Roller Skates and Mechanical Swans: John Joseph Merlin’s Cremona Emulus.

John Joseph Merlin was one of London’s most significant inventors and entrepreneurs of the late eighteenth century. Amongst automatons, clocks and a bewildering variety of inventions he may well have paved the way for Charles Babbage‘s invention of the computer. He produced musical instruments of unparalleled ingenuity. He also held the secret to Cremonese tone – or did he? 


John Joseph Merlin by Thomas Gainsborough. The portrait was reputed to have been exchanged with a musical instrument Merlin had made for him. (Kenwood House)

Charles Babbage (1791-1871) is considered by many to be the father of the computer, inventing the Difference Engine in the 1820s which could perform programmable mathematical calculations – the first mechanical computer, but his introduction to the world of machines came as a Devon schoolboy visiting Merlin’s Mechanical Museum, just off Hanover Square in London. According to Babbage’s own account:


Charles Babbage (National Portrait Gallery)

During my boyhood my mother took me to several exhibitions of machinery. I well remember one of them in Hanover Square, by a man who called himself Merlin. Iwas so greatly interested in it, that the exhibitor remarked the circumstance, and after explaining some of the objects to which the public had access, proposed to my mother to take me up to his workshop, where I should see still more wonderful automata. We accordingly ascended to the attic. There were two uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high.

One of these walked or rather glided along a space of about four feet, when she turned round and went back to her original place. She used an eye glass occasionally, and bowed frequently, as if recognizing her acquaintances. The motions of her limbs were singularly graceful.

The other silver figure was an admirable danseuse, which a bird on the forefinger of her right hand, which wagged its tail, flapped its wings, and opened its beak. The lady attitudinized in a most fascinating manner. Her eyes were full of imagination, and irresistible. These silver figures were the chef-d’oeuvres of the artist: they had cost him years of unwearied labour, and were not even then finished”

After the death of John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803) his collection of mechanical wonders was auctioned off, and Babbage managed both to purchase the danseuse, and eventually to complete her to display her prominently in his house. (His other The implication: That Merlin’s genius for mechanical devices played a significant part in the birth of modern computing – is it too much to call him a kind of grandfather figure if Babbage is seen as the father of modern computing. Several of Merlin’s extraordinary inventions survive, chief amongst them the Silver Swanthat he made in 1773, which is kept at Bowes House Museum. Watch and be amazed!

Merlin’s genius for inventing things went well beyond automatons, into such devices as ‘Gouty Chairs and Morphices’ ’Sleeping Chairs for infirm persons’ ‘patent Rotisseurs’, an ‘Invention that restores paintings to their original beauty’, a ‘two-wheel chariots for one horse only’ and even a horseless carriage which he ‘…kept in motion by means of a windlass and it went with tolerable facility…’ In musical circles, Merlin appears to have enjoyed considerable celebrity – he was friends both with Johann Christian Bach in London and the music historian Charles Burney, whilst there is some discussion that the portrait of him painted by Gainsborough – himself both an avid musician and collector of instruments – was commissioned in return for a musical instrument made by Merlin.


Johann Christian Fischer by his father-in-law Thomas Gainsborough, 1780. He was the most celebrated oboe player of his day. The square piano in the painting is inscribed Merlin Londini Fecit. (Royal Collection).

The portrait of Johann Christian Fischer, Thomas Gainsborough’s son-in-Law shows a kind of square piano inscribed Merlin Londini Fecit on the name-board. For all his other inventions, musical instruments appear to have been the main commercial element of his entrepreneurial activity. Amongst his early inventions, he seems to have been credited with the invention of the Pentachord, a kind of five stringed violoncello which Sir Edward Walpole equally takes credit for (or at least credited for bringing it to prominence as an idea): It was demonstrated by Karl Friederich Abel as a ‘newly invented’ instrument in April 1759, before Merlin’s arrival to England and James Cervetto later praised the instrument, declaring “I know not a more fit Instrument to Accompany the Voice”. The example shown in the 400 Years of Violin Making in the British Isles Exhibition (pages 256-57 in The British Violin) is by Joseph Merlin. In 1774 (bearing in mind that the earliest English grand piano is from 1766) he patented designs for an instrument that would function both as a pianoforte and harpsichord.

One example has a Russian provenance to Catherine the Great and survives in the Deutsches Museum in Munich which further incorporates a clockwork device for transcribing the notes played onto a roll of paper (a way of mechanically outputting information that is very much a precursor to Babbage’s concept of a punched card input for his Difference Engine 2). Although he employed workmen to complete his keyboard instruments, the carcasses and keywork seems sufficiently generic of London work at the time, that it seems likely he was more involved in modifying semi-finished instruments with his inventions and concepts. Notably in 1776 he sued Ephraim Celsson his former assistant for making and selling combined harpsichords made to his patent, and in another instance, a harpsichord made by the celebrated London maker Jakob Kirckman made in 1758 has a swell mechanism that was added by Merlin in 1779 (Boston Museum of Fine Arts). Various newspaper adverts allude to his inventions as improvements that could be fitted to existing instruments.

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By January 1775 Merlin’s workshop and house was at 61 Little Queen Ann Street moving to 66 Queen Ann Street East in 1778. In April he placed advertisements announcing ‘a new invented Fiddle, with five strings’ and ‘a new improvement to violin design’ described as ‘a very simple contrivance by which the pegs cannot get loose, and will help the tuning with a wonderful facility, safety, and accuracy’. He also claimed thathe could ‘also improve the worst Fiddle to that degree as to be equal to the best Cremona’. The previous month he announced a new stringed instrument, the Ipolito, said to have been invented by Mr Barthélémon nad made by Merlin – potentially a violin with an additional c-string. In August 1779, Merlin listed ‘… the various instruments and pieces of mechanism, which he has constructed, such as his great collection of Patent Piano Forte, double Bass harpsichord, and portable instruments call Celestinettes, and his new Violins, Tenor and Bass, and improves violins, tenor, and bass, tho’ ever so bad, makes them equal to the best Cremonea…

Merlin’s violins are vanishingly rare. Lot 229 at Sotheby’s Early Music auction on 10 November 2004 was a violin of 1776 labelled “Josephus Merlin Cremonae Emulus No. 121, Londini 1776, Improved, No.66, Queen Anne Street East, Portland Chapel”. The violin is in most respects just a conventional London trade violin of a Stainer-pattern, although the length of back is small at 349mm which is rather unusual for English instruments generally speaking. The consensus as suggested in The British Violin is that these instruments were probably made by John Carter, although ‘two New Fiddles not finished’ were listed in the 1783 posthumous inventory of his assistant, Louis Lavigne Verel. The absence of any observable improvement within his ‘improved’ violin is a bit of a mystery, but it may just be possible that the improvement came about in a certain type of string.

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A second violin, illustrated here, is an entirely different prospect. It has a magnificent label: “MERLIN/CREMONA EMULUS/INGENIEUR pour les INSTRUMENTS/de MUSIQUE et de MATHEMATIQUE/et HORLOGER en grand et en petit/fait toutes Sortes d’inventions/ MECHANIQUES, London 1785/Princes Street, Hanover Square” set between engravings of a complex armillary sphere, and a sophisticated clock evidently musical on account of being shaped like a lyre. Made in 1785, the violin shows Merlin’s eccentric flair for innovation. Once again it has a small body length of 344mm, and the proportions are somewhat deranged with an exceptionally wide bottom bout and a very narrow upper half – 151mm over the top bouts, 212mm on the bottom and 102mm at the narrowest point. By contrast to his keyboard instruments, whose veneer finishes make them amongst the prettiest looking instruments of the English school, there is surprisingly little effort to produce something of high quality when compared to the more beautiful work being produced by contemporaneous makers such as Joseph Hill and Henry Jay especially as well as the relatively fine work on his surviving Pentachord. Perhaps his aim, as alluded to in his advertisements was to prove the worth of his inventions by producing “bad” instruments following his claim that he could “also improve the worst fiddle to that degree as to be equal to the best Cremona”, for there are adverts of 1783 (in The Morning Post) and 1784 (In the Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser) which are quite explicit in mentioning that he had Cremona violins amongst his goods for sale (becoming the first Queen Ann Street dealer of such things as far as I know).Screenshot 2017-08-23 19.12.44.pngEver the showman, not only does the new design seem more fanciful than grounded in any particular science, if any of these violins could be shown to remotely compare to a Cremonese violin, the roughness of them would aid in providing the impression of obvious difference. Certainly amongst his immediate circle, Charles Burney and Thomas Gainsborough were both connoisseurs owning Cremonese violins, so it is not as if he was playing to an ignorant market (all the time at least). The rudimentary acoustical experiment in the shape of the 1785 violin makes a good sound and is not unappealing in its own right, but needless to say it didn’t change the way that instruments were conceived of, and it is simply coincidental, if not downright ironic, that it’s date of manufacture coincides with Antonio Bagatella’s publication of his Regole per il costruzione de violini’ a first serious and structured attempt to apply methodology to understanding Cremonese design.  Nevertheless this was a period of fascination with Cremonese violins amongst the English, as evidenced for example by the advertising trade cards of John Betts and Richard Duke (see your copy of The British Violin), and however trivial the instrument can be seen in the context of a wider picture of efforts to reproduce the quality of Cremonese instruments, it serves the purpose of demonstrating how interesting this had become to an English audience. Merlin’s violins might be consigned to the dustbin of curiosity, along with Sultanas made by Perry in Dublin, or Thomas Howell’s oddly shaped patent violins made in Bristol around the 1830s and 1840s, but the invention of the roller skates gives Merlin’s involvement with the violin a peculiar immortality of its own, as related in 1825 in Thomas Busby’s, Concert Hall and Orchestra Anecdotes::  

“One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skaites contrived to run on wheels. Supplied with these and a violin, he mixed in the motley group of one of Mrs Cowley’s masquerades at Carlisle House; when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction, he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely”


The Volito, or, Summer and Winter Skait. London, 1823. (Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.) 

