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…



Violin Making Schools in Britain

Britain has an incredibly vibrant culture for violin making, and its schools enjoy an enviable reputation attracting students from all over the world. Over the years different institutions have come and gone, but Newark College of Violin Making in Nottinghamshire, South Thames College in London, Glasgow Clyde College and West Dean College in West Sussex provide contrasting opportunities for anyone interested in pursuing the craft to professional level.

Numerous courses in instrument making and repair have existed over the last century or so starting with the National School for Musical Trades that began violin making classes more than a century ago in 1916, enjoying it’s heyday under William Luff as part of the London College of Furniture (you can watch it in action in 1935 right here). Today, Newark’s School of Musical Crafts is one of the largest centres for training musical instrument makers anywhere in Europe with around 120 violin makers enrolled in the course from all around the world. South Thames CollegeGlasgow Clyde and West Dean College are much smaller but no less important organisations. South Thames focusses on repair of instruments with a specialist violin department and is a good choice for part-time students, or those who want to be around London. West Dean’s small full-time courses in instrument making have a focus on early instruments – the viola da gamba in particular, which leads to different perspectives on how to approach stringed instrument making in general. Graduates from all courses find their way into the trade, or make successful careers of their own as musical instrument makers.

Can I become a violin maker? All instrument making schools welcome a diverse array of students, from school-leavers right the way through to retirement age, and comprising students from all over the world. If you are planning to study in the UK from overseas, it is best to check directly with each college about it’s ability to take international students, but all have a strong history of welcoming people from around the world and you should have no problem getting onto the course of your choice. The mixture of age and experience provides a very special learning environment. Although playing a musical instrument is desirable, surprising numbers of students and professional instrument makers don’t play the instrument that they make, and some don’t play an instrument at all, as the craft of instrument making has it’s own fascination and challenges separate to the skills of music making. In times past, a high level of woodworking skills was necessary to get onto any of the courses, but in recent years woodwork and other practical craft-skills have disappeared from secondary-school curriculums. If you are interested in applying for a course in violin making it is essential to ensure that you have the manual dexterity to use tools properly (many people don’t), so take a short course for a week or so as part of your journey towards applying. West Dean (see the short courses here), and the Violin Workshop in Cambridge offer a host of week and weekend courses, or speaking to a local violin shop and asking for advice and a little bit of work experience can be invaluable. The basic rule – don’t be put off if you don’t have tool experience, but be realistic about your prospects if working with tools doesn’t come naturally to you when you try. Lastly the British Violin Making Association holds a maker’s day every spring. Come along to meet other professional makers and see if you fit in.

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Newark School of Violin Making – a view of the bell tower that echoes the rooftops of Cremona.

Newark School of Violin Making sits amongst various schools of guitar making, piano tuning and restoration and woodwind making and repair. The prospectus can be found here. It is by far the largest school in Britain, with more than 100 students studying violin making at any time. Newark is a small market town right in the centre of England, so the vast number of student and professional makers in a small area allows for an incredibly focussed three years of study.

In 2015 to celebrate Yehudi Menuhin’s centenary year, given that he helped to found Newark (and West Dean) I asked a team of students at Newark to make a copy of Menuhin’s celebrated “Lord Wilton” Guarneri, and challenged them to make a video of the process. If you want a sense of what violin making involves, and whether you could do it, the next ten minutes spent on YouTube could change your life completely.


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Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London) looks tempted to join the course at South Thames College.

South Thames College in London, (formerly known as Merton College) has run violin making and repair courses for years within a broader Musical Instrument Technology department that encompasses guitar and woodwind making and repair. The mix of full-time and part-time places gives the course a disproportionate intake of mature students, and it’s geographical location in South London means that people who want, or need, to be study in easy reach of central London find it a particularly good place to study. The focus tends towards repair rather than making instruments, and it has a significant reputation amongst the London repair and restoration workshops, with several alumni who have gained experience in the trade starting their own businesses. Find the website here.

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West Dean College, set in glorious grounds in West Sussex provides a host of specialist full-time courses including instrument making.

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A pochette loosely based on Stradivari’s own drawings – a collaborative project by West Dean Students for their annual charity raffle.

West Dean College in West Sussex is run by the private Edward James Foundation, and the college is a stately home in the middle of some of Britain’s most spectacular scenery. The workshop for it’s full time course only has room for nine students. When it started in the early 1980s it focussed on early instrument making because of the heavy demand from the emerging early music scene. Now it uses viol making as a way of training students with tool skills, and enabling them a versatility and range of skills that they can bring into their chosen direction, whether it is to remain in early strings, or to develop violin or guitar making skills. The mix of students within the college can provide a different kind of stimulation from being shackled with 120 prospective violin makers. The college includes departments that make, restore and conserve clocks, furniture and books, providing training for conservators in museums and libraries all over the world, as well as fine art department and countless short courses. Fees are the highest at West Dean, but you get a lot for your money, and the Foundation employs its own fundraisers to help to find bursaries and scholarships to make things a little cheaper. Top tip: worry about the fees after you’ve passed the interview! Find the prospectus here.


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Glasgow Clyde College (familiar to many in the trade as Anniesland) was established in 1989 and is now Scotland’s established institution of musical instrument making and repair. The course that has a capacity of about 30 students lasts for two years up to NQ level, and has produced an enviable number of Scotland’s violin and guitar makers and repairers. Given the length of the course, many students will find they need more learning time, and use it as a stepping stone towards Newark or other schools, and it provides a particularly useful foundation course for anyone who wants to explore violin and guitar making before becoming deeply committed. At the same time, the quality of work and a strict ethos for tools skills and high standards of output means that various aspiring makers who have trained elsewhere make their way to Glasgow to refine their work, especially in guitar making. Violin making runs side-by-side with guitar making and there are fewer students who follow that path, but it is nevertheless a hugely important contributor to violin making in Scotland and beyond. Further information is on their website here. You can watch a time-lapse video of guitar making in the college below.


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If you think instrument making might be a good idea the starting point is to sound out a local instrument maker first. For some people the process of learning to make instruments is reward enough, giving them the confidence to spread their wings in the wider world afterwards and a hobby for years to come. Others embark on a life-long obsession and a successful career. Tool skills are critical, and it is good to know that you have the ability to handle a plane or a chisel properly before you get too committed. There are fabulous residential courses at the Cambridge Violin Making Workshop for amateur makers, and West Dean also offers a huge array of craft courses that will be useful to develop a bit of experience before you make a big commitment – see their website here. A friendly violin maker can probably guide you (and they do tend to be friendly). Students range enormously from school leavers to people looking for a career change all the way through to retirement projects. Musical ability is not a prerequisite for being a musical instrument maker. If for whatever inexplicable reason, you are drawn to the romance of being a violin maker … the opportunities are waiting for you.

