Reproduced with kind
permission of Orpheus Publications Ltd. First printed in the
Double Bassist. Issue Number 5, Spring 1998.
double bass players and enthusiasts are aware of the great English,
French and German traditions of making in the 19th century. Relatively
few, though, have had the opportunity to see and examine instruments
from the Bohemian school. The rare and beautiful orchestral-sized
instrument analysed here is by Franticek [Franz] Dominik Prokop
(1803-1862), an award-winning, second-generation luthier originally
from north-west Bohemia (now the Czech Republic).
The impressive tradition of the Prague school
of making can be traced back to the close of the 16th century. Makers
of German decent such as Georg Faust came to Prague in 1586 from
Buchel in Baden and Wolf Boss relocated to the city in 1592. Next
came important luthiers, mainly from the Fuessen area, who can be
considered the founders of the Prague school. Like other European
luthiers, they were inspired by the extraordinary talents of German
violin maker Jacob Stainer (1617-1683). His well pro- portioned,
meticulously constructed instruments, made in a fully arched style
from carefully selected wood, were much in demand by artists and
amateurs who bought them in preference to contemporary Cremonese
instruments. Maker and teacher Thomas Edlinger (1662-1729) worked
with Stainer in Absam near Innsbruk before moving to Prague where
he gained his fortune making instruments for the nobility and for
churches. Both Johann Ullrich Eberle (1699-1768) and Johann Georg
Hellmer (1682-1770) joined Edlinger as apprentices, producing clean
and careful work based on the Stainer model. The second generation
of makers, many born in Prague, continued the tradition, men such
as Joseph Joachirn Edlinger (1693- 1748), Karl Joseph Hellmer (1739-1811),
Johann Baptista Stoss (1784-1850), and members of the Homolka family
whose work covered some 100 years of making in Bohemia. Others included
Jan Kulik (1800-1872) and Jan Baptista Dvorák (1825-1890).
Dominik Prokop was the eldest son of Antonio Prokop (1777- 1862).
The family home was in Hlinsku, a small town some 90 miles south-east
of Prague, and it was here that Franz worked and helped his father
make and repair pianos. Moving to Vienna, Franz worked for Johann
George Stauffer (1778-1853) in the production of pianos and guitars.
Stauffer was originally a cabinet maker who learned to make guitars
and violins, going on to study with Franz Geissenhof (1753-1821).
Like Geissenhof, Stauffer began working with the Stainer model but
later became known as an excellent copyist of all the great Italian
masters, gaining a good reputation and a large following of patrons
for his meticulously constructed instruments. Many were ornamented,
particularly with inlays to the backs, some had foliate designs
on the ribs and scroll (which may have been a direct influence of
Stradivarius' magnificently decorated violins such as the 1679 Hellier
and 1722 Rode) while others made use of the lion's head scroll.
Varnish varied enormously from a thick, hard and glassy coating
to a softer one rubbed down to appear worn. Unfortunately many of
his later instruments were disappointing in sound. Despite innumerable
experiments in tone production, they proved unpopular and unsuccessful.
After five good years with Stauffer, Franz
and his wife Anna Tumovou (a servant girl from his home town) moved
to Budapest. Very quickly he made a name for himself producing quality
guitars and violins and became recognised as a gifted painter. His
reputation reportedly grew so extensively that he was able to avoid
national service after presenting one of his violins to an influential
An outbreak of cholera prompted Franz to flee
back to Hlinsku where he started experimenting with inlays and with
mother-of-pearl. A commission for a cello from the gentleman Korselda
da Turnova resulted in a magnificent instrument heavily inlaid in
intrinsic patterns with tiny mother-of-pearl triangles and stars
to the front, back, neck and ribs. Franz received the absolute fortune
of 400 gold coins for his efforts. Korselda was so impressed by
the instrument he paid for it to be sent to London and exhibited
in the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park. Highlighted in the
official catalogue, the cello received a gold medal.
In 1850 Franz's wife died and he rernarried
a 24-year-old girl. It was not a successful match and 12 years later
Franz was dead, succumbing to pneumonia on 19th December 1862. Claims
were made against his estate, ruining the family.
Only Ladislav (1843-1919 followed in his father's
professional footsteps and - in recognition of Franz Dominik's
seminal position in Bohemian instrument-making - documented the
family history in 1868.
instrument featured here, which dates from c. 1840 and is in close
to original condition, has many unusual, even eccentric features:
its shape; the use of decorative inlay; and (intriguingly) a fully
detachable neck. It bears Prokop's large green label - 'Franz
Dominik Prokop, Hlinsko'- printed in black ink. Although the dimensions
are fairly standard for a full-size instrument [see box, below],
the visual features of shape, style and decoration are more unusual.
The 'figure-of- eight outline or guitar-type style is the most striking
and intriguing. This may have been developed from ideas patented
by Françios Chanot in 1817 and 1818 in an endeavour to improve
the tone of his violins. More probably, though, it was a direct
continuance of guitar construction methods - with its fashionable
and elaborate inlays - in which Stauffer and his pupil Prokop were
fully proficient. Perhaps a combination of both ultimately influenced
the shape of this double bass: both guitar methods and Chanot's
experiments resulted in reduced corners and edges that would (in
theory, at least) produce bigger vibrations and a better sound from
the resulting longer table grains. To make the instrument more solid
in this form, ivory or hard wood inlay was introduced at the edges.
experimentation with purfling and inlays is very much in evidence.