A detailed history of Joseph Merlin is given in The British Violin, (pages 50-51) and a pentachord, his five-stringed cello (pages 256-57), was included in the exhibition. I am indebted to Margaret Debenham’s “Joseph Merlin in London, 1760-1803: the Man behind the Mask. New Documentary Sources” Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, 2014, which is easily accessible online for many of the sources cited in this article.

Hard cases aren’t flight cases: Tips on flying with your instrument.

Musical instruments get damaged in flight with depressing frequency. As another instrument bites the dust with heartbreaking consequences for the owner, Benjamin Hebbert shares some experiences for the musician putting their instrument in the hands of the airlines. 

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On average 8 million people fly every day, with more than 3 billion people flying every year. Musicians with their special needs will always comprise a small part of this vast industry. However much we campaign for reasonable treatment of musical instruments its worth considering how small a part we are of the big picture, and even with the best intentions moving instruments by plane always involves risk. Air turbulence, or a hard landing can be as violent to an instrument as mishandling. Whatever the circumstances, it pays to understand the risks of travel and prepare for the worst.


Bam’s Overhead High-tech violin case is one of several violin cases designed to fit below the carry on baggage allowance. I have even been able to take this as carry-on luggage inside a rucksack with my computer and overnight gear.

I have seen the best and the worst of airlines whilst travelling with musical instruments. I’ve been given privileged boarding in order to safely stow a violin before the fight for overhead luggage space ensues, and I’ve had gate staff insist I put a carry-on instrument in the hold having observed every precaution through the process of buying a ticket and checking in. The nerve wracking experience I had on a low-cost airline with a 17th century violin of considerable worth was enough for me to learn not to try and stretch the rules. Most of the time when carrying violins, I’ve just been able to walk through confidently even with a double-violin case. If I’m travelling with just one instrument, the small cases without the length to keep a bow work best. You can keep the bow in a separate tube. It’s all about balancing risk. If you have problematic luggage get to the airport super-early. Get yourself into a situation where you can wind down over a few expensive coffees with some literary trash from the airport bookstore with everything settled. Being the first to check in, and the most familiar face in the departure lounge will win you points, and if there is a serious problem you have the time to rearrange your flights or take whatever measures are necessary. Many people, not only yourself, arrive late and stressed to the airport. Whatever the faults of the airline system, the staff are human beings like you and me. Collectively they deal with 3 billion passengers many of whom are stressed, worried, entitled, angry, bizarre and incomprehensible. Your problems pale into comparison to many of the things they encounter.


Technologies come and go. Plywood cases like this one were once the final word in cello case technology.

With all instrument cases, whether you are a violinist or a cellist, new technologies and fashions have played havoc with the safety and security of instruments. The old brown canvas cello bags that were so common up to the 1980s were almost a godsend because they looked exactly as dangerous as they really were, so people tended to treat them carefully. W.E. Hill & Sons and others produced light hard cases, but these were complex to build and very expensive. It was not until the moulded ABS polymer (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) cases reached the market in 1985 that a universal hard case became a possibility, and set the market going for similar products. Hiscox cases have three things going against them – by comparison to sleek colourful modern cases they are ugly and heavy, and for many of us they are the kind of case we had with our first full-sized instrument. Most cellists remember the delight and liberation of finally buying a light and elegant case for their instrument and relegate memories of their Hiscox to the back of their childhood. Many dealers will tell you how much they appreciate these cases for schlepping cellos, and with new ones available for less than £500 they provide an immediate easy solution, that will prevent most risks, with excellent internal foam padding and a 2 – 2.5mm incredibly hard case. I’ll get on to bubble wrapping cases presently. In the meantime, watch this video to see five guys standing on a case without harming the guitar inside. That’s not the same as a sudden impact… but it’s a good test of strength.

As classical musicians we tend to forget that Hiscox cases are widely used amongst the rock industry and around marching bands where instruments are under much greater risk of damage on tour. It’s easy to be dismissive of them, and I don’t much like taking the London Underground with one on my back, but they are the fabulously secure cases and the minimum standard to go flying or on tour.

One of the real problems of the last few years has been the ease with which carbon-fibre and other light polymer cases can be produced. Let’s be clear that some of these are very good quality, but not all of them. Kevlar, carbon fibre and other substances may be incredibly strong, but that does not mean that they retain their shape (a bullet proof jacket may be able to stop a bullet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be folded). Regular luggage will deform in the hold considerably, and the test of quality is how it holds together, rather than how it maintains its shape. Before we even talk about their resilience in the hold, the major weakness can be the rim and the quality of locks and hinges. If a lightweight cello case is difficult to close properly it’s structural integrity is already compromised and if it deforms it will offer no real protection to the cello in a crisis. Yet it has proven easy to flood the market with sexy-looking lightweight cases made of 21st century wonder products that have hardly any structural integrity. This goes further than just cello cases. Violin and viola cases made of expanded polystyrene or from unsupported sheets of kevlar will give no protection against being crushed.


Cases like this one sacrifice strength for weight. Nothing can forgive what the flight handlers did to cause the damage, but it offered little protection.

With Hiscox cases, the aluminium ‘valance’ that goes around the middle is integral to the structural integrity of the case, not only giving a solid plate that the straps and locks are attached to, but creating a completely rigid spine that gives the case its strength. It may be a feature that is as characteristic as a brand-name, but extending two inches inside the case, it’s the difference between one of the most resilient products in the business, and modern lightweight hard cases.

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Hiscox cases are amongst the very best budget cases designed to be highly durable.

For the real pro, Alan Stevenson has been making rock solid fibreglass cases  (and now carbon composite cases) since 1976. (David Gage in the United States produces a similar line). Many of the earliest ones are still in use by professional musicians and touring orchestras – a real testament to their longevity and quality and there is a good second hand market amongst musicians for them. Prices are from around £1000 to over £2000 but that’s a small price to pay for the security that they offer.

Stevenson case

Alan Stevenson’s cases have a huge reputation amongst European musicians

Nothing is perfect, and if you get the wheels of a baggage car riding over your cello, there is only a limit to the amount of protection that any case can afford. That being said, I’veseen various Stephenson cases with holes smashed in them which have taken the force and left the instrument less harmed than it would have been.


A David Gage bass case belonging to Karl Fenner in Colorado showing that even the best aren’t indestructible. .


For most cases an outer cover adds protection – companies such as Bam and Accord sell these to fit around normal cases and even Alan Stevenson sells these as an optional extra, but you have the problem of storage so for many musicians it can be a question of the choices they have to make. Remember that these are not rigid, so if you have a flexible case in the first place they are unlikely to offer any protection.

Violin dealers tend to transport cellos in full stripped down mode if they are going in the hold, taking off the soundpost, bridge, tailpiece, pegs, endpin and travelling with those in checked luggage, but this is obviously not practical for a touring musician. It can be an idea to make arrangements with a luthier at the other end of the flight to check over the instrument when you arrive at your destination city and if there are humidity changes this may be sensible whatever the circumstances. The compromise – which involves risk – if the instrument is going into the hold is to let the strings down so that they are tight enough to keep the bridge in place, but not putting additional pressure onto the bridge. Stuffing some bubble wrap firmly under the tailpiece and the fingerboard to make them more rigid will help distribute the force if there is a frontal impact, and may save the instrument.

If you have to put it in the hold (or if you are shipping a cello) an effective trick is to use bubble wrap to make the instrument as unwieldily and impractical as possible. Most damage happens if a case is put on its side or on it’s end, so I tend to tape a pillow of bubble wrap to the bottom so it can’t stand upright, and then just create enough to make it impossible to use the handles, and making it cumbersome enough that you can’t stack other things on top of it. If they have to move it like a coffin and store it on its back all the time, it removes many of the circumstances that cause damage.

Accidents with instruments should never happen, but even in the best of circumstances baggage handlers work under incredible pressure moving thousands of pieces of luggage per hour, and the people who make promises at one end of the flight have no control over what happens on the other side. Be very careful of connecting flights as the speed with which the luggage has to be sorted at connecting airports introduces unacceptable elements of risk. Expect the worst, but be positive and cheerful. Charm the airport staff and hope for the best.


