The Violoncello piccolo by Johann Wagner, Borstendorff

A Violoncello da Spalla with an original short neck

I was told that when I say something about the “Wagner model”, it looks like I want to keep some mystery. The truth is that we know very little about it and Wagner himself.

In Lübeck, in the St. Anne museum, they have this little five strings cello, which is almost in original condition. It is not on display, and we went to see it in March 2020.

The label says Johann Wagner, Borstedorff, with no date. The museum's curator told us that J. Wagner was from Borstendorff, Saxony, born in 1703 and died in 1762, so the instrument is probably from around 1750.

This is the only known instrument of Johann Wagner. Borstendorff, on the other hand, was a village with many instrument’s makers, as it is a recurring place in musical instruments’ labels. The label has similar features with other labels from Borstendorff. It was customary to outsource labels, as the maker could not have a nice calligraphy and may want something more elegant than a handwritten label.

Little else is known about Borstendorf or Johann Wagner.

In Borstendorff, violin making developed and spread at the end of the 17th century. In the same period, violin makers from Graslitz moved for religious reasons to Markneukirchen.

23 km northeast from Borstendorff, in the Freiberg dome, an ensemble of instruments were hanged in the hands of statues one and a half-century before Wagner. Those instruments were probably made in Randeck, halfway between Munich and Nuremberg. They look archaic for their epoque, in their shapes and structure with a central, rectangular soundpost. The Wagner too seems archaic when compared to the Hoffmann, which was made 20 years before. However, the craftsmanship is scrupulous, not at all that of an amateur. It was probably a cheap instrument, with no purflings and no corner blocks. Inexpensive but well done.

Italian fashion was not a standard in Saxony. This two instruments were made in the same decade, 1590: one is the tenor from Freiberg’s Dome, the other a violin by Amati brothers.

The neck is original and was never moved or modified, this is very clear: the neck has the upper block inbuilt, and the ribs are there with their original glue, fabric and little wedges to keep them in place. The bass bar looks original too, and same for the most of the instruments.

At the end button, the ribs were broken, the lower block was substituted and made new, and the end button is big enough to accommodate a wooden endpin. The lower block seems to be the only part not original.

Original fabric stripes stabilise the joints of the top and back.The ff holes are pretty wide apart, but this is not a clue of a top taken from a bigger instrument and cut down to measure, as the archings clearly show.

With such a short neck, which, by the way, is precisely in a relationship of an interval of a fifth with the vibrating length, this cute instrument was probably not intended for virtuosic performances, but as an accompanying instrument, so to play a bass part. So why five strings? To extend its use also to melodic parts, I would say. Having the four open notes of a violin, it could easily improvise folk tunes and dances, but on the fifth string, it had a reliable bass. To me, it looks like a versatile instrument in the hands of a violinist.

The short and big neck is very comfortable in the hand. Shifting position is easy and natural, even though only up to the third. It stays well in the hand and looks perfect for a street performer, someone who marches while playing, accompanying maybe a dance or a wedding parade.

The original Wagner has many scratches on the back, all in the same round direction. There are two main hypotheses about them: being caused by buttons on the player's coat or caused by a rough wall to which it could have been hanged to. I tried to replicate them. I thought that the owner, a street musician, a traveller, could have hanged the instrument to his mule or on his back, hanged by the scroll, while travelling. So I hanged it by the scroll and tried to scratch it on a rough wall, but the marks obtained were straight, very different from the original ones.

It came to my mind Andy Eastwood, a ukulele-banjo artist. The ukulele banjo is a heavy instrument, and it isn't easy to support it only with the left hand while playing. But Andy does so because the inspirational George Formby didn’t use a strap. So, it happens that while playing the banjo-uke goes a bit down on his chest, and with some fast movements of the right hand, between a fan-stroke and a triplet, he manages to let it go up again.

This is the same movement that produces on the back of a shoulder cello the scratches in the direction that we see on the Wagner. In other words, the centre of those circular signs is not the scroll or above, as it was hanged with a ribbon to something, but the neck. As if while playing, it moved on the player's chest, or as if the player is trying to hang it at a strap with a button, but sometimes misses the button at the first try.

Hanged to a button of the mantle, as described by Walter, 1732, cousin of J. S. Bach.

Related readings:

Violoncello da Spalla
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Updates from our workshop

This week the work on our two spallas was slow. We went shopping to Cremona, we needed new rasps and we ended out buying woods. How could we resist to some gorgeous flamed maple, well seasoned, and already cut at the right length? Being the Violoncello da Spalla not a standard, it may be the case that, when in urgent need of wood, you end up buying a whole big cello back, spending more money and wasting wood. We don't want to take this risk, we always buy exceptional wood that comes into our way.

Apart from that, Alessandro went on tour with his orchestra in Perugia, in the center of Italy (lucky him!), while I stayed at home to manage the chaos of the beginning of the school year. So not finished the head yet... 😖.

Fall is coming, leaves are changing colours!

Featured video of the week

Violin, viola, violoncello da Spalla and lira da braccio, masterfully played by Toshihiko Amano. Enjoy!