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The behemoth that was 41 Commercial Road, purpose-built for the London College of Furniture which produced outstanding craftsmen and women until it was sold in 2015. Probably the ugliest building and the most polluted road in London: My life for three wonderful years…


London College of Furniture ran a fabulous course in instrument making that had it’s origins in the Northern Polytechnic Institute that developed around the time of the First World War. In its heyday it produced an incredibly vibrant variety of makers and restorers, but as it merged into City Polytechnic, then London Guildhall University and finally London Metropolitan University the lack of any mandate to secure the future of a specialist institution led to it’s demise. In 2015 it took its last students. Leeds College of Music also ran a good course which ended in around 2000. The Welsh School of Violin Making was founded shortly after Newark and was killed off in the mid-1990s. Over the years I have met and worked with phenomenal makers and restorers who were trained at either of these. They all made a huge contribution to our rich cultural tapestry, drawing students to study in the UK from all over the world and their graduates have made an enormous impact on musical life everywhere.

Benjamin Hebbert’s training as an instrument maker was at the former London College of Furniture in it’s brief existence as London Guildhall University and he taught as a visiting lecturer when it was London Metropolitan University. He was on the full time staff at West Dean College sometime around 2010 and has been a regular visiting lecturer since then. Somehow he became trade examiner at South Thames College. In his spare time he likes to cause trouble with the students at Newark when the opportunity arises.

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1816: George Wren Le Grand’s views as a violin connoisseur.

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George Wren Le Grand was a frequent contributor to The Gentleman’s Magazine during the Regency period under the initials GWL. As a dilettante and virtuoso, his collection of objects of virtue filled an entire Sotheby’s catalogue upon his death in 1836. As a connoisseur and amateur player of violins, his published insights about instruments give us one of exceptionally few opinions about the violin market of the early nineteenth century.

(A version of this article first appeared in the British Violin Maker’s Association Newsletter, Summer, 2011).

The late-nineteenth-century witnessed a flourishing of works on the violin and its history in England, but prior to the 1860s few sources on the subject exist. William Sandys and Simon Andrew Forster’s The History of the Violin and other Instruments played on with the Bow from the Remotest Times to the Present, and the English translation of François-Joseph. Fétis’s Notice of Anthony Stradivarius, both published in 1864 mark the birth of an English literature on the violin. This is not to suggest that interest in connoisseurship didn’t exist beforehand: Sandys and Forster make repeated reference to a (now lost) manuscript kept by Henry Hill (probably Henry Lockey Hill, not the viola playing Henry Hill), and it seems that he might have aimed to become the first author on the subject in England. The works which developed from the 1860s are largely self-referencing, reinforcing a canon of opinion about violin history and the order of the great makers, and therefore it is interesting to see how views on these matters differed in the period beforehand.

In 1776 Sir John Hawkins had written his incredibly five volume history of music, barely concerned with violin makers per-se, but nonetheless providing a basic biography of the Cremonese dynasties of violin makers and their closest rivals, Stainer and Albani.


Sir John Hawkins, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, 1776 (page 384)

Sources on violin connoisseurship from this point are extremely rare, and most of our information about the relative ranks of makers are gleaned from auction catalogues and the types of instrument that auctioneers found worthy of advertising in newspaper adverts. However, on 6 March 1816 a writer who identified himself only as ‘SCRAPER’ corresponded with Sylvanus Urban, editor of The Gentleman’s Magazine, with the question:

“Permit me to inquire of your Correspondents for some particulars of the most famous Violin-makers, Amati, Stainer, Straduarius ; and of the visible and audible characteristics of their instruments. Writers on musick have paid them but little attention”.

An answer to his question was forthcoming on 31 October, written by ‘G.W.L.’, now known to be George Wren Le Grand, providing the earliest critical account that I am aware of in the English language:

Mr. Urban, Oct 31.

Your Correspondent SCRAPER (Part 1. p. 605) has inquired “for some particulars of those famous Violin-makers, Amati, Stainer, Stradiuarius; and of the visible and audible characteristics of their instruments” and justly observes, that “writers on Musick have paid them but little attention.” Though it be the province of a professor, rather than that of an amateur, to satisfy his inquiry, yet as I find nothing has appeared in your pages on the subject, I will venture to communicate what little information I have collected. We cannot be surprised at the few particulars handed down to us of these celebrated makers of musical instruments, as their celebrity is owing in a great degree to Time. It is Time that brings their works to perfection, and time will, no doubt, stamp a greater value on the Violins of Betts and the Tenors of Forster.

Of the visible characteristics of these “admirable artisans” (justly termed so by Sir John Hawkins), the most prominent are these. The Stainer Violins, compared with the Amatis are high and narrow, and the box more confined: the sound-holes are cut more perpendicular, and are shorter ; there is also a kind of notch at the turn. The Stradiuarius Violins are of a larger pattern, particularly those of Antonius the son, and have a wider box than the Amatis, and longer sound-holes, which are cut at the ends very sharp and broad with a little hollow at that end which other makers cut flat. The varnishes of the Amatis and Stainers are yellow, as well as those of Stradiuarius the father; the son’s varnish is red. Of the audible characteristics surely of the most importance, thought too frequently a secondary consideration – generally speaking ; the Amatis have a mild and sweet tone; the Stainers, a sharp and piercing tone, and the Straduarius’s a rich full tone.

Having remarked that the technical phrase an Amati leads persons to suppose there was one maker only of that name, it may be useful information to add the four, viz, Andrew, the father, Jerome and Anthony his sons; and Nicholas, Antony’s son;  of which those instruments made by Jerome are reckoned the handsomest: – all these individuals, as well as the two Stradiuarius’s were of Cremona. – I am not aware of a more suitable conclusion than by enumerating a few names of other noted makers; viz. Andrew, Joseph, and Jasper Guarnerius, (Cremona); Guliano, (Naples); David Techler, (Rome); Grancigio. (Milan); Schorn (Inspruck); Matthew Albani, (Tyrol); – and of our English makers, Barak Norman, who lived in Bishopsgate-street; and Jacob Rayman in Southwark, whose Tenors are in great estimation. G.W.L.

