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Bohemian Rhapsody - Anthony Houska examines a Frantisek Prokop double bass, an instrument that epitomises the Bohemian making tradition.

Reproduced with kind permission of Orpheus Publications Ltd.  First printed in the Double Bassist.  Issue Number 5, Spring 1998.

Most 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).

Frantisek 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 town official.

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.

The 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.

Franz's 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.

The 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 pine front. 

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.

Where 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.

Considerable 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.

Most 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.

Prokop bass Vital Statistics

String length:

1035mm (from bottom of top nut to top of bridge)

Back length:

1089mm

Bouts (at widest point):

532mm (top) 663mm (bottom)

Neck length:

460mm (from bottom of button to underside of nut)

Head length:

321mm (from underside of nut to top of scroll)

Rib depth:

169mm (minimum) 217mm (maximum)

Sound holes: (at nicks)

19mm (maximum)

Table length:

1093mm
thickest 10mm
thinnest 4mm

Peg-box:

63mm (maximum width at top nut)

Inner peg-box:

33mm (maximum) 24mm (minimum)

Purfling width: (on table only)

8mm

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