Case makers are constantly innovating and responding to new problems. I’ve mentioned cases by Alan Stevenson, Hiscox, BAM, David Gage and others. Check with a trusted violin shop and ask for their recommendations.


A Grand Experiment: Childe Harolde’s Tenore and a 170th Anniversary Concert

On 27 January 2018, the Royal Orchestral Society celebrate the 170th anniversary of the London premiere of Harold in Italy, performed at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane under the Baton of Berlioz himself. Memoirs recalling the performance praised Henry Hill, one of the foremost viola players in Europe and brought attention to his Barak Norman viola which Berlioz himself praised as “incomparable”. A recent discovery sheds light on the 1848 performance, and the instrument that Hill played. Benjamin Hebbert and soloist, Peter Sheppard Skærved embarked on voyage of discovery culminating in the forthcoming full concert performance.

Watch the video documentary here: 


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The Royal Orchestral Society will be performing Harold in Italy with Peter Sheppard Skærved on the ‘gran viola’ on 27 January 2018 at St John Smith Square. Tickets available here

Almost three years ago I received a message from a client who had an unusual instrument for sale and knew I would be interested. A ‘large’ inch viola made by the famous London maker, Barak Norman made around the period 1700-1710. When it arrived by parcel-force in a battered case it turned out to be much larger than I would have possibly imagined at a staggering 18 3/4 inch body length (a professional viola is rarely more than 16 1/2 inches). The overall size was consistent with the very rare Cremonese ‘tenore’ violas from the seventeenth century and earlier that survive, but just a little bigger. The ribs, however put it in a completely new sphere,  in proportion to a cello much like the viola da spalla that early music performers consider as an alternative for the Bach cello suites. Folds on the back, original to its making facilitated playing under the chin, though at such an enormous size it still proved a considerable challenge, and as an instrument provably played under the chin it may well take the world record as the largest proper viola. The instrument was a fabulous curiosity from the past with an enviable sound: The uniquely deep ribs and overall scale of this viola give it an almost vocal depth to the sound that comes purely from the physics of the instrument, providing an unusually ‘human’ sound that doesn’t exist in more conventional instruments of the violin family.

Berlioz famously praised Henry Hills Barak Norman viola as “incomparable” when he performed the London premiere of Harold in Italy. There are several ordinary-sized Norman violas and for every owner of such an instrument there is the tantalising possibility that they could own the very same one. Berlioz took no interest in the Stradivari and Guarneri violins that were played by the leading musicians in his circle. His only substantial commentary about violin family instruments centred on his rage against the small violas common in French orchestras for leaving a vacuum in the harmonic richness of the symphony orchestra. Instead, his use of the term “incomparable” is parallel to his excitement for the musical  possibilities offered by such innovations such as the Saxophone and Octobass that offered exciting new musical potential to the orchestra. This alone is enough to speculate that Berlioz was enraptured by an instrument that was physically different from the expected instruments of the symphony orchestra, enough in of itself to speculate on the nature of this enormous ‘tenor’ viola.

Harold in Italy was a celebration of Nicolo Paganini who had commissioned it back in 1834 from  Berlioz on his return to Paris from his final visit to London. It was here on 28 April 1834 that he had performed on the viola for the very first time in public having completed his Sonata per il gran viola, the culmination of his own obsession for a tenor-voiced instrument that fulfilled his requirements: In 1832 whilst in Italy completing his 24 Caprices, he had experimented with Francesco Borghi to create the instrument that he called a ‘Gran viola’, and it was his performance on this instrument in London that would have stuck in the minds of London musical society in the years after his departure from the city.    

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The enormous tenore viola made by Barak Norman around the period 1700-1710, conforming to Paganini’s ideas of the “Gran viola”.

Paganini’s own ‘gran viola’ made in 1832 by Francesco Borghi does not survive, but the concept and description of it is remarkably consistent to the 18 3/4 inch Barak Norman tenor viola. This was already an antique instrument, having been made around 1700-1710, and at the time was probably just as unique and experimental. It seems that the similarities were entirely coincidental, but for Henry Hill, desiring to make a Paganiniesque gesture that followed the London memory of his Sonata per il gran viola the instrument was a perfect match. The London audience would not have known of Paganini’s purchase in 1834 of a Stradivari viola that had inspired the commission of Harold, nor would they have been concerned about it’s use by Chrétien Urhan at the Paris Premiere. Hill himself was not short of possibilities of instruments to play. Amongst his quartet partners were Henri Vieuxtemps, Prosper Sainton, Alfredo Piatti, all musicians associated with the greatest of all Cremonese instruments. Meanwhile as the brother of William Ebsworth Hill he belonged to one of the greatest families of violin dealers in nineteenth century London, giving him the cream of the crop of instruments coming through the London trade. Barak Norman’s more conventionally sized violas are sublime – some of the very best made outside of Italy – but they are not “incomparable”. If Henry Hill chose the 18 3/4 inch Barak Norman to play under Berlioz’s baton, it was as a determined and uniquely Paganiniesque gesture that would have been as obvious to Berlioz as it was to the orchestra and audience. Berlioz’s special praise of the concert and the instrument would seem to come full circle, and perhaps Henry Hill’s performance on what was essentially a ‘gran viola’ fulfilled the concept of Harold in Italy in a manner that Urhan had been unable to achieve with his Paganini’s own Stradivari.

When we started to put the facts together the evidence seemed very strong to support this idea to the point that pursuing the idea of a full orchestral performance wasn’t a silly thing to do. It could inform us about the sound world of Paganini and Berlioz, even if questions remained. Curiously the setup including a new neck, varnished all over and still rather thick, the Romberg fingerboard and early form of tailpiece are all completely in keeping with an 1830s-1840s to suggest that it was worked on around the time of the London premier. The instrument is so radically experimental for its time that it is quite possibly unique. Short of another identical instrument by Barak Norman emerging, we are edging closer and closer to a certainty that this was the Henry Hill’s fabled viola. To me, at least, it’s become affectionately known as Childe Harold’s Tenore – and why not?


The Royal Orchestral Society… yours truly somewhere amongst the fiddles.

Any project had considerable risks. The instrument is so huge that a question mark hung over whether it would be possible to perform Harold in Italy on it. On the other hand, the project wouldn’t be much fun without aspiring to a full orchestral performance – a risk arguably too great for a professional orchestra, and even a conservatoire would have to find space in their scheduling to enable it, putting it back years. In late 2016 I approached the Royal Orchestral Society, a remarkable amateur orchestra founded in 1872, whose conductors have included Sir Arthur Sullivan, Henry Wood and latterly Orlando Jopling with the idea of mounting an experimental performance. (And my regular orchestra for years). Finding a viola player for the solo proved interesting, as it became difficult to tell artists that we weren’t particularly interested in ‘them’ so much as whether they could play instrument itself. I can’t think of another time such an odd request has been asked of a soloist, and even asking someone to specifically play a Strad or something of that ilk doesn’t require asking them to revise their entire musical approach. In the end though, having explored the possibility with a number of established top-rate viola players we got nowhere, the instrument proved too large and quirky for standard viola technique: The skills that made these musicians outstanding artists were the reasons why the challenge proved impossible, and potentially dangerous to every single one of them.

Fortunately I had been working with Peter Sheppard Skærved at violinist and lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music on a series of other projects on period performance, and the viola was at the centre of his mind. After some weeks of trialling, he figured out a way to approach the virtuosic leaps required for Harold in Italy, allowing the hand to arc from note to note much like cello technique rather than the violin or the viola. We had over a year to go, and could always go to Plan B if need be: Even if we were one-hundred-percent on the right track, it was possible in the end that Henry Hill’s performance was so extravagant a Paganiniesque gesture that it may have lacked the absolute soloist integrity expected of a modern concerto performance. Everything was in the air.


Peter Sheppard Skærved and Barak Norman’s “Gran viola” in practice.

Peter tells me that he has had to take up rock climbing to strengthen his hands for the work. Writing as I am today, the concert is on 27 January 2018 at St John Smith Square. Tickets can be bought here. I’ll update this blog after the concert, hopefully with a full recording… To be continued…


Stradivari’s fabled “Messiah” three centuries on: The most controversial violin in History?

Antonio Stradivari’s “Messiah” made in 1716 is simultaneously the best preserved of all his instruments in existence, and an example from the height of his “Golden Period”. Owing to it’s new-like condition, it was donated to the Ashmolean Museum in 1940 by the firm of W.E. Hill & Sons to become a benchmark for future makers. Despite their high hopes for it, its usefulness has been overshadowed by rumour and legend. Benjamin Hebbert writes to encourage makers to put their doubts aside and embrace it as an encyclopaedic reference to Stradivari’s working methods, and explains how dispassionate forensic science stands shoulder to shoulder with traditional connoisseurship in providing certainty of attribution.  