Much of the letter is a repetition of the very fleeting observations taken from Sir John Hawkins’ A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, published in 1776. Hence, although it accurately reveals the high values applied to Barak Norman cellos during this period, the assertion that he worked in Bishopsgate-street simply repeats an opinion stated by Hawkins concerning his career before 1690, which remains uncorroborated by independent evidence. Likewise, Hawkins placed emphasis on Jacob Rayman, writing that he ‘dwelt in Bell-Yard, Southwark about the year 1650. The tenor violins made by him are greatly valued’. This was in response to his reproduction of the 1714 sale catalogue of the instruments and music of Thomas Britton that included four violins described as ‘an extraordinary Rayman’, but very little further real information appears in the nineteenth-century to support these claims, suggesting the reinforcement of a mythical reputation rather than anything that was sustained through surviving instruments.


Hawkins’ General History, page 784.

G.W.L. includes names of great Italian makers who offer little surprise to the modern day reader, but it is unexpected to see the Gagliano family held in such regard at such an early date, whilst the inclusion of Schorn seems somewhat whimsical (perhaps G.W.L. owned such a violin and was being opportunist). The inventive spellings of the names provide convincing evidence that G.W.L. was not an authority on violins, but someone recalling what he had been told by another. It is deliciously tempting to imagine that ‘Guliano’ and ‘Grancigio’ are the interpretations of an Italian tongue by an English ear. If this were the case, the number of connoisseurs in England who might have provided such information is considerable at this time Giovanni Baptista Viotti and Domenico Dragonetti being obvious candidates who owned and dealt in such instruments, as well as Joseph Panormo (Vincenzo had died in 1813). As musicians and as maker, each focussed on Stradivari violins of the golden-period, and this is implicitly the view communicated through this letter.

GWL echoes Hawkins in naming two violin makers from the Stradivari family, both named Antonio. Whilst we are now accustomed to understand that there are a few legitimate labels of Omobono and Francesco Stradivari that extend the family dynasty, the idea of two Antonios is something that had disappeared from connoisseurly literature by the 1850s. Nevertheless, it seems to be a strongly held and logical view and although the language is not quite how we would describe it today, the observations are clear, emphasising the squarish corners bolder edgework and soundhole shapes:

The Stradiuarius Violins are of a larger pattern, particularly those of Antonius the son, and have a wider box than the Amatis, and longer sound-holes, which are cut at the ends very sharp and broad with a little hollow at that end which other makers cut flat. The varnishes of the Amatis and Stainers are yellow, as well as those of Stradiuarius the father; the son’s varnish is red. 


Comparing Nicolo Amati’s 1649 ‘Alard’ to the Stradivari’s 1684 ‘Cipriani-Potter’ and 1716 ‘Messiah’ it is clear why both Hawkins and George Wren Le Grand separated Stradivari’s work into two distinct generations.

The idea of separating Stradivari’s work between two makers is a sensible one, echoed in the distinct “period’s” of his work that we recognise today. The red varnish appears first in 1690 making a natural barrier after his “Amatise period”, but the “Golden Period” starts around 1700. A better understanding of the long-period violins of the 1690s makes the transition from one phase to the next in Stradivari’s life much more logical, but it is not a surprise to discover that this was overlooked at a time that Stradivari’s instruments were less regarded. Mention of the Guarneri family amongst the other noted makers is also interesting, enumerating “Andrew, Joseph, and Jasper Guarnerius”. Observation of two Giuseppe’s as Joseph and Jasper must surely allude to, suggests that Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu and Giuseppe Guarneri filius Andrea were both highly regarded in London, at least by George Wren Le Grand.

Scant encounters with Stradivari and Guarneri are found in eighteenth-century English saleroom catalogues (the term ‘Cremona violin’ being the choice term for anything made there), but from the 1790s they become much more abundant. William Henry Ireland noted in 1814 in Chalcographimania, or the Portrait-Collector and Print Sellers Chronicle that  ‘Cremona, a town in Italy, was very famous for manufactuers of violins, the makers of which instruments were AmatiStraduarius, and Styner, and some of those have been frequently sold for two hundred guineas each.’ When George Wren Le Grand died in 1836 the catalogue of his own collection sold at Sotheby’s demonstrated his own wide ranging interests as a connoisseur:

Catalogue of the Collections of Milled Coins, Books, Books of Prints, and Prints, a Few Pictures, Autographs, Articles of Vertu, Cameo and Intaglio Rings, Antiquities, China, Capital Violins, &c.; the Propert of George Wren le Grand, Esq. 

This levels of awareness challenge our perceptions about the ways that violins were regarded in the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-centuries. At a time where we generally blame Viotti for his celebration of Stradivari and anticipate Paganini’s championing of del Gesu in decades yet to come, further source which charmingly reinforces the ideologies promoted in violin making and connoisseurship. In 1807 John Belfour translated from the Spanish, Tomás de Iriarte’s Music, a didactic poem, in five cantos. The work (albeit directed more to a Spanish experience than an English one, but now directed to an English audience) contains a juxtaposition between modern making and the traditions that it mimicked. The source perhaps contains criticism of the ideas exemplified in Antonio Bagatella’s Regole per la costruzione de’violini viole violincelli e violini of 1782, and suggests that the Cremonese school were perceived as artistic by comparison to the fixed rules employed by modern craftsmen. At a time when Viotti was promoting the supremacy of Stradivari, it provides further evidence from an independent source of the growing passion for his works.

The just dimensions, form, proportion fine,
Of every instrument the ancients knew;
And all the moderns e’er produced to view.
Reduced to fixed principles and laws,
The art by which Guarnerius won applause’
Amati – wonder of the tuneful host,
And Straduarius! – great Cremona’s boast.

Joseph Panormo.

The Panormo family are amongst the most celebrated violin makers to ever have worked in London. Vincenzo, who came from Palermo in Sicily worked his way through Italy, Paris and Dublin to reach London. A violin by his Italian-born son Joseph reveals unexpectedly clear Neapolitan influence, and raises questions about the family’s identity as Italian violin makers in cosmopolitan London.

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Vincenzo Panormo and his violin making sons, Joseph, Louis and George are the most celebrated dynasty of violin makers in England around the 1800 period. They are also one of the most difficult to navigate, mostly because of the enormous influence that the had on London making as a whole. As a result, the generation of makers who grew up around the John Betts workshop increasingly emulated Vincenzo Panormo’s vision of Italianate workmanship. Makers such as William Taylor and Henry Lockey Hill show an extraordinary affinity to Panormo-family work, and makers who encountered Panormo in his Dublin period  – especially Richard Tobin produce violins directly influenced by the short visit of the great Italian maker. Meanwhile even English trade violins of makers such as Matthew Furber improved towards a more Italianate repertoire of models in response to a growing taste for Italian violins, if not as a direct response to Panormo’s influence. Elsewhere, Robert Poulter in Hull and Matthew Hardie show an extraordinary affinity to Panormos work, and amongst the Leeds makers of the early 19th century, Dearlove, Thomas Absam, and Handel Pickard fake Panormo labels become a hazard of the territory.

