the 1700 period and he certainly had direct connection with Daniel Parker, for even violins with Norman’s authentic original label in them have from time to time proven to be mostly of Parker’s hand and some of these are amongst the finest sounding instruments made in England. Yet for Berlioz to term such an instrument as ‘incomparable’ seems an unlikely turn of phrase when compared to Cremonese masterpieces such as Paganini’s own Stradivari viola. More to the point, it seems curious that H.R. Haweis should have singled out Henry Hill’s viola – irrespective of who made it, in the context of a quartet in which Alfredo Piatti was playing his Stradivari cello of 1717, and Prosper Sainton’s Guarneri of 1744 – or indeed that the son of one of London’s most successful violin dealers should have fixed with a Barak Norman when a prestigious Cremonese instrument might have been at easy reach.
Within this context the large sized viola by Barak Norman is a good candidate for the term ‘incomparable’ to be applied to it’s sound and it’s design. At a colossal 17 3/4 inches it is around the size of the large Cremonese tenore instruments of Andrea Guarneri and Stradivari, but the ribs are proportioned like a cello, giving it an very deep and unusual quality of sound. Despite the enormous dimensions of the viola, the folds in the back make it a surprisingly playable instrument beneath the chin. With Paganini’s initial concept for his sonata per il gran viola in mind, the viola sits convincingly amongst the the continued experiments of Vuillaume, Ritter, Stenzer and Zach to provide instruments of greater volume, and responds equally to Berlioz’s damnation of viola design of the time. It not only appears that the instrument was perfectly suited to the kind of ideas emerging in the 1830s as Harold in Italy was composed, but it is plausible that Henry Hill could have identified the instrument as corresponding to his own understanding of Paganini’s conceptual gran viola choosing to use it for Harold in Italy, and perhaps more widely because of the allusions it provided to Paganini’s influence. Whether he had met Paganini in 1833-34 or not, his colleagues in the Musical Union were eyewitnesses to Paganini’s experiments.
An ‘incomparable’ viola.
The 1690s and early 1700s were a period of tremendous experimentation amongst the leading London makers, and whilst on one level there was an increasing awareness of Cremonese standards of instrument makers, concepts in design varied radically. Interpretations of the newly emerging violoncello range from ‘piccolo’ sizes up to those approximating the over-sized Venetian bass violin, all being produced within a small community of makers around St Paul’s Churchyard out of which Barak Norman was a leading member.
Throughout the seventeenth-century, Northern Italian makers had produced at least two standards of viola, ‘contralto’ and the larger ‘tenore’, but other instruments existed as well: From the 1590s the brothers Amati had explored possibilities of viol making. One surviving bass viol from 1611 is in the Ashmolean Museum (with a similar instrument at the Smithsonian Institution and various others converted into cellos), a tenor is in the Russian State Collection, and at Hamamatsu City in Japan, a 1607 viola-sized instrument by Girolamo Amati with corresponding deep ribs also survives – presumably a ‘treble’ (though Réne Morel gave it a new neck to turn it into a kind of lira da braccio). Whether such instruments directly influenced English makers of the 1700s is uncertain: The Carbonelli Inventory intriguingly refers to ‘English’ viols made by Nicolo Amati perhaps describing this model. Although the semi-carved folded back of the viola is an Amati precedent (from the basses and tenor) that found its way into other English violas by makers in Barak Norman’s close circle – Daniel Parker and Robert Thompson. Nevertheless, the deep ribs may equally have arisen from Norman’s experience as a leading English viol maker of the day.
The outline and general scale of the instrument does point to more direct Cremonese influence. Although the precise outline is Norman’s own, the gross dimensions have a good deal in common with Andrea Guarneri’s 1664 tenore, or the 1690 Stradivari made for the Medici court in Florence. An alternative influence may, however, come from the French court from the 1650s where the five-part violin bands existed with a larger (probably five string) Quintes des violon serving as a second viola part. No such instruments survive from seventeenth-century France despite firm musicological evidence for them – seventeenth-century French instruments of the violin family are vanishingly rare – but the requirement for such an orchestration would have reached England after the Restoration of King Charles II and specifically after John Bannister returned from Paris in 1662 where he had been sent to train under J.B. Lully. Henry Purcell’s Fantazias for a violin consort all predate the likely period when this instrument was made, although it fits logically as the instrument for the lower-register viola part (where the hardness of a normal viola c-string interrupts the delicate harmonic balances within the music). These relate to a genre of ‘theatre music’ tied to Restoration fashion for plays, which followed on from a prototype derived from French opera under Purcell, John Blow and a plethora of lesser known English composers, for which a similar instrumentation is pertinent, which lasted up until the 1720s when George Frederick Handel established the Royal Academy of Music (not the conservatoire, but an opera company), transforming English taste towards Italian opera.
Whether the instrument had further uses is impossible to tell. The tonal qualities work well against a tenor human voice, and as a result the instrument fits naturally towards an obligato strong accompaniment to song – as pertinent to a harking back to the Renaissance lira da braccio, as it is to looking forward to Brahms’ songs for alto, viola and piano. The possibility of a purpose as accompaniment in song repertoire of it’s time should be taken seriously, although finding specific evidence to argue for that idea is beyond the nature of musicological documents. It may also have had a use as a tenor part in a period when antiquarian viol consort music seems to have been increasingly played in violin ensembles, leading to the conversion of tenor and treble viols to a ‘violin-like’ state with reduced numbers of strings and folded backs (or lowered ribs) to allow playing beneath the chin.
Several instruments from the first half of the eighteenth century exist with similar dimensions, Egidius Snoeck in Brussels made one in 1714 for example, and later Johann Christian Hoffmans in Leipzig produced instruments of this sort, but without exception these – identified as viola pomposa, or viola da spalla, are made entirely like small cellos, meaning that the a player would be incapable of holding them under the chin: Barak Norman’s example is unique for this variation.
Barak Norman’s viola is not labelled, but he lived from 1651 to 1724, appearing as a journeyman in 1688 and establishing his shop at the sign of the Bass Viol in St Paul’s Churchyard in 1690. It is decorated with his monogram which does not appear on viols before about 1695, and is stamped ‘NORMAN’ in several places on the inside. It is, in fact, the only time that I have seen a smaller variant of his monogram, which I previously thought to be impossible for genuine examples. The purfling, varnish, soundholes and scroll are all very typical of his work, and although it seems to fit closer to the 1710-1720s, in terms of a likely period when it was made, the later it is dated the more anomalous it seems to be. It is unlikely that many more such instruments were ever made, let alone have survived – I certainly know of no further examples, I don’t know what it would have been called when it was made, and I am not one-hundred percent certain of the reasons for which it was made. Nevertheless, it has a lot to say about the viola throughout it’s history, and if it really does have something to do with Henry Hill (at least, if it is reflective of his concept of Paganini’s gran viola), it has the basis of a great conversation piece.
Barak Norman’s Tenore viola of circa 1700
I am very grateful to Peter Sheppard-Skaerved for sharing various observations about Paganini and particularly correspondence about the gran viola, and to Emma Alter for her observations about the use of instruments of this sort in the time of Purcell.