Every musical instrument kept behind glass has it’s own controversy, as demand for them to be heard conflicts with the museum curator’s responsibility to preserve. With many instruments this is mitigated by their antiquity, obsolescence, and fragile state of preservation but in the world of great violins where seemingly identical instruments are vied for by the leading musicians of the day, this can become a particularly emotive point. Across the world, the famous concert violins of Fritz Kreisler, Nicolo Paganini, Pierre Rode, Delphin Alard and Ole Bull sit silent – or largely so, but none receive quite the same attention as Stradivari’s 1716 masterpiece, the “Messiah”. Fabled as the greatest of all Stradivari’s violins – whatever that means – it was gifted to the the nation and placed in the Ashmolean Museum by W.E. Hill & Sons in 1940 on the express condition it never be played, and with strict restrictions on access which mean that even most violin experts and makers won’t have the chance to hold it in their hands, and study it meaningfully outside of its glass case. For those who want to understand more about its predicament as a silent relic, my 2013 position paper written with the encouragement of the Ashmolean Museum was published by Oxford Today and can be read here: Caged Messiah

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Patently not what we imagine when we think of a great violin from 300 years ago. Stradivari’s 1716 Messiah.

Such situations inspire emotion and ultimately this must add fuel to the controversy over  whether the instrument is genuine or not. Since word of the existence of the violin first reached Parisian violin dealers in the 1820s, it’s existence and authenticity has been shrouded by scepticism. By this point, almost a century after Stradivari’s death, few of his violins had survived without suffering significant wear as a result of how they were played, and the fragility of the varnish. Luigi Tarisio, the violins owner from 1827 boasted of its existence to the amazement of the Parisian trade, but never brought it with him, leading the violinist Delphin Alard to proclaim  ‘Truly your violin is like the Messiah of the Jews: one always expects him but he never appears’. Thus the violin was baptized with the name by which it is still known. Long before Tarisio died in 1854 thanks to his many trips to Paris, the legend of a remarkable, uniquely preserved Stradivari violin from the height of his Golden Period was strong within dealing circles, so when Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume heard of his death and travelled in secret to Turin to secure Tarisio’s collection of violins, it was as if his reputation rode on his ability to secure the crown jewel of all violin making come what may. As some have suggested, the significance of owning the Messiah was so great for Vuillaume, that he had to return to Paris with it whether it existed or not. From thereon the legend was not subject to whether such a violin existed, but whether it was real of fake.


Whatever rumours abounded in the nineteenth century, the violin is harder to comprehend with modern eyes. Alongside Vuillaume’s own copies, the Messiah inspired a wealth of other makers, and in turn it inspired cheaper more mass produced instruments. It’s influence is easy to see in the work of J.B. Colin-Mezin, and into various instruments by the enormous Jerôme Thibouville-Lamy enterprise that produced tens of thousands of instruments for export around the turn of the century. Even preposterously antiqued violins of the Caussin workshop often show a basic Messiah template as the starting point, whilst the essential design passed into factory made instruments of the Far-East: There are simply millions of violins, good and bad that are derived from the Messiah. Many times we hear of it characterised as a “French violin”, but one has to remember that every French violin that looks like it was made after 1854.

The problem is magnified further in the Ashmolean Museum, where inevitably it stands out glowing red amongst a room of gently worn and faded instruments. In fact, it is rivalled in condition by other instruments, Nicolo Amati’s 1649 “Alard” in particular, but they lack the fiery red colour so unique to the Messiah, yet so reminiscent of many of the instruments copied from it. These reasons make it difficult for the modern eye to accept the Messiah without question. It is too complicated an instrument too isolated in its environment to sit comfortably at first glance.

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It is easy to see how the Messiah contrasts disturbingly against the subdued colours of other violins in the collection, Brothers Amati 1618, Nicolo Amati “Alard” 1649, The Messiah, Giovanni Maria c.1580, and Antonio Stradivari “Cipriani Potter” 1683.

It is easy to see why doubt persists, although in many ways the modern viewer is in a better position to judge the instrument than most people who pursued rumour in the last hundred years. We forget that from 1890 until 1931 it was almost constantly in the hands of private collectors, and only with the W.E. Hill & Sons for nine years before it was given to the nation. In the early days at the Ashmolean, display was difficult. The Hill Room, when it was built in 1950 was seldom open, being reserved for special appointment, and with lighting intended to preserve the tapestries that hung on the wall: The lighting was so bad that a scurilous rumour spread around the museum community that the Messiah’s varnish had been bleached by over exposure because it looked so unappealing in that context. It wasn’t until 2009 that anyone could visit the Messiah unfettered and not until 2014 that it  could be observed in a properly lit case for the first time. The first high quality colour photographs of the violin were produced in 1997 by Stewart Pollens in an abortive exploration to publish a revised catalogue of the collection. Afterwards, The Strad Magazine’s poster, published in their special edition in 2011, really the very first time that makers and experts without access to Oxford were able to examine the Messiah in any meaningful detail (read my article from that edition here). Buy the poster here.

Between 1997 and 2000 stirrings were afoot concerning the Messiah, leading to a front-page exposure in the Sunday Times. Stewart Pollens, a distinguished instrument scholar and Associate Conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art had made preliminary investigations towards producing a catalogue of the collection. He was already well acquainted with Cremonese archives having documented The Violin Forms of Antonio Stradivari a watershed at the time in bringing Stradivari’s working methods to a wider audience, and his research uncovered many of the apparent inconsistencies in the provenance of the Messiah from the time that it was purportedly in Count Cozio’s hands. Preliminary questions were raised – was this Stradivari the one owned by Cozio or another one? Arguably crucial elements of the violins provenance had been swept under the carpet by complacent dealers and experts raising a variety of possibilities about it.

At the same time, pioneering studies were taking place into the dendrochronology of stringed instruments. In Britain by John Topham and Derek McCormick, and in Germany by Professor Peter Klein. The two methodologies couldn’t have been more different. The Topham-McCormick technique used a gantry mounted microscope to measure the rings non-invasively and the data was fed directly into a computer programme that cross referenced the results against all know sources on the database. By contrast, Klein had already earned a significant reputation for his work on Renaissance oak panel paintings, and was a kind of granfather figure from the very earliest ages of dendrochronology of cultural objects. His measurements were taken directly off the surface of the object using a magnifying lens, and the resulting sequence drawn as a graph onto tracing paper and overlaid on a master chronology until he found a match. When he was sent photographs of an anonymous, new looking violin it is obvious that he would have started his search in the most plausible place, moving back in time. As the dates became less plausible for the objects appearance, he would have placed greater reliance on a fainter resemblance of his sequence fatally settling on a low lying cross match with an outer-ring date of 1738, the year following Stradivari’s death. The consequences were deadly, as this seemed to be the ‘smoking gun’ that gave credibility to the doubts surrounding all questions concerning the Messiah. In 1998 he addressed the Violin Society of America Conference with his findings that the Messiah was a fake. Almost two years later Topham and McCormick fired back with a peer reviewed article in the Journal of Archaeological Science showing their findings of an outer-ring date of 1682 with significant cross matches against other Stradivari violins of undisputed authenticity, showing that the tree was cut down before the Messiah was made. Read here. “Strad Wars” kicked off, as a witty Times reporter dubbed it.

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Shortly afterwards the Violin Society of America commissioned a group of independent climatological scientists to arbitrate between the two results. Their exercise vindicated the Topham-McCormick’s result (Read here), and no one has since been able to replicate the 1738 date, or the purported cross match with the “Lord Wilton” that followed. Whilst Klein retracted his findings, Pollens remained convinced that other questions remained to be answered. It was remotely possible that Vuillaume had acquired a specimen of Stradivari’s wood, whilst an over reliance on Cozio’s notebooks treated them like notarised deeds of ownership rather that the ad hoc collection of drafts produced over many years that they were. I very much doubt that Cozio’s writings are anything more than circumstantial evidence, however compelling they are, but whilst they may raise issues of provenance, which had been swept under the carpet and deserved to be revisited with a critical eye, they did not raise issues of authorship and attribution. Whatever the history of the Messiah, sometimes Ockham’s Razor is a useful tool – Where there exist two explanations for an occurrence. In this case the simpler one is usually better – the possibility of a second near perfect Stradivari from the height of the Golden period hiding out of sight until Vuillaume needed it to fulfil a legend is less probable than accepting warts-and-all documents of from a dilettante with a wandering mind. Nevertheless, there was always pressure on the Messiah which would have trickled on forever. We should be grateful for Stewart Pollens for opening Pandora’s Box as widely as it could. It paved the way to explore the questions and inconsistencies about the violin and about its provenance. For good or for bad, “Strad Wars” was timely and much needed.


For a while, dendrochronology was the casualty of the debate, with seemingly disparate dates available for the same tree. No one has been able to replicate the 1738 date with any statistical validity, whilst suddenly an enormous range of home-grown dendrochronologists started offering a bizarre range of dates despite 1682 being supported by an independent panel of experts. Whilst professionals in the violin trade knuckled down to understand exactly what was going on, conspiracy theorists sought to bypass the inconvenient truth of the matter, fixating on the idea that independent dendrochronologists had found divergent dates rather than questioning the circumstances. Over the years accusations rumbled on. The spectre of a world-wide mafia with much to lose if the instrument was fake reared its head. It was even suggested that in collusion with the Ashmolean the Hills had added a painted “G” mark to the interior of the pegbox sometime after 1997 to help the instrument’s authenticity. Nonetheless by 2011 the last serious word had been spoken. The year before, Stewart Pollens had published Stradivari with Cambridge University Press. Alongside one of the most useful and exhaustive analysis of Stradivari’s life, he set out his final arguments. This was followed in short order by the Musical Instruments in the Ashmolean Museum, in many ways the first comprehensive published argument to put the record straight.