As a result there are endless instruments that sit close to Panormo’s work, and barely a month goes past without another Pah!-no-more (as I tend to call them) coming into the shop for assessment. I have a basic rule: If it leaps out as being quintessentially Italian, but ends up being English in the finer details and footnotes, it has a chance of being a Panormo. If it’s the kind of instrument that is obviously English, but it punches above it’s weight to the point it could even be Italian, then it is almost certainly not. After that the real thinking begins. I even question if I have ever seen a single genuine example of the famous Vincenzo Trusiano Panormo labels with the ‘Armi di Palermo’ that characterise so much of what we understand of Panormo’s work, although the design is so strikingly unique so if only for that reason it is unlikely that they emerged out of nowhere. For the most part, these are nothing more than optimistic relabelling of a variety of slightly Italian-looking English or French violins, but over the years I have seen everything from the Voller brothers reshaping the corners of an 1820s London violin to pass as a Panormo (it had a Voller neck, which is why we could point the blame), all the way through to George Wulme-Hudson’s most deceptive work producing full-on forgeries for sale to dollar-rich Americans in the 1940s. Occasionally I’ve seen a nice fake label sitting in the genuine thing.


A typical fake Panormo label with a typically implausible 1740s date.

Vincenzo’s instruments seem to be guided by a genuine and deep knowledge of the centuries of violin making before him, and he seems always to reach out to create characterful improvisations around an Italian ideal. The wood is invariably more interesting than others, either because it directly reflects a great Italian instrument, or because he revelled in the interest brought about by a non-standard billet. He is famously reputed to have wood salvaged from a billiard table in Dublin: The last remaining 17th century billiard table (at Knole House in Kent) reveals a bed of several levels of slab-cut staves of wood latticed over one and other to provide a stable and flat gaming surface: The violins from his Dublin period have wood that corresponds to the legend. He may simply have been obsessed with the perceived advantages of old wood to the point that he preferred aged timber over aesthetic beauty. Nevertheless, the effect, along with consciously large pins in the back of his instruments seems to distance his work from England of the decades around 1800 in time as much as geography, much more centred around the generality of violins produced in the mid-eighteenth century, and it may be for this reason that many misinformed and unscrupulous dealers in the past ascribed them to dates from the 1740s onwards.


The Knole House billiard table, made around 1670. It’s construction, in this case of oak, fits the legend that Vincenzo Panormo made his violins from such a source of maple.

Joseph Panormo’s (c.1763-1837) work is extremely rare. This is explained in large part because he was working for his father at least up until his late thirties, whereupon he established his own workshop in 1801 in New Compton Street. In reality, he was probably still intimately connected to his father’s workshop right up to Vincenzo’s death in 1813 when Joseph would have been about fifty, and his premises were only meters away from his brother Louis on Bloomsbury High Street, with whom he made guitars indicating a tight-knit family community. Several violins legitimately labelled and accepted as Vincenzo Panormo around the 1800 period are further signed or monogrammed ‘JP’ on the interior. The quality is to be expected for someone who had spent the best part of half a century at his father’s side, and the transition from the hand of the father to the hand of the son is a gradual one seen through Vincenzo Panormo’s later works. The same transition is mirrored in the emerging characteristics of any of the dynasties of violin making, and strong characteristics of a younger maker can begin to emerge years before they were making instruments in their own right.

From the back, Joseph’s violin of around 1820 has much of the quality expected of his father’s work. The choice of strongly grained maple is reminiscent of the Gaglianos particularly under the strong orange-yellow varnish which seems to quote them directly, and the slightly more constrained pins have a more specific relationship with classical Cremonese making than the ‘generally Italian’ look of his father’s work. Joseph’s observations go further, and he seems to be more concerned with the edgework and corners of the violin. The crisp chamfers of the edges separate his work from his father’s and the corners are much more squared than on other instruments, his awareness of the delicacy of these features appears in the very narrow and delicate purfling that he uses to attenuate these details. The slightly drooping corners are a deliciously Stradivarian touch. It may be wishful thinking to ascribe these traits to any particular Stradivari rather than an amalgam of observations, but it shows a heightened awareness of Stradivari’s characteristics at a time when more London makers – those in the Betts circle especially – were emulating his models to an unprecedented degree.

The same precision is revealed on the head, which comes from a common template used by father and son. In keeping with his looser hand and choices of wood, Vincenzo’s scrolls feel hastily made with a characteristic roughness revelling in the faults of the wood. Crisp and clean scrolls appear throughout Vincenzo’s recognised work, which can possibly all be ascribed as Joseph’s hand. The belly of the instrument shares the edgework detail of the back (although it is now slightly worn and less distinctive) but his interest in following a Stradivarian ideal finds it’s limits. The soundholes are rather broad and very upright following a pattern that emerges in Panormo’s work in the earliest Stradivari-pattern violins made by Vincenzo in Paris, and that emerges over and over again, but the placement of them and their scale repeatedly fits rather awkwardly from the perspective of an eye trained in seeing Stradivari’s work. The result is a weakness in that they dominate the view of the violin. Knowing that the violin is by Panormo, it’s difficult not to blame this kind of fault on as an ‘English’ feature, but this would be wrong and in reality soundholes are one of the easiest details to get (mostly) right, and most English violins of the period tend to achieve that much precision, even if the rest of the instrument is entirely devoid of Italian characteristics. Instead, the better comparables lie in the later examples of Neapolitan workmanship by the Gagliano family in which these awkwardly positioned, wide, upright, faintly Stradivarian soundholes feature fairly routinely.

Joseph’s brother Louis was acutely aware of the importance of promoting instruments made in a foreign manner, consciously styling himself as ‘The only maker of Guitars in the Spanish Style’, whilst many of Vincenzo’s genuine labels make direct allusions to his status as an Italian in London. It seems that Joseph also felt that he occupied that special status continuing in his father’s place. Whilst the conservative wood choice of his violin inevitably draws the eye to it being an English instrument and perhaps some elements of Stradivarian flair demonstrate further obsessions that were absent from 1800-period of Italian making, the violin seems overall to be a clear reaction to the best Neapolitan violins reaching England at the time (‘Giuliano’ of Naples is listed amongst the ‘noted’ Italian makers in at least one London source from 1816). This brings us back to one of the great legends of Panormo’s original training. It seems highly unlikely that Vincenzo worked with the Gaglianos when he left Sicily, and there is no evidence for this in his early work. Instead it seems that the more Neapolitan a Panormo violin is, the later it is likely to be. In sum, Joseph’s violin seems compellingly set around a Gagliano ideal showing the same bold understanding of Italian arching that makes his father’s instruments so sought after. The almost clinical edgework, scroll and the pins in the back all point towards Cremonese influcence, and the mixture of the two schools of influence gives the violin it’s unique and identifiable appearance. Perhaps Joseph who was also born in Italy expressed self-conscious affinity to those makers working closest to the family’s celebrated origins across the Straits of Messina from Naples, in Palermo in Sicily. The comparison of his violin to those of Nicolo Gagliano at least, draws compelling similarities.