Although the intricate mother-of-pearl inlay used for the Korselda
cello has not been used, an interesting seven-strand type of purfling
is placed right at the edge of the top plate. Being 8mm across,
the alternating thin strands of maple and ebony sandwiched between
a thick outer and inner ebony strand create an excellent visual
effect. The back has three very thin, dark strands of decoration
each only 0.5mm wide. Remarkable for their artistic design, originality
of placement and precise execution, they are more likely to be wax
forced into scratch lines than actual ebony inlays. The first is
only a few millimetres from the edge with the other two placed 5mm
from the first and 2mm apart. Similarly, the ribs have two groups
consisting of two strands each, running right around the instrument
14mm from the top of the plates. There is a single strand at the
join of the lower ribs, either side of the end-pin unit. The back
is flat with a fairly low and slight angle bend which slopes gently
towards the back button.
table moves steeply up from the edges creating a relatively high
arch that flattens off in the central table area and strongly suggests
Stainer's influence. There is a slight overhang or lip where the
table meets the ribs, as is common with most violin family instruments,
while in contrast the back joins the ribs completely flush and accentuates
the guitar-like appearance. All is in proportion, aesthetically
pleasing and highlighted by a very durable, light golden-brown spirit
varnish that captures the stunning quality of the slab-cut two piece
maple back and ribs and the wonderful even-medium grain of the two-piece
The beautifully proportioned and well cut f-holes
are fairly straight in appearance with Amati-style nicks. Interestingly,
both the upper and lower wings are connected by a small 'bridge'
of wood to the body. These tiny dowel-like structures seemingly
join or slot into the back half of the table and wing ends. Each
is supported from behind with a thin stud, their function being
to give support to the vulnerable wing areas.
The scroll and neck are cut from one block of well
figured maple through which a medium flame runs almost horizontally.
The scroll is elegantly carved and well conceived with pleasing
proportions. A decorative feature and characteristic of Franz (it
can also be seen on his violins) is a central carved line approximately
1mm deep and across that runs from the under- cut of the scroll,
over its top and down the back of the peg box dividing above the
peg box button (at the neck-peg box level) to emphasise two carved
scallop shapes that mimic the button.
A hard, black, resinous substance of some sort is
evident in a shallow recess on the back, just below the button.
Although missing, it seems highly likely that a rimmed, oval-shaped,
metal inscription plaque - bearing details of Franz's name, date
and possibly a patent number - fitted over this.
If the patent number did not relate to the shape
of this intriguing instrument then it may have referred to an even
more unusual feature: a detachable neck, facilitated by means of
a large steel screw with the top end hand-filed square and with
a flat head (similar in shape to those found in pianos and with
dimensions of 8mm diameter, 11Omm long and with a thread cut from
the bottom end for 46mm). This descends from a round hole (the entrance
to which is strengthened and decorated with brass tubing) in the
top of the neck block, through the neck and into the top block.
Using a piano tuner's key or a grandfather- clock key to extract
the screw the neck can be lifted out. Where the screw enters the
block a corresponding thread is visible, cut into a steel tube which
descends through the block. It is held at the top by a 25mm square
nut, 3mm deep. A similar nut positioning the same steel tube from
the bottom of the block can be seen by looking through the f-hole.
When the neck is repositioned and the screw replaced, it can be
tightened to hold the neck firm with no need for glue. Where the
neck fits over the nut a mortise or recess of 35mm has been cut
through the neck; this enables the rest of the neck to fit flush
with the block. Towards the front of the neck block - 43mm from
the table front - a strip of steel 2mm thick protrudes 7mm high.
This has been inserted via a single cut down through the top of
the block. A corresponding recess is made through the front underside
of the neck block; when the neck is replaced the piece of steel
locates the front end of the neck while the back button fits flush
to a low lip protruding above the flush edge of the ribs-back join.
the ribs follow the contours of the block and join the neck there
are distinctive humps similar to those found in the post-1900s,
cheaply produced German 'blockless wonder' basses (so called because
the neck and block were carved from the same piece of wood while
the ribs were bent around as square as possible to meet the neck,
glued and often wedged into the neck). Unlike the German basses,
however, this instrument has a very deep upper block shaped to offer
as much contact to the unglued neck as possible.
Why did Franz devote so much thought to the removable
neck? Certainly it would have made altering the angle of the neck
much easier for comfortable playing and maximising the sound. By
placing a veneer of wood under one or other end of the neck block,
a considerable variation in neck angle height was possible. With
a maximum bridge height of only 14cm and thick gut strings to play
on, however, this would not have been of the greatest consideration.
