5-String Double Bass by Neuner & Hornsteiner, Mittenwald anno 1880 – Review

We are looking for a good 5-string instrument but there doesn't seem to be many available on the market - can you tell me why?

Yes - there really aren't that many good five string instrument about simply because there aren't that many instruments available that have the correct proportions and structural integrity to be able to handle the fifth string and those lower notes. It's just no good whacking a five string neck on a standard sized 4/4 size instrument and expect it to produce the goods.

What would make the ideal 5-string instrument then?

How about this magnificent instrument by Neuner & Hornsteiner that is labelled and dated 1880. It is what we call a true 5/4 size instrument and it is blessed with the type of proportions and the sort of condition that are absolutely perfect for producing, amplifying and projecting those deep dark rounded sounds that are the prerequisite of a top quality five string instrument.

Tell me more about the sound.

As one draws the bow across the strings the whole instrument begins to vibrate and a simply colossal sound really makes its presence felt. I promise you - you won't be able to stop smiling at the enormity of sound. Hold on to the china plates!

Can you tell me about the instrument?

This instrument is made in the traditional style of the Mittenwald School. It is viol shaped with a flat back that slopes gently in towards the neck. Along the length of the back centre join is a characteristic strip of ebony. The wood used is nicely figured, well thicknessed and of good quality. The carving details of the scroll, ƒ holes and purfilling are typically neat and well controlled. The varnish is original and also very typical. Just take a look at the glorious texture and deep-dark red-brown colour over a yellow ground. Splendid stuff indeed.

So big bass but is the string length big as well?

No. Even though this instrument is amongst the largest that one will find - it is still very playable due to the fact that The Contrabass Shoppe has fitted a stunning "slim-feel" neck that provides a string length of only 106.8 cm. Can you believe that statistic? Only 106.8cm. So big bass - but incredibly easy to play.

Is the bass labelled?

Yes the instrument bears its original printed label on the inside central-back brace. The label reads "Neuner & Hornsteiner Mittenwald (Baiern) 1880" followed by the N/H within a circle monogram.

Bass label – Large 5-string by Neuner and Hornsteiner, Mittenwald dated 1880

Can you tell me about Mittenwald?

Mittenwald is located at the foot of the Bavarian Alps in the very south of Germany. Between the end of the 15th and the 17th century Mittenwald prospered as it lay directly on the lower trade route between Augsberg and Venice. In 1685 Mathias Klotz (1653-1743) - considered to be the founder of violin making in Mittenwald - returned to the town and opened a large workshop in which he trained his three sons as well as many other violin makers from the area. Today the town still has a violin making school and there is a museum devoted to the evolution of stringed instruments and to old Mittenwald.

Approximately how many violin makers were there in Mittenwald at the time this bass was made?

I have been reliably informed that an 1880 population census established a figure of some 4000 residents in the town of Mittenwald out of which there were some 200 violin makers. That's quite an astounding number - in fact approximately 10% of the working population.

Can you tell me a little about the Neuner & Hornsteiner firm?

Yes. The Encyclopaedia of Violin-makers by Karl Jalovec (pub. Paul Hamlyn 1968) summarises the history of the firm as follows: "A factory for the production of bowed instruments, founded 1750. Up to 1812 it was called Gebrüder (Brothers) Neuner, then Matthias Neuner, under Matthias Neuner (1V); finally Neuner & Hornsteiner. At the end of the 19th century it was owned by the dealer Altenöder and Ludwig Neuner (II)." The factory had its own sawmill and stocks of wood, employed as many as 180 workers and produced in the region of 15 000 instruments a year. From 1920 the firm was owned by Hans Neuner.

I've heard that there were several makers with the surname Neuner and many with the surname Hornsteiner.

Yes - that is correct. In fact the number of surnames recorded under both names is quite staggering. There are 18 makers with the surname Neuner recorded in the Jalovec Encyclopaedia - 14 of whom were either born or worked in Mittenwald. The same Encyclopaedia records no less than 31 with the surname Hornsteiner - 28 of whom were either born or worked in Mittenwald. An additional two out of the total number of Hornsteiners are recorded as having attended the violin making school.

Can you say which Neuner it was that took Hornsteiner on as a partner?

Unfortunately comparative information provided by the main reference books - is quite vague and conflicting - however according to the Encyclopaedia on German & Austrian Violin Makers by Karl Jalovec (pub. Paul Hamlyn 1967) Matthias (111) Neuner worked from 1795 - 1830 and was the founding member of the partnership. The paragraph reads as follows; "Though a skilful violin maker he was a still better business man. He enlarged the inherited workshop and through journeys abroad he greatly increased the importance of the firm Neuner & Hornsteiner. Violins bearing his name were made by him in his earlier years. Later he employed minor violin makers in Mittenwald and started factory production. The later violins lack real distinction, whereas the earlier ones have individual character."

Do you have any more information that supports this line of reasoning?

Directly opposite the listing in the German & Austrian Violin Makers Encyclopaedia is a facsimile of a label that reads "M; Neuner & Hornsteiner aus Mittenwald an der Isar". In addition The Contrabass Shoppe sold - some years ago - a quality German double bass by Ferdinand Seitz that bore a faint pencil signature "Ferdinand Seitz 1837" on the lower inside table and a "M. Neuner and Hornsteiner, aus Mittenwald an der Isar" label on the centre brace.