Joseph Panormo’s Neapolitan influence probably comes second-hand from Italian violins that he witnessed in London rather than any direct relationship but comparison against Nicolo Gagliano’s work from the 1760s draws compelling similarities.

Acknowledgments: I am grateful to endless discussions about Panormo and other English makers with Andrew Fairfax. By good fortune, this violin came to me days before the PANORMO exhibition hosted in London by Tarisio in October 2016.



1998: A Tribute to Neil Ertz

neil_ertzNeil Értz (1966-2016) was one of Britain’s best loved violin makers. I had the pleasure of selling a few of his instruments and chatting to him frequently about the new instruments that he was making, and the greater pleasure of counting him amongst my friends. A 1998 copy of Guarneri’s 1742 ‘Lord Wilton’ allows a moment of reflection about the tremendous contribution he made to violin making across the world. 

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1744 ‘Ole Bull’ once considered by many to be too outlandish to be part of the Cremonese tradition

Looking back with what I know now, 1998 was one of the great turning points in modern violin making. I was a student learning instrument making at the time, so even if I had made it to New York for the Guarneri Exhibition, I don’t think I knew enough for it to make any profound impact on me. In the workshop we talked about Guarneri being a rougher kind of Strad, laughed at his anomalies and there the conversation stopped. If we were a little more informed we would have commented upon the elements that contrasted against our expected idea of Stradivari and the other Cremonese makers, but the very limited conversation that we enjoyed was one that echoed across the world of violin making. From Vuillaume up to the modern time, people tried to tidy up del Gesu’s work, applying his design forms within a framework that spoke as much for 20th century ideals of ‘honest craftsmanship’ as it did for an awareness of the more refined masterpieces of the past. Understanding of Guarneri’s masterpieces was so much in it’s infancy 30 years ago that at the time, the 1744 Ole Bull violin by del Gesu was still regarded by many as a fake, being too provocatively preposterous to conceivably exist within the spectrum of Classical Cremonese work. It is now one of the most celebrated examples in the world. Clean copies by makers such as William Luff or David Rubio that were once much respected in the top rank of English making now feel lacklustre and stilted by comparison to a better understanding of what del Gesu’s work really looks like, and the liberties which that gives to looking back on Stradivari and understanding the imperfections that give his violins their character.

Aside from the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the catalogue that followed can be counted as the most important book ever written on violin making. For the first time it included precise technical drawings of all of the instruments in the exhibition along with full-sized and painstakingly accurate colour photographs by Stewart Pollens. Whilst many more recent books have photographs of rival quality to these, they broke new ground, and later books lack the technical detail of technical drawings and measurements vital for violin making. Meanwhile, the collection of essays that filled the catalogue were the fruits of years of experimenting, analysis and research that finally gave us a profound insight into the Cremonese system of making. Roger Hargrave’s analysis was unrivalled in detail and insight. It allowed us to rethink the observations made in Simone Sacconi’s Secrets of Stradivari, going wider and further in its compelling arguments for how the great makers of the past made their instruments. It didn’t answer every question, but where it didn’t, it can be clearly seen as the springboard to further research and one of the most significant waypoints in the process of reclaiming the Cremonese tradition after many centuries of loss. Roger is quite adamant about one thing though. He couldn’t have achieved all that without the help of an unsung hero of the del Gesu story. The endless enthusiasm of the cheeky young Scot who came to work with him, Neil Értz.


Neil’s 1998 copy of Yehudi Menuhin’s 1742 ‘Lord Wilton’ epitomises the renaissance in violin making that was taking place. Two years before he had been on a secret mission with a couple of colleagues (he told me it was secret, so it must have been) [Editor’s note: He told everyone it was secret, so it really was] to take plaster casts off this iconic instrument. At the time he didn’t care so much for the varnish, resulting in a good antiqued finish rather than a full-blown bench copy, but the woodwork beneath is startling: In the light of the research that he was working on with Roger for the 1998 exhibition, his violin is one of the most compelling and absorbing Guarneri copies I have seen.

I rarely get to see Guarneri copies that are as good. It takes a lot of experience of looking at del Gesu’s work, and reaching out further to his predecessors in the Guarneri family to understand how a consistent approach to making evolved in the workshop of Andrea Guarneri by the 1660s that developed a distinctive look separate from the Amatis and other dynasties of making. Yet beyond the varnish, it has it’s own irreverence. If Guarneri made a second instrument on the same form as the Lord Wilton at the same time, this is perhaps what Neil’s would be, with enough independence to let it stand out on it’s own without falling outside of the standards of the 1742 original. This was entirely Neil’s intention as with all his instruments: He was much more interested in calling it a violin ‘in the manner of Guarneri del Gesu, c.1742’, than acknowledging the a single prototype from which it was created.

It’s worth contrasting Neil’s violin with another from the same year by  Andreas Hellinge, which passed through our hands recently was a full bench copy, made when the original del Gesu was for sale in Zurich, with the intention of providing Menuhin with a memento of his last great violin. The philosophy of the precise copy is fundamentally different from Neil’s confidence in understanding del Gesu’s intentions to the point of producing a free interpretation. It is difficult to judge between the two, but the comparative outcomes prove to be totally fascinating in terms of beginning to understand and interpret masterpieces of the past.

Many times, I see violins by makers who are impressed by the aesthetic dynamism of a real del Gesu (or a photograph of one) and impose it on their Stradivarian ideals, producing a kind of hybrid instrument that is particular to violin making in our present generation, but even if they see a difference, they are seldom brave enough to go the full mile. When (you think) you know del Gesu’s works superficially, it’s all too easy to dismiss deep channelling in the corners as an exception amongst an inconsistent body of work. The hybrids that seem to be the majority of contemporary del Gesu copies that I see are sweet instruments, sometimes very beautiful indeed, but they have nothing of the sound qualities that differentiate a great del Gesu from a great Strad. It makes it all the more exciting when I see something so close to what the original should be.

ertz1998-detailNeil was always generous with his time and his knowledge. His constant posts on Maestronet were just one of the ways that he communicated far and wide about his continual developments about the violin, and after he passed away few of us could understand how he had made over 200 violins when he seemed to be always on the phone laughing and sharing with so many of his colleagues. He was always proud of this particular instrument and called this one a ‘really cool fiddle’ when I spoke to him about it on the Sunday before he died, and even though he also thought that he had come a long way over twenty years it was still one of the violins he was proud to have photographed on his website. It is just one example of very compelling contemporary making, and there is a good community of makers, many of whom have been inspired by Neil’s work, who have been making to this level over the last twenty years. Yet, because of the circumstances of it’s date, it epitomises this crucial moment in the modern history of violin making. I hope that Neil continues to inspire new generations of makers to look closer and revisit the old masters as he did in 1998.