Despite all odds, new breeds of conspiracy theorists continued to evolve under the illusion that they have something to say, and by 2015 the Messiah had reached a similar status in the public eye as Shakespeare’s true identity, Area 51, or believers in the Da Vinci Code. No one could have guessed that someone would produce the most tedious book ever written on the violin. The assumption, strong as always that the house of cards would come tumbling down when the Messiah was exposed as a fake remained.

Meanwhile sensible things were happening. In 2013 the leading violin expert, Charles Beare was able to mount an extraordinary exhibition of Stradivari’s works at the Ashmolean in which the Messiah took centre stage. The catalogue can be purchased here. The Messiah may be the most complete in terms of it’s preservation, but that does not mean that other instruments don’t share the same purity and features in part here and there. The result was to create a nexus of some of the finest surviving Stradivari instruments, the inner circle of which all contributed directly towards analysing the Messiah from a connoisseurly point of view with an outer circle that helped to place them in a broader, firmer context. Many times since, I have heard it said that “if you were at the 2013 exhibition you could not have failed to be impressed by the similarities between the Messiah and the other violins as to leave you in no doubt of its authenticity.” It pains me to hear that, because although it is absolutely right, by now a generation of Violin Making students have passed through college and many other people across the world with opinions to spill never got to experience the event. It was a unique and extraordinary experience for those who were there at the time. I spent fifteen whole days in the exhibition, with time aside to rest my eyes.

The Messiah back in Cremona 300 years on.

The tercentenary of the violins birth in 2016 allowed it back to Italy for the first time, to be displayed in Cremona in an exhibition curated by Gregg Alf. I had to question my sanity in taking two trips to Italy and the number of times I revisited a violin that I had studied so long in the ten-or-so years I lived in Oxford, but the joy of seeing it amongst three of the finest specimens of Vuillaume’s copying was superb. Back in 2012 Ingles & Hayday (then Sotheby’s musical instrument department) had mounted a superb exhibition of Vuillaume’s work and I had spent three of four days ritually taking notes and returning in the afternoon to Oxford to compare my observations against the Messiah – just as I had with the Vuillaume’s vaunted Evangelist Quartet, but there is nothing quite like seeing the same things in the same room. Just as important were Giuseppe Rocca’s copies of the Messiah – crude, yet distinctive that were made in Turin when it was owned by Luigi Tarisio, confirmation of the history of the violin prior to 1854 that was conveniently overlooked by conspiracy theorists at large.  Better still, the Museo del Violino had enabled the Messiah to undergo unrivalled scientific study. The Absolute Stradivari: The Messie violin 1716-2016 and the associated study day comprised the fruits of this study. It summarised some of Brigitte Brandmair’s excellent work on varnish, and revisited John Topham’s dendrochronological studies over a decade after they had first been published, and led to some gems in the most unexpected corners that significantly added to our knowledge of things. As I left the study day, one thing that had been left unsaid was the corroborative quality of different strands of evidence.

In 2017 I was honoured to be able to be chairman and organiser of the Messiah 301 conference at Oxford for the British Violin Making Association with the blessing of the Ashmolean Museum, and just as importantly the blessing of the Museo del Violino. It was an opportunity to reconvene the most important papers of their study day, and combine them with other missing parts of the story: If people persist on thinking the violin is by Vuillaume, lets invite someone – Bruce Carlson – who has restored both Vuillaumes and Stradivaris to offer his opinion on their varying construction. Lets ask Jean-Jacques Rampal, as the effective descendant of Vuillaume’s legacy to teach us more about Vuillaume’s workshop. With a year to digest, what could Carlo Chiesa tell us about Count Cozio’s Carteggio, and specifically about the questions raised over it. But most importantly what was the impact of the forensic evidence that had been put forward?

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Here was the very heart of the issue as I understood it. To put it frankly (time to put your tinfoil hat on, if you may), the authenticity of the Messiah as a purely connoisseurly judgement comes down to the experience of seeing and recalling many other Stradivaris, (and many instruments that are not Stradivaris), in order to be able to make a judgement. People who have invested enough time and expertise in the question tend to have a vested interest in the subject, because – it can be argued, they are a part of the mafia, the global conspiracy that has much to lose if they are wrong. Hence, the perfect conspiracy theory follows that the harder you argue that it is genuine, the more you appear to have a vested interest: Much like the United States Government trying to argue that there are no aliens in a secret bunker in Area 51 – the more they deny it, the more they are doing what the conspiracy theorists expect them to do, yet they cannot rationally do otherwise.

In the end this can become a race to the bottom, with one persons word against another, with one person picking apart the inconsistencies of what another seems to have said until the argument becomes abstracted beyond recognition from the original question and the winner is the one with the greater stamina: Somebody in America around the end of the nineteenth century wrote “Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” That somebody may have been Mark Twain, although it’s delightfully poetic that scholars of American literature contest to this day whether it is an authentic quote of his or not.

What attracted me in curating most of all in the Oxford conference was that it was seemingly possible to provide enough separate threads of highly credible forensic evidence for a scientific argument to stand shoulder to shoulder with a conventional connoisseurly judgement. Dendrochronology, Varnish Analysis and the results of CT Scans all provided highly credible evidence of their own, but put together it seemed that they had the scientific weight to test a secure conviction, a scenario that seemed arguably to be possible for the first time in the history of violin expertise.

My own experience with Dendrochronology harks back to Student days, and my baptism of fire in 2000 was to be sitting immediately in front of Stewart Pollens when John Topham was giving his paper to demonstrate his technique at a conference in Edinburgh. I’d followed all sides of the story with great interest, and my respect for Stewart was all the more after spending a year’s fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve always had taken his questions sincerely and seriously, even if I found myself disagreeing with his conclusions. I had seen how dendrochronology had developed and the power of cross matching instruments against each other. With thousands of instruments on four independent databases across Europe the technique was beyond infancy and able to yield profoundly informative forensic detail. John’s work by this point had been able to demonstrate statistical groupings of Stradivari’s wood use, placing the Messiah’s 1716 date as consistent with those instruments that resembled it closest from a scientific point of view. You can review his work in The Absolute Messiah, and the high quality of data that it yields after many years of adding to the database after the initial findings of 2000. Meanwhile, the more recent presentation by Peter Ratcliff, another excellent dendrochronologist surrounds a particularly strong match between wood of the Messiah and the 1717 Wilhelmj Stradivari gives the best insight to date into the nature and reliability of dendrochronology. If you want to understand dendrochronology for yourself, this video is indispensable.

My luck had allowed me to be an intermediary for Brigitte Brandmair and Jan Röhrmann in the production of the Stradivari Varnish project  back in 2009 along with Stefan Peter Greiner, enabling me to gain a first hand understanding of the process and them to  access to the Ashmolean Museum and to our surprise to being able to involve the Messiah in the project as we thought the rules would be too strict to allow it. Brigitte, a conservation scientist with a background in guitar making, had observed a characteristic layer between the wood and the varnish that was identifiable under Ultraviolet light at magnification, that was common to Classical Italian Instruments of Cremona, Brescia and closely related schools, but not present elsewhere. At the most basic level Vuillaume’s instruments did not respond under Ultraviolet in the same manner with the Messiah  was consistently Cremonese, with this intermediary layer simply not detectable with nineteenth century technology, removing the possibility that the instrument could have been made outside of the Classical Cremonese system.

Lastly Gregg Alf had overseen CT Scanning of the instrument, allowing us a detailed look into it’s construction methods, both making it easier to observe elements that were difficult under normal conditions, and providing new ways to see things that may have been completely impossible without taking the instrument apart. Mysteries like the lack of iron stain on the neck, leading to the belief that there were no nails in the neck were dispelled in an instant, but of the varied observations, his ability to digitally place Stradivari’s existing PG mould into the ribs was of extraordinary importance. Although the mould form was predicatable (Stewart Pollens had first noted it after writing his authoritative book on Stradivari’s moulds and patterns), the vacant areas for the blocks are randomly cut, providing six block shapes – and essentially fourteen reference points aligned, showing that the violin had been made from that unique mould. Along with such elements as the scratch marks from Stradivari’s sound hole placement, demonstrably not practiced by Vuillaume and others, the CT Scans provided another compelling strand of evidence with which to assess the Messiah.


Benjamin Hebbert, John Topham, Bruce Carlson, Carlo Chiesa, Brigitte Brandmair, Jean-Jacques Rampal, Gregg Alf, Stefan von Baehr, Emilio Crabbé, Bruno Guastella and Philip Ihle, (Colin Harrison missing). The team for the Oxford Conference.