At this period, travel with a heavy instrument would probably have
been either by horse and cart or by stagecoach. By detaching the
neck from the body, extracting the end-pin unit with tailpiece and
strings attached, the instrument body could be laid easily in a
specially constructed wooden box with the neck and scroll placed
in a separated section alongside. Players could safely pack their
instruments, load up and move on to the next gig.
engineering skill has gone into the design of the hand-made machines
which, most unusually, turn with a left-handed thread. The cog teeth
are filled square to the thread of the worm which has been cut opposite
to the usual way, releasing rather than tightening the string when
the worm is turned clockwise. Traditionally bass makers would commission
a local horologist to produce the machines for their instruments,
as they were skilled in making wheels with teeth. But because of
the few applications for left-handed threads, especially in the
manufacture of clock movements, it is probable that Franz (armed
with his skills in piano making) lent his hand to making these.
All four sets of machines are set on brass quarter
plates with the cogs held in their respective peg holes by a bridge-type
bracket that prevents the cog from slipping out of contact with
the worm. This arrangement was later adopted and modified for the
construction of the mass-produced German 'blockless wonder' basses
which also became known as 'hat-peg' basses because of their protruding
soft wood turners (held in position only by simple steel pins).
These were stained to give the appearance of being made of the expensive
hardwood ebony. All the machines are evenly positioned on the peg-box,
suggesting immediately that this instrument was made for four strings.
A closer examination of the machines reveals very slight and subtle
differences to the D-string mechanism, however, suggesting that
the generous length of the peg-box allowed this cog to be conveniently
positioned there by Franz at a later date, with no need to reposition
the other three.
bass makers used either solid steel or wood turners. This instrument
has a D turner of solid steel in comparison with the three original
turners which consist of a 2mm steel tube, with a central core made
from wood. This served a dual purpose: to fill up the unsightly
hole at the end of the tube; and to help keep the instrument's weight
to a minimum. Noticeably the D-worm end has no recess nor an edge
bevel to the quarter plate but does show much crisper construction
and fixing detail.
To confirm that this bass began life as a three-string
instrument and was altered later, it seems reasonable to expect
a slight variation in the size of the cog and in the number of teeth
in the newer cog. This theory proves correct: the D cog is significantly
smaller (with a 41mm diameter and 39 teeth) than the E cog (with
a diameter of 44mm and 45 teeth), the A cog (diameter of 44mm and
38 teeth) and the G cog (diameter of 43mm and 39 teeth). The surprising
variation in cog diameter and number of teeth on the E, A &
G strings suggests that each cog and worm was marked out by hand
rather than machine-produced. The teeth were then shaped with a
warding file completely by hand from blanks that had been cast.
The relatively high number of teeth would have been necessary to
fine-tune the very thick, primitive gut strings in use at the time:
the more finely geared the cog, the more sensitive the result. The
unexpectedly large variation in teeth numbers on the lowest or E
string, therefore, may not be an anomaly in the manufacturing process
but may have been deliberate and the result of a considerable amount
of thought by Franz, anxious to produce as sensitive as possible
a tuning action for the thickest and most difficult string.
Perhaps Franz was so aware of the ever-changing fashions
and trends between players and composers in the use of three- or
four-string instruments that he had made provision for such a conversion
with the minimum amount of disruption. Certainly the neck is of
ample proportions to accommodate the fourth string, as is the size
of the bass bar. However, the beautifully constructed, stained hardwood
tailpiece with carving on the lower lobe (resembling the three scallops
at the back button of the peg-box) is made for four strings and
as such is drilled with four even holes. It is disappointing not
to see any evidence of conversion to a four-string instrument at
this point but it is probable that Franz was commissioned to convert
the instrument, at which time he decided to replace the original
tailpiece with the present one.
Whatever, it is apparent that Franz's thoughts and
ideas were very advanced, even quite remarkable. Not only was he
a good craftsman and gifted engineer but also an ingenious designer
and serious innovator who spent considerable time and effort continually
developing and improving his work. Every aspect of this instrument
has been carefully thought out with remarkable attention to detail.
Even the simple but effective onion-shaped ebony end-pin unit (employing
a fairly large wing nut to directly tighten two washers. against
the end-pin rod) has been designed and made with considerable aplomb.
Many 20th-century instruments show developments of
Franz's ideas. Two such examples are the method of bending the upper
ribs into the neck block and the retaining bracket over the cogs
on the scroll. Sadly, several very clever ideas seem to have been
overlooked. Was it a patent of Prokop's ingenious neck removal system
that prevented other makers from considering its merits? Or was
it far too complicated and difficult to engineer for his contemporaries
to contemplate? Similarly, the feature of tiny wing bridges at the
f-holes is a concept confined to a few Bohemian makers. How
strange that this simple, most effective idea found no favour with
makers from other countries when this 160-year-old instrument has
survived crack-free at these points. Developed a little in isolation
from other European ideas, it seems that the great tradition of
Bohemian making has been considered, evaluated and condensed to
create an individual, beautiful, bold and positive style of making
from which much can be learned even today.
(from bottom of top nut to top of bridge)
(top) 663mm (bottom)
(from bottom of button to underside of nut)
(from underside of nut to top of scroll)
(minimum) 217mm (maximum)
(maximum width at top nut)
(maximum) 24mm (minimum)