In memoriam.


My Fiddle: British Pathé 1935

Instrument making in London celebrates a centenary since the National School for the Music Trades was first established. A film by British Pathé sheds light on what the extraordinary institution once was.  

The National School for the Music Trades was established in 1916 at the Polytechnic Institute of North London, and survives today after a succession of institutional changes existing at one time or another as it moved to the East End to become part of the London College of Furniture, City Polytechnic, London Guildhall University, and most recently as part of the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design of London Metropolitan University. It’s fortunes have been mixed over the years, but an astonishing number of violin makers and restorers from around the world trained there at one time or another, and as a centre for learning to make instruments, it has been an extraordinary jewel in our cultural landscape.

British Pathé’s visit to the school in 1935 provides a charmingly nostalgic vignette of the violin workshop that would have been played in cinemas across the country. A beautiful moment worth sharing. The photograph (above) is of the violin workshop in the 1950s with William Luff as the teacher. The place has a special place in my heart – I spent three happy years training there and another three teaching part time.

Andrew Brown, a violinist in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra could have probably done with a few lessons from there. It’s a wonder to think that a generation before the Voller brothers were living in Streatham producing extraordinarily sought-after violins:

Harold In Italy: Berlioz, Paganini and Henry Hill’s “incomparable” Barak Norman viola.

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Experts and dealers in fine stringed instruments

For lucky owners of Barak Norman’s violas there is the tantalising possibility that theirs was the one celebrated by Berlioz after the first London performance of Harold in Italy. One instrument in particular may shed light on Henry Hill’s fabled 1848 performance. 


Thomas Phillips 1813 portrait of Lord Byron in Albanian dress following after Canto II of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Harold in Italy has spiritual connections with England because  it is based on a set of poems by Lord Byron published between 1812 and 1818 that was well within the zeitgeist of 1830s London, and for Nicolo Paganini the identity of the wandering poet who had died in 1824 was already strongly inferred. In 1829, the reviewer of the Frankfurter Oberpostamtszeitung remarked that, “All of his compositions are possessed of an enraptured basis, that lends them an endlessly touching and artistic nature. We must say that these beg comparison with the memory of the poetic creations of the immortal Byron, where likewise in every line is expressed the pain of a wounded spirit.” Hence, by this time at least, Paganini had been cast as Byron’s spiritual successor.

In England, where Paganini arrived in 1831, Byron’s legacy was still strongly felt in cultured society. At the Royal Academy the following year, J.M.W. Turner exhibited his painterly interpretation of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – Italy to enormous acclaim (now in Tate Britain). The sculptor, Richard Westmacott spoke of how the painting, Turner’s “Italy” is the most magnificent piece of landscape poetry that was ever conceived. It is like nothing but itself, so I cannot compare it with Claude or any other painter, to help your notion of it. To admirers of Paganini it would have been easy to see his wandering life as a comparison to the ‘Childe Harold’ on his pilgrimage through Europe in search of distraction after becoming disillusioned with his life of revelry and frivolity.


The preparatory study from life of George Patten’s celebrated portrait of Paganini exhibited at the R.A. in 1832. (From our private collection)

As Turner’s painting hung in the Royal Academy in 1832 Paganini was sitting for George Patten’s portrait, a dark and gothic portrayal of the violinist that became another celebrated painting when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the following year. (Patten kept the original until his death refusing to part with it, but painted a copy for Paganini in 1834). One further event for the year 1832 was Paganini’s purchase of a 1731 Stradivari viola from the dealer George Corsby in Leicester Square. This acquisition led directly to his invitation to Berlioz: “But I have no suitable music” he wrote. “Would you like to write a solo for viola? You are the only one I can trust for this task”.

Paganini undoubtedly had in mind a show-stopping exposition of solo virtuosity along the lines of his own caprices for the violin. Berlioz had different ideas for his piece, “by writing a solo for viola, but one which involved the orchestra in such a way as not to reduce the effectiveness of the orchestral contribution” he was able to produce a piece of music that was more within his own concept of orchestral music – the ideology that had driven his composition of Symphonie Fantastic in 1833 exploring the virtuosic depth and richness of the whole ensemble and consistent with the values expressed in his Grand traite d’instruments et d’orchestration modernes which he eventually published in 1843.


Paganini bowing before Berlioz, a posthumous painting by Adolphe Yvon from 1884.

This being completely contrary to Paganini’s ideas of virtuoso self-promotion, the pair parted ways. Harold In Italy  was first performed on 23 November 1834 with the Orchestra de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire with Chrétien Urhan taking the viola solo.  A piano transcription with viola accompaniment was written by Franz Listz in 1836 but it was not for another couple of years that Paganini finally heard the work on 16 December 1838. On the occasion, he was so overwhelmed by it that following the performance, he dragged Berlioz onto the stage, and there knelt and kissed his hand before a wildly cheering audience and applauding musician. Days later he sent Berlioz a letter of congratulations, enclosing a bank draft for 20,000 francs.

It is without question that Paganini’s purchase of a Stradivari viola was central to his inspiration to commission Harold in Italy, and it was upon this instrument that Urhan performed it’s premiere, but the whole story of Paganini’s infatuation with the viola and his quest for a distinctive sound goes further back. In 1832 before he came to London when he was writing his 24 Caprices for the violin, he had engaged  Francesco Borghi to produce a large instrument that became known as the ‘Controviola Paganini’, equipped with a fifth string in order to help accommodate it’s size. The implication of Paganini’s experiment (the instrument does not survive, and violin experts have long puzzled about who exactly Francesco Borghi liautio di Forlì really was) is that Paganini was exploring the possibilities of a larger-than-normal viola capable of producing virtuosic music with a distinctive sound quality that was separate from either the violin or the violoncello.

