Are the Hoffmanns unique?
A crowd of violoncello da spalla from Borstendorf
One day last week, waiting for his coffee, Alessandro was surfing into museums’ catalogues. It was just a 15 minutes “research session”, but the findings are worth sharing.
Borstendorf is a village in Saxony, now close to the border with the Czech Republic. It is 120 km south of Leipzig. In the 18th century, it was a village of violin makers, and we found a few little cellos, or violas pomposa or cellos da spalla made in Borstendorf around the mid of 18th century.
It’s been written that the appearance of these instruments on the market was dependent on the invention of the da double wound strings, which allowed to have shorter basses. And that, being that kind of strings first mentioned in a letter by J. B. Forquerray in 1763, all the instruments dating before are fakes.
As a first thing, I can’t entirely agree with the date of the invention: those strings could be around for decades before someone mentioned them in a letter. Luthiers may not have regarded this as an invention. The wound string is an invention, the idea of spinning a gut string with a metal wire to obtain a heavier, thinner and more resonant string for the basses. But simply spinning twice, going over the string once more to give more weight, looks more like a technical trick than an invention to be announced to the world. Luthiers were not that kind of people spreading the word about their tricks, and musicians may simply have not noticed that strings were double wound. I wouldn’t notice without opening it.
However, being double wound strings available or not, those short cellos could play decently well even with a single wound C, as I discussed earlier.
Let’s list what we found, and keep in mind that it was only a short google search session, it’s not meant to be the finding of the decade, and as there are for sure many more instruments around, it would be cool if you could post your findings in the comments below!
Johann Wagner, Borstendorff, before 1760
this is the instrument that I copied last year, already mentioned several times in this newsletter
Samuel Hunger, Borstendorff, around 1750
we had news of this instrument through our friend Takumi Takakura, who measured it in a museum in Japan.
As you can see the label seems made from the same person who made the one for the Wagner.
We are not sure if this is the same instrument played by Ulrich Koch.
Christoph Friedrich Hunger, Leipzig
In this label, dated 1751, C. F. Hunger declares himself being in charge as Leipzig licensed violin maker and successor of the Hoffmanns.
This big viola is remarkably similar with the Brussels’ Hoffmann. The dark varnish is coherent. Measures are very similar but not identical, the viola being 1cm less of everything, 3 cm less of ribs. This instrument was opened in 1929.
Johann Traugott Mosch, Borstendorff, 1765/1775
Unfortunately, this instrument seems to be lost during WWII, and only this picture is available. The notes in a pre-war catalogue are: “The lacquer of the instrument, which is similar in its work to Hoffmann's violas nos. 918 and 919 is yellow-brown in color. The one-piece bottom is made of plain maple wood. The f-holes have a small, graceful shape. 5 strings.”
What I see here is that during the 18th century in Saxony, these little cellos, 4 or 5 strings, were popular. I think it was mainly because it allowed violinists to play and bring a bass around in processions, square dances or street entertainments. Hoffmann was not a one of a kind maker who invented a strange instrument that needed special technologies and died with him. Many other makers in Saxony were making the same violoncello piccolo. Hoffmann and Bach may have added the fifth string, but if so, their idea spread fast and survived long after them.
News from da Spalla world
You can download for free the recording of Bach’s suites by Dmitry Badiarov, and also ask for a free physical copy, at this link:
Updates from our workshop
Road trip! This week we had a pleasant morning at the workshop of our friend Eliakim Boussoir, we visited Brussel’s Musical Instruments Museum to see some tenor violas, and then, in an hotel near Amsterdam, Daniela took the theory part of her examination as Karate instructor. In Italy we have four grades of trainer: aspiring coach, coach, instructor and master. Alessandro will start his lessons for the exam of Judo master tomorrow, from the hotel as well.
Featured video of the week
Did Carl Philipp E. Bach have an Hoffmann at home? Maybe we’ll never know, but we know that he was so close to J. C. Hoffmann to godfather his sons. Enjoy this concert from C. P. E. Bach played by A. Malov!