The Oxford conference could not have been done without the energies of the Museo del Violino in Cremona, Brigitte’s, John’s and Gregg’s research is published in The Absolute Stradivari by the museum in Cremona. However, at Oxford we were able to advance the point a crucial element further. In this instance, we could show three separate strands of forensic science that were able to deliver independently supportive evidence towards the authenticity of the Messiah as 1) A violin of classical Cremonese making 2) made using the same precise wood source used by Stradivari around the year 1716 3) made in his workshop using techniques familiar to him and using moulds belonging to Antonio Stradivari that still survive in the Museo del Violino. This has the equivalence of finding the fingerprint evidence, DNA evidence, the muddy boot print at the scene of the crime and the boot that matches it. The case for a solid conviction based on forensic evidence that is completely independent from traditional connoisseurship arguments was compelling, and for probably the first time a compelling case for authorship could be put from a forensic point alone.

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Fingerprints, DNA evidence, the muddy boot print and the boots to match. The Forensic basis for authenticating the Messiah sits shoulder-to-shoulder with traditional connoisseurship.

This leaves unanswered questions. Who in the Stradivari workshop made it? John Dilworth, an expert I admire greatly has put forward a supposition that it is the hand of the young Giovanni Baptista Martino Stradivari, the great hope to succeed his father who died prematurely in 1727.  I argue that in a busy workshop that included at least three sons, and the occasional presence of Carlo Bergonzi and others, there were times when the senior hand would have to make a violin from start to finish to assert his authority. The chamfers on the scroll hark back to the violins of the 1680s and 1690s when Antonio Stradivari was working alone, and perhaps this is the rarest of all treasures, a genuine golden period Strad made entirely by Antonio. Whatever the reason, it made it special enough to be passed through the Stradivari line to Paolo Stradivari, the grandson who sold it pristine to Count Cozio. These are the a priori propositions whose plausibility is only cancelled out by the plausibility of the other and do nothing to diminish the essential truth of a violin made in the Stradivari workshop in 1716.

Do I think controversy will ever die? Probably not. It’s preservation unplayed in near perfect condition is a preposterous contradiction to the violins we are used to seeing, but those are the same reasons that the 1820s Paris trade was in awe of the tantalising possibility that it could exist. Growing to understand it is an essential journey for any violin maker seeking to understand Stradivari at his best and purest, but that has to start with disbelief and incredulity which means that generations of upcoming violin makers will never cease to question it as they approach it for the first time. Delphin Alard may have named it because “one always expects him but he never appears”. In the 21st century I think the Messiah is an even more appropriate name because of the test of faith that it presents. Nevertheless we now have the tools to put forward a compelling rational scientific argument in its favour devoid of the emotional nature of connoisseurly judgement.

As far as the Ashmolean Museum is concerned, they are only interested in the truth.



My thanks to the Museo del Violino in Cremona, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Stewart Pollens, John Topham, Bruce Carlson, Carlo Chiesa, Brigitte Brandmair, Jean-Jacques Rampal, Gregg Alf, Stefan von Baehr, Emilio Crabbé, Bruno Guastella and Philip Ihle, John Dilworth Colin Harrison, Charles Beare, and everyone who has every looked at the Messiah with me on more visits than I can admit of.


The Forensic Challenges of a Renaissance Cittern

One of the highlights of British instrument making of the Renaissance is a small “Shakespearean-period” cittern that turned up unexpectedly on my desk in 2007. At the time, despite an enviable repertoire and historical record, no English examples were known. As a result, the business of authenticating what turned out to be the only known English example involved producing comparisons from an enormous field of different instruments made around the same time. By using a forensic nexus of comparable instruments it was possible to provide a compelling identification of the cittern within a demonstrably English context. 

My story with this instrument begins one morning in 2007 at Christie’s Rockefeller Centre with a phone-call from reception that a lady had dropped off two violins wrapped in a blanket. None, it transpired were violins. The familiar of the two was a mute viola d’amore  last seen in 1999 at the sale of the Barons Albert and Nathaniel Rothschild. A wonderful piece that ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That would have been prize enough, but the next instrument to reveal itself took my breath away.

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The cittern whose label reads “Petrus Raitta … [illegible]” Now in the National Music Museum, South Dakota

The cittern was one of the most important instruments of the Renaissance and survives more in paintings than surviving instruments.  Somewhat less than fifteen examples are known in museums across Europe and North America. Most of them are Italian, made in Urbino or Brescia, whilst there is a strong history of them in Dutch golden-age paintings. However, whilst the cittern was much in use in Italy and beyond, it is specifically it’s English repertoire from the mid-sixteenth century onwards that is particularly rich – arguably the most virtuosic of all music ever written for the instrument. Years ago musicologists realised that the music was probably only possible if the English played on a smaller cittern than surviving Italian examples. Michael Praetorius the seventeenth-century composer and music theorist described such an instrument, a kleine Englische zitterlein in his ‘De Organographia’ of Syntagma Musicum (1619). He wrote of how:

About three years ago an Englishman came to Germany with a very small citterlein, the back of which was left half open and not glued. On it, he could bring about a strange but very lovely and beautiful harmony with fine, pure diminutions and trembling hand, so that it is heard with curious pleasure. [This sound/technique] might now be practiced in the same manner by some distinguished lutenists.


Michael Praetorius’s Klein Englisch Zitterlein is number 7 on the engraving from De Organographia (1619)

Sometimes expertise of instruments is the result of careful study slowly getting towards a conclusion of what something might be without any real guarantee in the end of a result  (It my take months with a particularly difficult violin). Other times a conclusion can be instantaneous and firm – the type that Malcolm Gladwell describes in Blink. This type of decision can be no slower in reality, because then the process begins of questioning it and looking further to the reasons why it was wrong. To me the instrument was had an immediate certainty to it, but that confidence could be as destructive to a correct attribution as not. The problem was that if I were right, it would be a stellar discovery and completely unique. It had to take its time.

As an auctioneer for Christie’s, we had further problems. It had historically been described as a mid-17th century Italian cittern prior to the Rothschild sale in 1998 – one of the most significant auctions of recent years, with a low estimate of just a few thousand pounds before being withdrawn from the sale because of its perceived low value and because a serious crack in the ribs diminished its quality against the other treasures in the sale. Although many objects had done better than their estimate in the sale, we were obliged to stick to an estimate that reflected the original judgement back in 1998. It made for a rather silly looking sales catalogue with an estimate of just $4000-6000 (it sold for a deserved $180,000). It was political enough to change the nationality of the instrument from Italian to English, which most people would have assumed would damage it’s sale prospects. At the same time, auction being what it is, you can’t hold an instrument back for six months whilst writing an academic paper on it. It had to go out as best it could by the catalogue deadline, because that was the job in hand. Meanwhile behind the scenes I was having sensible conversations with serious buyers – “ignore the estimate, you know what it’s worth to you”. There are many serious musical instrument collections that don’t have a cittern from any country, and an instrument with a demonstrable connection to Shakespeare’s culture or to Praetorius’s Syntagma Muscium had a significant cachet.

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A Brescian cittern by Girolamo Virchi made in 1574. The design of the little cittern was obviously derived from a similar Brescian work.

When we try to describe the process of identifying something it ends up as a kind of systematic list, however the actual process is instantaneous with ideas coming from all directions. I already knew that the size of Praetorius’s klein Englische zitterlein was about the same as a violin from head to toe thanks to the scaled drawings in De Organographia, but what seriously interested me was the materials and techniques that the instrument was made from. The English style of around 1600 is familiar from various viola da gamba and other instruments including the cittern-like bandora and various surviving instruments exist. Some years before I had begun examining those that existed in order to get an idea of an early English school. Nothing was so directly connected to it as to identify a particular maker, but it was well within an overall style and similarities could be seen across a relatively wide range of surviving instruments (relatively wide, in so far as these were relatively rare to begin with). At the same time, it was important to compare the instrument more broadly to make sure comparisons weren’t inadvertently being made to wider European traits. Despite everything that appeared English, the design itself was fundamentally a reduced version of a Brescian model exemplified through Girolamo Virchi’s work of the 1560-70s.

One of the significant departures from Italian work comes in the form of the gothic tracery rosette. Tracery of this general sort does appear throughout Europe on harpsichord rosettes, and is relatively rare on stringed instruments. However, there is a stylistic resemblance between this and the rosette of an orpharion – a uniquely English instrument – made by Francis Palmer in  London in 1619 (who, to judge by the head must have been closely associated with Henry Jaye’s whose heads are in a very similar style).

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The general gothic scheme of the rosette as compared to an orpharion by Francis Palmer, London, 1619.

Against a variety of other English sources the styling of the fruitwood tracery and infil of the rosette made much better sense, with examples by Henry Jaye, Henry Smith and William Turner into the middle of the seventeenth century showing consistent use of both the trefoil infil and also the decoration around the edges of vacant spandrels. Note particularly the way that each arm of the tracery is parted and how it is cut at an angle.

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The cittern’s sound hole as compared to a 1624 tenor viol by Henry Jaye (Musee de la Musique, Paris).

The pegbox has a rather pleasing dog’s head doesn’t have any particular concordance with other carved heads of the period, in part because they are so few, but the detail of the decoration is indicative of English work from the decades either side of 1600. I am nervous to compare it too readily to Jaye’s style of carving (which reflects wider English styles of the time) but the general concept for the eyebrows has a degree of commonality  with the way he constructs a human face.