Paganini’s purchase of his gran viola (and the creativity that led to it’s commission) come from the months before his purchase of the Stradivari, and provide a narrative of his searching for an ideal of what the viola should be. Whilst the Stradivari viola had obvious prestige, it seems that it still left problems unresolved, for when he returned to England in 1834, it was the gran viola that was impounded by British customs (according to his letters to Luigi Germi his lawyer and confidant in Paris). With the full irony of so many unintentional viola jokes, he wrote “At last I have retrieved the gran viola which I have believed had been lost by the London Customs officials…I got it back on the 1st of April…”. This led to the completion of his Sonate per il gran viola which he performed on the 28th April, or as The Times reported: “Last night Signor Paganini introduced a performance on the viola, which was the first time he played this instrument in public.” The evidence suggests that although Harold in Italy had been inspired by his acquisition of his Stradivari viola, nonetheless, he was more attracted to his ideas of the ‘Controviola Paganini’ and was actively exploring these through his own composition experiments in London. Had he performed Harold in Italy himself when Berlioz finished it in the same year, it is uncertain whether he would have considered performing on his Stradivari or on the entirely different tonal properties of his ‘gran viola’.

Back in Paris, Berlioz was equally disenchanted with modern standards of the viola and was also seeking new colours of sound for the orchestra. In his  Grand traite d’instruments et d’orchestration modernes he railed against the status quo, seeking better alternatives:
“Here it must be said that most of the violas at present in our French orchestras have not the necessary dimensions. They have neither size, nor as natural consequence the tone power, of a real violas; they are mostly violins strung with viola strings. These Musical Directors should absolutely forbid the use of these bastard instruments, whose tone deprives one of the most interesting parts in an orchestra of its proper colour, robbing it of all its power, especially in the lower registers.”  


Thomas Zach’s 1873 Viola Arpa was developed under the scientific direction of Prince Stourdza and was based on Chaldny’s work on plate vibrations (Musée de la Musique, Paris, E.668)

Between Paganini, Berlioz and the violin maker Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume the continued interest in the idea of a fulfilling the missing elements of the full string orchestra, spawning a series of ideals and interpretations on the theme. Vuillaume was looking further than most, and his most remarkable experiment was the legendary sub-acoustic Octobass (tuned an octave below the double bass) that he invented in time for the World’s Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851. A second example made of the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1855 is called for in Charles Gounod’s mass for St Cecilia written that year, but as an instrument to reinforce the double basses of the orchestra there is little specific writing for it – it was nonetheless praised by composers of the period from Berlioz to Richard Wagner (Berlioz suggested all orchestras should have three of them). On this wave of inventions that directly responding to Berlioz’s demands for the orchestra came Vuillaume’s own ‘contralto viola’, curiously rejecting the large Italian contralto designs of the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries in favour of a shorter body length, deeper ribs and a wider body: Three such instruments made around the period of the 1855 Exposition Universelle survive. These appear to precipitate a Europe-wide interest in creating a distinctive large viola, along side his equally experimental soprano violon de Jullien comprising a similar body shape. Hermann Ritter in Berlin designed a viola alta which Richard Wagner specified for his orchestra at Bayreuth (which like the Contralto Paganini eventually ended up with a fifth string to ease playing the higher registers on so big an instrument). Alfred Stelzner and Thomas Zach also explored mathematical and scientific principles to create a distinctive viola with deeper and richer sounds.

Given  this background some significant questions arise about the instruments that Berlioz had in mind through the 1830s and 1840s including what he really intended for Harold in Italy. Paganini had already established the principle of a ‘gran viola’ before Harold in Italy was written, and an interest in a distinctive acoustic carried on throughout that period of the nineteenth century. Berlioz was not a particular connoisseur of old instruments in the way that Paganini was, and his interest – leading to his Traite d’instruments was almost purely that of a technologist. Hence, when he wrote Evenings in the Orchestra, describing “Mr Hill, … an Englishman, one of the first viola-players in Europe, owning an incomparable instrument” it is likely to be commentary on it’s design rather than it’s rarified connoisseurly value: Berlioz has no reputation for making judgements about one Stradivari over another Guarneri, but the use of the word ‘incomparable’ sits comfortably within his zeal for technological innovation and novelty, as for example, he described the Saxophone when it was first exposed as an invention in the Journal des Débats in 1842  “… of such rare quality that, to my knowledge, there is not a bass instrument in use nowadays that could be compared to the saxophone”… whose “character is absolutely new, and does not resemble any of the timbres heard up till now in our orchestras…”.

It was Henry Hill who gave the first London performance of Harold in Italy  under Berlioz’s Baton on 7 February 1848 at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. Family folklore cited by the Hill brothers in their monologue on Stradivari claims that both he performed on the Paganini viola, as Urhan had at the Paris premiere, though this is countered by Berlioz’s fascination with the incomparable nature of his own instrument. But we know from the recollections of H.R. Haweis, who was also in attendance at the premier, that his memorable instrument was a Barak Norman, as he wrote in Old Violins and Violin Lore (1898):

Henry distinguished himself as an admirable quartet player, and well do I remember the splendid tone of his Barak Norman tenor at Willis’s Rooms far back as I think 1848, when Sainton, Piatti and Cooper – one of the best, as it was almost the earliest string quartet cast in London … Berlioz always spoke of Henry Hill in terms of the highest praise; he even went so far as to say that he considered him one of the first performers in Europe… It is seldom that a tenor player ever comes in for direct commendation. He acts as a sort of go-between to violoncello and violin’. 

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Henri Vieuxtemps, Adolphe Deloffre, Henry Hill and Alfredo Piatti with the Duke of Cambridge and John Ella in attendance at the Musical Union in 1846

Of the few Barak Norman violas that survive, there is  nothing particularly out of the ordinary about any of them, except for one as we shall see. His work is towards the Italian end of English making around the 1700 period and he certainly had direct connection with Daniel Parker, for even violins with Norman’s authentic original label in them have from time to time proven to be mostly of Parker’s hand and some of these are amongst the finest sounding instruments made in England. Yet for Berlioz to term such an instrument as ‘incomparable’ seems an unlikely turn of phrase when compared to Cremonese masterpieces such as Paganini’s own Stradivari viola. More to the point, it seems curious that H.R. Haweis should have singled out Henry Hill’s viola – irrespective of who made it, in the context of a quartet in which Alfredo Piatti was playing his Stradivari cello of 1717, and Prosper Sainton’s Guarneri of 1744 – or indeed that the son of one of London’s most successful violin dealers should have fixed with a Barak Norman when a prestigious Cremonese instrument might have been at easy reach.