What does this establish?

It establishes two things. Firstly that Neuner and Hornsteiner amalgamated in or prior to 1837 and secondly that Ferdinand Seitz - a maker synonymous with producing large well sounding orchestral instruments - was supplying instruments to the N & H firm.

Remind me briefly about Seitz.

There were several generations of violin makers with the Seitz name, most of who worked in Mittenwald. Ferdinand worked around about 1840-1857. The Encyclopaedia by Karel Jalovec records no less than 18 with a surname spelt either Seitz or Seiz many of whom worked for or supplied instruments or parts of violins exclusively for the dealers and manufacturers such as Neuner and Hornsteinster.

OK - so which Hornsteiner was the founding member of the N & H company.

Unfortunately none of the major reference works that we have available in our library provides a definitive answer or even suggests an area for further research regarding this important question. Indeed the lack of clear information is suggested in the beautifully produced volume Alte Geigen und Bogen - published in conjunction with the convention of the International Society of Violin and Bow Makers that was held in Köln in 1997 (ISBN 3-00-001441-1) when it states that the genealogy of the Hornsteiner family has hardly been researched.

Just out of interest what other works did you consult?

The following were consulted;

    1. Karl Jalovec - 2 volume Encyclopaedia (pub. Paul Hamlyn 1968).
    2.  Karl Jalovec - German & Austrian Violin Makers (pub. Paul Hamlyn 1967).
    3. Fridolin Hamma - German Violin Makers (pub William Reeves Bookseller Ltd 1961).
    4. Walter Hamma - 2 volume Violin Makers of the German School (pub Hans Schneider 1986).
    5. Alberto Bachmann - An Encyclopaedia of the Violin (pub The Library Press Ltd 1925).
    6. William Henley - Universal Dictionary of Violin & Bow Makers (Amati Publishing Ltd 1973).

Did retail families such as Neuner and Hornsteiner have some control over the violin making in Mittenwald?

Yes - a combination of natural catastrophes, war, economic recession and perhaps most importantly - the secularization of Southern Germany and the Hapsburg lands resulted in the sales of violins being taken over by a number of retail organisations. By the early 19th century retailers such as Neuner, Hornsteiner, Baader, Jais, Kriner and Woernle were fully in control over violin making in Mittenwald. What would be made and how - was dictated and the purchase and sale prices established and controlled.

What was the result of this domination by the retailers?

Violin makers became dependant on the retailers and as the demand for inexpensive, simply made instruments began to increase - the general quality and individuality of the instruments produced began to decline. Violin making became a "piecework trade" in which individuals specialized in doing one step of the process. By the middle of the 19th century the division of labour was so extreme (there were specialists in making instrument bodies, in carving the neck and scroll, in varnishing the instruments etc) that there were very few makers in Mittenwald that could still make an instrument from start to finish.

When did standards go back up?

In 1853 The Mittenwald Violin Making School was founded with the support of Maximilian 11, the King of Bavaria. The objective was to help makers learn more about their craft and to offer support and advice to the workshop owners and their employees.

Did standards rise at the Neuner & Hornsteiner firm?

Yes - Ludwig Neuner (1840-1897) from the company Neuner & Hornsteiner deserves special mention. Ludwig learned violin making in Munich, Berlin and then in Paris - where he worked with J.B Vuillaume for seven years. While with J.B. Vuillaume Ludwig was able to study many fine examples of classic Italian violins and indeed Vuillaume's own work and models. On returning to Mittenwald - Ludwig engaged the best of the Mittenwald craftsmen to copy the instruments - working with them to encourage a rise in the general level of quality produced in Mittenwald.

Did Ludwig Neuner take over the N&H Company?

Yes - The Universal Dictionary of Violin & Bow Makers records that he took over the control of the company and suggests that this was in the year 1883 - following the death of his father and brother. The Jalovec Encyclopaedia records that Matthias (V) Neuner (1831-1890) was also a partner in the firm and adds that at one time he was the mayor of Mittenwald.

This history stuff is all very interesting but I'd rather get back to the instrument now. Have you done anything to it at all?

Yes - the instrument has been fully upgraded to modern day concert standards. In brief - we've reduced the body length slightly in order to provide a manageable string length. We've then fitted it up with a new neck, fingerboard, bridge and post and the peg box is now adorned with a stunning set of new English machines set on brass half plates. Internally - improvements have been made to the acoustics by means of judicious regraduation work and the replacement of the original bass bar.

A support patch to the vulnerable post area has been fitted and half-edging and edging work has been performed.

Phew - all in all that was quite a bit of work then?

Yes indeed it was. But in our opinion it has been worth all the effort - for the instrument is now structurally in A1 condition.

Tell me about the sound again?

The quality of sound is simply awesome. There is huge 'octobass' like sound which can only be described as glorious and reverent. There is plenty of volume and the tone is rather like a fine red wine - mature and full-bodied.

Final summary?

This instrument was made for the Neuner & Hornsteiner Company in 1880. Although we do not know the actual makers name it is very near in quality to the work of Ferdinand Seitz - the renowned Mittenwald bass maker - who we know produced instruments for the N&H Company. With volume and tonal qualities at the very highest level - this instrument will help establish and elevate the foundational or core-sound of any orchestral or opera orchestra.

Final words.

A truly magnificent five string instrument in exceptional condition.

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