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Henry Jaye’s “Marsyas” head of 1619, note the exaggerated eyebrows.

The use of a circular punch embellishment for the pegbox walls is effectively identical to the technique applied by John Rose in 1580 for his Cymbalom Decachordon a kind of early guitar with ten wire strings (five courses).

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Detail of circular punch marks on the cittern against the John Rose Cymbalom Decachordon made in 1580. Comparison to the tailpiece and fingerboard of the British Museum citole, with the associated date 1578 (below) is also compelling.


Another compelling comparison for the cittern comes from the matching tailpiece and fingerboard of the British Museum citole, a fourteenth century musical instrument that was converted by the Bassano family in London to become a violin, using ready-made violin fittings from their own, or another London workshop. In general terms this kind of decoration seems to fade out by about 1605 and is last found on the Ashmolean’s viol by Richard Blunt. Henry Jaye adopted a much smaller punch and it carries on throughout the early seventeenth century. Although other makers from other countries – Joachim Tielke in Hamburg, for example, adopt it at the end of the seventeenth century, it appears from surviving instruments to be an exclusively English trait in the decades around 1600.

Jaye’s relief carving differs between instruments, either a rather flattish naturalistic acanthus leaf pattern seen on the 1619 Jaye bass and in earlier instruments such as the Ashmolean’s Richard Blunt of 1604, or a Mannerist Renaissance form of his 1624 bass viol that is inherited directly from earlier from templates either inherited or derived from the John Rose workshop prior to 1600. Although the pegbox walls have been lowered with circular punches, there is a small vestigial clover leaf in the corner of the pegbox side, which is very much in common with Blunt’s work of around 1604 and the Jaye of 1619.

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Details from Richard Blunt c.1605 (Boston, MFA) the Raitta cittern and Jaye 1619 (London, RCM).

Other elements of the pegbox suggest English work. Without direct comparisons, the low relief carving and it’s acanthus design is well within the forms that are familiar on English viols. Likewise the approach to cutting the pegbox.

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Interior work on the pegbox of a Henry Jaye violin is essentially identical.

The instrument shares with Henry Jaye, for example a similar shape of chamfer as the pegbox meets the nut of the instrument, and the general margins of the carving are much the same, once again more in line with English instruments where relief carving is an accepted feature of the scroll and outside of other extant comparables. It may even seem over simplistic, but in the sixteenth century a violin-type pegbox was still not the expected technology for citterns which harkened back to earlier instruments with the pegs protruding from a solid block instead.

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Relief-carved scrolls are usual for English viols of this period and rare elsewhere. The general scaling of the cittern’s scroll accords well with Henry Jaye’s work especially noting the margins around the edge.

Choices of wood, finally, seem to be a consistent characteristic of English making, with decisions about purfling that follow. Varieties of fruitwood are used extensively, although the nature of them is that as they get old the cell structures tend to look increasingly similar and a general darkening means that it is not really practical to identify individual words. Nevertheless, plum or pear is a likely contender for the ribs and neck, whilst a darker wood that may equally be yew is used on the back alternating with maple. In all cases there seems to be a particular interest in using especially gnarled and characterful pieces of maple. Purfling on English instruments of this group alternates depending on the wood – on maple it is black/white/black, and on yew or other dark woods it changes to white/black/white. This is the case on the Francis Palmer bandora of 1619, and of an instrument possibly by William Bowcleffe made around 1600 or earlier, as well as on the cittern. Later makers in other countries, especially eighteenth century France adopted similar styles, but omit the purfling detail, and tend to use distinctly different woods.

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No element of itself guarantees that the instrument was made in England and not elsewhere, yet point after point about the instrument has strong concordances amongst a  handful of instruments that are regarded as English of a certain type, and that hold together coherently, and they in turn extend out towards a wider nexus of instruments of broader and in some cases more confident attribution. Just as importantly there are are no competing traditions of making that significantly cross reference these traits. When examined in this manner, it does not matter that it is the only cittern in existence when the same craftsmanship traits exist throughout allied instruments made around the same time, though someone who is only interested in citterns would find it difficult to build connections with different instruments the likenesses are such that it becomes illogical to hold out for an alternative proposition.

After the instrument was sold to the National Music Museum in South Dakota, John Koster and Andrew Dipper were able to look at the label with greater detail than was possible in the limited time and facilities of the auction house. It is printed and as best we know reads “Petrus Raitta” with an illegible date. One possibility is that it is reference to Raitea, the name of the Roman province that included Füssen, whose instrument making guild produced makers that travelled around the entire of Europe. As a result, the only place, from Bologna to Venice to London that the instrument is unlikely to have been made in is Fussen itself, as “Petrus Raitta” would seem to be a name adopted by someone that had moved away from his native town (as Gaspar da Salo worked in Brescia, Giovanni Maria da Brescia worked in Venice, the Bassano family from Bassano worked in Venice and London and so forth). Although England seems to have had its own native instrument makers, explicitly John Rose, the Bassano family, Comeys from Cremona and the Lupo family from Milan were amongst Italian instrument makers brought to London in 1538, whilst German makers also seem to have settled in number around the city. Early records of lute makers in England as far back as the 1560s with John White “almaine” indicate the settling of German makers in England of one sort or another. Sometime after 1600 Jacob Rayman settled in Southwark from Füssen and it is entirely consistent that a maker should style himself in this manner. Potentially working with him was Thomas Miller alias Maller of St Andrew’s Holborn “Dutchman and noe denizen” who was recorded in 1621 working also in Southwark, recalling another familiar Füssen name.

In terms of dating the instrument, it was impossible to be completely clear on when the instrument was made. In this blog, several of the examples used to demonstrate authenticity come from around 1580 and others from the mid 1620s. In many respects that represents a long period of time and change, but in musical instruments and many other decorative art forms the high point of the Elizabethan era became a “golden Age”. A date around 1580, therefore is as viable as one from the 1620s given the long period with little stylistic change.

After her death, James I consciously modelled his court as a successor of Elizabeth because he feared that casting her legacy aside would make him politically unpopular. Hence that there are only subtle differences in what some architectural historians call the ‘Jacobethan’ period. English virginals continued a circa 1590s aesthetic well into the 1670s, whilst the Francis Palmer orpharion is an excellent example of an instrument associated most with the 1580s produced in 1619 with no significant variation on its design and John Rose’s concepts of the viol only see subtle changes in the seventeenth century. The gilded parchment on the rosette is particularly close to the style seen in Henry Jaye’s work of around 1620 and that alone provides an indication that the instrument may possibly be from the later part of a period that ends around 1625 with the influence of Inigo Jones and the markedly different approach to monarchy of Charles I with the attendant changes in fashion. Dendrochronology undertaken by Peter Ratcliff in 2017 gives a definite youngest tree ring date of 1610, placing the instrument well within the period of Henry Jaye’s viols (to which it seems particularly familiar) and the Francis Palmer bandora.

“Peter of Fussen” working in London in around the final years of Shakespeare’s life and integrated within the local traditions of instrument making, and perhaps drawn to Southwark where other Douchmen and Alamains were making instruments, closely related to the Jaye workshop? There is nothing unlikely about that, it’s just a shame we don’t know a tiny bit more.

Baroque Bass Bars

In a series of blogs, Benjamin Hebbert looks at the ideas behind the “baroque violin” and questions the assumptions that are brought into play in defining a historically informed sound. 

At some time, I will get around to writing a fuller criticism of David Boyden’s A History of Violin Playing from it’s Origins to 1761, which was a praiseworthy landmark in the development of historically informed performance. His visit to Oxford University where he was invited to write the Catalogue of the Hill Collection of Musical Instruments, appeared to give him unrivalled access to instruments preserved in pure condition, but without guidance and a broader context this led him to make several assumptions that helped to form a late 20th century perspective of what constituted a “baroque violin”. Assumption number one, that baroque bass bars are shorter than modern ones.

The truth is that there hasn’t really been a universal standard for making until well into the nineteenth century. If one can argue that the Parisian standards of Jean Baptiste Vuillaume and his contemporaries effectively codified a ‘modern’ tradition based on Stradivari, it was probably W.E. Hill & Sons in London from the 1880s onwards who did the most to retrospectively apply these standards to fine antique instruments, so that by the middle of the 20th century universal standards applied to all instruments.

Prior to this, bass bars seem to have been a mixed bag. Some factory instruments went only so far as to put a sliver of wood parallel to the soundholes to give the appearance of a bass bar, whilst infinite numbers of experiments in the 19th and 20th century led to an array of interesting and unsuccessful ideas that persist to today. Some bass bars run parallel to the centre of the instrument, others at an angle, and there is considerable science about where they should be placed relative to the foot of the bridge, which means that instruments with a narrow width between the soundholes may have to have a bass bar that slightly overlaps the upper eye by modern standards, which clearly contradicts the original makers intentions. In short, the history of bass bars is a mess. The weediest original bass bar I recall seeing was in a Giuseppe Gagliano made in Naples of about 1780. The longest, widest, highest and heaviest was an integral bass bar (i.e. carved out of the belly) of a Giovanni Grancino cello of about 1690, which had about an inch clearance at the top and the bottom of the belly.