Jean Baptiste Vuillaume’s contralto viola made in 1855. One of several experiments that he made to provide the ‘proper colour’ in the orchestra that Berlioz called for. (Muziekinstrumentenmuseum Brussels, Inv. No. 0235)

Within this context the large sized viola by Barak Norman is a good candidate for the term ‘incomparable’ to be applied to it’s sound and it’s design. At a colossal 18 3/4 inches (475mm) it is around the size of the large Cremonese tenore instruments of Andrea Guarneri and Stradivari, but the ribs are proportioned like a cello, giving it an very deep and unusual quality of sound. Despite the enormous dimensions of the viola, the folds in the back make it a surprisingly playable instrument beneath the chin. With Paganini’s initial concept for his sonata per il gran viola in mind, the viola sits convincingly amongst the the continued experiments of Vuillaume, Ritter, Stenzer and Zach to provide instruments of greater volume, and responds equally to Berlioz’s damnation of viola design of the time. It not only appears that the instrument was perfectly suited to the kind of ideas emerging in the 1830s as Harold in Italy was composed, but it is plausible that Henry Hill could have identified the instrument as corresponding to his own understanding of Paganini’s conceptual gran viola choosing to use it for Harold in Italy, and perhaps more widely because of the allusions it provided to Paganini’s influence. Whether he had met Paganini in 1833-34 or not, his colleagues in the Musical Union were eyewitnesses to Paganini’s experiments.

An ‘incomparable’ viola. 

The 1690s and early 1700s were a period of tremendous experimentation amongst the leading London makers, and whilst on one level there was an increasing awareness of Cremonese standards of instrument makers, concepts in design varied radically. Interpretations of the newly emerging violoncello range from ‘piccolo’ sizes up to those approximating the over-sized Venetian bass violin, all being produced within a small community of makers around St Paul’s Churchyard out of which Barak Norman was a leading member.

1607 Amati

This 1607 instrument by Girolamo Amati probably began life as a treble viol

Throughout the seventeenth-century, Northern Italian makers had produced at least two standards of viola, ‘contralto’ and the larger ‘tenore’, but other instruments existed as well: From the 1590s the brothers Amati had explored possibilities of viol making. One surviving bass viol from 1611 is in the Ashmolean Museum (with a similar instrument at the Smithsonian Institution and various others converted into cellos), a tenor is in the Russian State Collection, and at Hamamatsu City in Japan, a 1607 viola-sized instrument by Girolamo Amati with corresponding deep ribs also survives – presumably a ‘treble’ (though Réne Morel gave it a new neck to turn it into a kind of lira da braccio). Whether such instruments directly influenced English makers of the 1700s is uncertain: The Carbonelli Inventory intriguingly refers to ‘English’ viols made by Nicolo Amati perhaps describing this model. Although the semi-carved folded back of the viola  is an Amati precedent (from the basses and tenor) that found its way into other English violas by makers in Barak Norman’s close circle – Daniel Parker and Robert Thompson. Nevertheless, the deep ribs may equally have arisen from Norman’s experience as a leading English viol maker of the day.

Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell by John Closterman probably around 1695 (NPG 4994) It is unlikely that Barak Norman had built this viola by the time Purcell died, so there is no direct link

The outline and general scale of the instrument does point to more direct Cremonese influence. Although the precise outline is Norman’s own, the gross dimensions have a good deal in common with Andrea Guarneri’s 1664 tenore, or the 1690 Stradivari made for the Medici court in Florence. An alternative influence may, however, come from the French court from the 1650s where the five-part violin bands existed with a larger (probably five string) Quintes des violon serving as a second viola part. No such instruments survive from seventeenth-century France despite firm musicological evidence for them – seventeenth-century French instruments of the violin family are vanishingly rare – but the requirement for such an orchestration would have reached England after the Restoration of King Charles II and specifically after John Bannister returned from Paris in 1662 where he had been sent to train under J.B. Lully. Henry Purcell’s Fantazias for a violin consort all predate the likely period when this instrument was made, although it fits logically as the instrument for the lower-register viola part (where the hardness of a normal viola c-string interrupts the delicate harmonic balances within the music). These relate to a genre of ‘theatre music’ tied to Restoration fashion for plays, which followed on from a prototype derived from French opera under Purcell, John Blow and a plethora of lesser known English composers, for which a similar instrumentation is pertinent, which lasted up until the 1720s when George Frederick Handel established the Royal Academy of Music (not the conservatoire, but an opera company), transforming English taste towards Italian opera.

Whether the instrument had further uses is impossible to tell. The tonal qualities work well against a tenor human voice, and as a result the instrument fits naturally towards an obligato strong accompaniment to song – as pertinent to a harking back to the Renaissance lira da braccio, as it is to looking forward to Brahms’ songs for alto, viola and piano. The possibility of a purpose as accompaniment in song repertoire of it’s time should be taken seriously, although finding specific evidence to argue for that idea is beyond the nature of musicological documents. It may also have had a use as a tenor part in a period when antiquarian viol consort music seems to have been increasingly played in violin ensembles, leading to the conversion of tenor and treble viols to a ‘violin-like’ state with reduced numbers of strings and folded backs (or lowered ribs) to allow playing beneath the chin.

Several instruments from the first half  of the eighteenth century exist with similar dimensions, Egidius Snoeck in Brussels made one in 1714 for example, and later Johann Christian Hoffmans in Leipzig produced instruments of this sort, but without exception these – identified as viola pomposa, or viola da spalla, are made entirely like small cellos, meaning that the a player would be incapable of holding them under the chin: Barak Norman’s example is unique for this variation.

medina cabal

Charles II’s “Private Musick” by J.B. Medina, circa 1662 seems to show either an abnormally small bass violin or a viola comparable to the French Quint de violon although the image may be deceptive.

Barak Norman’s viola is not labelled, but he lived from 1651 to 1724, appearing as a journeyman in 1688 and establishing his shop at the sign of the Bass Viol in St Paul’s Churchyard in 1690. It is decorated with his monogram which does not appear on viols before about 1695, and is stamped ‘NORMAN’ in several places on the inside. It is, in fact, the only time that I have seen a smaller variant of his monogram, which I previously thought to be impossible for genuine examples. The purfling, varnish, soundholes and scroll are all very typical of his work, and although it seems to fit closer to the 1710-1720s, in terms of a likely period when it was made, the later it is dated the more anomalous it seems to be. It is unlikely that many more such instruments were ever made, let alone have survived – I certainly know of no further examples, I don’t know what it would have been called when it was made, and I am not one-hundred percent certain of the reasons for which it was made. Nevertheless, it has a lot to say about the viola throughout it’s history, and if it really does have something to do with Henry Hill (at least, if it is reflective of his concept of Paganini’s gran viola), it has the basis of a great conversation piece.

Barak Norman’s Tenore viola of circa 1700


I am very grateful to Peter Sheppard-Skaerved for sharing various observations about Paganini and particularly correspondence about the gran viola, and to Emma Alter for her observations about the use of instruments of this sort in the time of Purcell.