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Giuseppe Gagliano, Naples circa 1780. The bass bar is almost full length, but rather low and as thin as a lollipop stick. I’ve seen shorter bass bars, but this counts amongst the most ineffectual I’ve seen. 

So, whilst bass bars seem to have been made to any size at all, including what we would call modern, there is no particular evidence that they were generally smaller, or larger, or even the same as those of modern day. Yet, when Boyden wrote the Catalogue of the Hill Collection he would have been confronted with the preservation of Stradivari’s original bass bar from the 1716 Messiah kept separately from the instrument itself. In their own words the Hills speak of The Necessity of opening the instrument, in order to insert a stronger bass bar, gave us an opportunity of examining the inside, which is as remarkable as the outside. … The bass bar which Vuillaume then fitted was not strong enough, and allowed after a time a slight depression of the belly, necessitating the renewal above referred to. Excepting for the change of bar, everything inside is as Stradivari left it. 

Whatever the reason for Vuillaume replacing the bass bar in the first place after he acquired it in 1854, we cannot really speculate, but it was not a universally approved of practice. The 1709 Stradivari “La Pucelle” earned its reputation because it had never been opened when Vuillaume acquired it at auction in 1851, both underlying the importance he placed on it’s pristine condition, and how rare it already was to find an instrument so well preserved. David Laurie, the Scottish violin dealer was at least one authority who spoke against this, recalling his experience with the 1744 Carrodus del Gesu when he sold it to Rudolph Gleichauff, retold in his Reminisces of a Fiddle Dealer (London, 1900) in which he adamantly proposed retaining the original neck and bass bar of the instrument because it was at it’s full potential. Gleichauff didn’t heed his advice, and in the modernisation, he reports, it lost it’s tone. Nonetheless, Laurie’s tale seems to be a single dissenting voice in a tide of change, and almost all bass bars have been changed at one time or another. Many have been changed several times over.

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Stradivari’s 1709 La Pucelle famed through the nineteenth century for never been opened eventually received a new bass bar after it reached America in the 20th century.

Whilst the Hills explain their intervention in slightly abstract terms, there is a bottom line to this. At some point deep in history, instrument makers discovered that if you fit a bar under tension to an instrument it gives the tone considerable more punch. We know that in the sixteenth-century lute makers had sussed this out, and the bars of a lute have a slight concavity planed into them, giving the soundboard a little bit of a ‘scoop’. Whether this passed to violin makers back in antiquity, or if they arrived at the same conclusions centuries later remains a mystery. We can go back even further and find an array of early-Renaissance instruments which worked on a principle of bending a flat belly over contoured ribs to provide structural integrity, whilst viol makers including Gaspar da Salo were adept at making some instruments with bent wood staves, so the concept of tensioning – one way or other – may be far more ancient than the invention of the violin.

These observations may be circumstantial, nonetheless Stradivari had certainly figured out ways of fitting the belly of a violin under tension by planing down the ribs from the middle of the c-bouts to the top block so that the belly is glued under tension in a stressed manner. If he was thinking along those lines, tensioning a bass bar would be a logical next step. Whichever way, over time a bass bar loses its tension as time passes, so although the practice is now one of last resort, it can be desirable to replace a bass bar every so often. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this practice became part and parcel of every major restoration and improvement of violins as they entered the market. The result was that old bass bars, whether they worked or not, and whatever their size would simply be removed and replaced because of the advantages of a freshly tensioned system.

Overall, I view the modern bass bar as a kind of average of what people tried in the past whose length is sensible and proportionate to the overall design, and I don’t believe that we have the effective tools to judge what was historically relevant for specific instruments. I also contest whether removing a ‘sprung’ bass bar has  any relevance to baroque performance, especially when we consider that Stradivari’s violins all used other means to tension the front. I would even go so far as to suggest that the few historic bass bars that have been saved or recorded have been so because they are the outliers that generate curiosity. The many more normal ones may have been replaced without remark.

For baroque and period players I argue strongly against worrying about changing a bass bar when looking for an instrument for period performance, even though this has been one of the pillars of what defines a baroque violin for many years.

In the meantime, I will slowly add to my collection of photographs of bass bars of note.


An early eighteenth-century bass bar from a Stradivari pattern violin by Daniel Parker made in London around 1710 placed on a modern Stradivari copy by W.E. Hill & Sons from about 1920. The differences are noteworthy, but don’t constitute the broad changes in development suggested by traditional literature on period performance.



This violin by Robert Cuthbert, made in London in 1685 is closely modelled after Nicolo Amati. Yet again, the original bass bar compares strongly against a W.E. Hill & Sons of around 1920.

How much has this violin been played?

One of the questions that I frequently hear as a violin dealer is whether a violin has been played regularly or not. It is one of the questions that well intentioned teachers seem to think should be asked, and that should have some material effect on the choice of an instrument, however it is often a question that a dealer doesn’t have an answer for, and with experience of setting instruments up and working to get the best out of them it may not be the most important question in the decision to buy an instrument. 

To some extent this relies on the phenomenon of ‘playing in’ and the belief that an instrument needs to be played to sound at its best. Generally speaking, where ‘playing in’ does have an effect is over a short period of hours or days, more akin to ‘waking the instrument up’ rather than a continual process of pumping music through its body for hundreds of years. I have known of instruments that have not been played for decades that have hit the ground running with a superb sound from the moment they’ve had a new bridge and soundpost. Occasionally an instrument may need to settle into a new setup, irrespective of whether it has been played continually or not, so it may need soundpost adjustments over the first weeks after a restoration and at an extreme, but this again has nothing to do with how long it’s been played for: A stringed instrument is a fairly organic object.

On the other hand, a great deal of what we call ‘playing in’ is the influence of a new violin on the musician. Of course you have to learn how to get the most out of a different violin – figure out how it reacts differently to the one you are used to, discover that to get a familiar type of sound you have to approach the instrument differently, and understand how it offers more. This isn’t always easy or obvious. If you are fairly rigid in the way you play, and expect a particular kind of response from your instrument, you may find some instruments unsatisfying, but once more this isn’t really a product of how long they have been played and by whom.


When these two instruments came to our studio they were time capsules from the 1930s complete with period-cases hardly touched. The minimum of work and a new set of strings and they were immediately strong, rich, and ready for professional use, yet I suspect they had never been played.

When it comes to the playing history of an instrument, there is often a sentimentality of wanting to be reassured of a purchase by knowing who owned it last that is justified by the few famous instruments that are sold with provenances that go back hundreds of years. Sadly those are the tip of the iceberg in violin sales, and the vast majority of instruments don’t have any provenance at all. Unless I buy an instrument directly from a musician, I won’t know who owned it last, and auction houses in particular make client confidentiality the absolute unbreakable rule for how they work. If I do buy an instrument from a musician or act on their behalf, they very often want anonymity and if it comes from a musician’s estate my point of contact may be the solicitor or family members who have entrusted the instrument to me in order that they aren’t involved any further in the sale, so there is often a huge discrepancy between the information a prospective buyer wants (and may think they are entitled to) and what I can give, morally and lawfully.

In terms of whether that information is meaningful, that raises further points. I have known of instruments that ostensibly belonged to relatives of long-dead musicians, but were loaned to professionals for years. Contra-wise, I have sold the second violins belonging to accomplished musicians who never had very much need to play them over the decades they used them: Yehudi Menuhin’s vast sale of instruments at Sotheby’s in 1998 was almost completely instruments he had picked up and barely played. The Albert Cooper sale, ten years later was instruments in the private collection of a dealer that he had accrued over decades, yet many of them had been continually loaned out to prominent professional musicians. We may be privy to certain information about an instrument – if it comes to us with broken gut strings, then evidence tells it all, if a customer put a fairly new second hand set of strings on it before walking into the violin shop, we may be none-the-wiser to it’s past, but is it relevant to how it plays?

At the end of the day, a violin might not agree with you. It may need a sound-post adjustment, a new bridge or bass bar, or just a different set of strings – alternatively it may simply not be your voice, but if after visiting violin shop it is interesting enough to be on your own shortlist, the amount it’s been played in the past has very little to do with how it will perform in the future. Very often when a musician assumes that an instrument hasn’t been played much, it is shorthand for the fact that they can sense a greater sound in the violin than it is letting out, or that it would be better suited to their taste with a few adjustments. Very often it means that if the violin was just a tiny bit different it would be the kind of instrument they are looking for. In any of these cases, there is normally a more elementary diagnosis that can be remedied. That should be where the conversation with the violin dealer starts, not where it stops.

If you have concerns about the nature of the sound, talk them through and look for a solution. Very often a good dealer will be sympathetic to your tonal requirements and may be able to work with the violin to make it just that bit better. Otherwise as a musician and a buyer, you may be walking away from the ideal instrument, and committing yourself to endless further searches, frustration and time in locating a better instrument.

In this video, Luca Fanfone plays one of the world’s least played in violins, Paganini’s “Il Cannone” Guarneri del Gesu. Not much to grumble about…