5-String Double Bass, “The Red Baron” by Ferdinand Seitz, Mittenwald anno 1834 – Review

How would you describe this instrument?

This is one of those magnificent instruments with the rounded or "Busetto" type lower corners in the style of Mathias Klotz (1653-1743) that are quite awesome in every aspect. With a length of back (LOB) measurement of 119.3cm - this really is a true 5/4 size instrument.

Is the string length big as well?

No. Even though this instrument is not far short from being as big an instrument as 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 107.0cm. Can you believe that stat? Only 107.0cm. So big bass - but incredibly easy to play.

Does the instrument have a big sound?

Yes indeed. 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!

The varnish is a bit on the bright side. Is it original?

No sadly not. The instrument was repaired and revarnished by another shop prior to The Contrabass Shoppe purchasing it.

How do you know that?

The vendor told us that he had commissioned the work from that particular shop. Indeed the instrument is accompanied by a bill of sale dated 2nd October 2008 that states - "for the restoration and re-varnishing" - and amounting to a total of "£3,213".

What are your views on the re-varnish work?

Lets just say less than sympathetic.

Is that why you've given it the nickname "The Red Baron"?

The nickname came from our restorer's mouth first. Then it just stuck!

Just remind me - who was the Red Baron?

The Red Baron was the nickname of a 1st WW fighter pilot and "top-gun" by the name of Manfred von Richthofen (b-1892, d-1918). Richthofen is officially credited with 80 air combat victories in that war. He is most commonly associated with the Fokker Dr.1 which was a triplane - however he first earned his reputation and nickname by flying an Albatros D.111 that was painted bright red.

Ha ha. I get the connection. But I have to say that it is quite incredible to think that Seitz made this bass some 58 years before Richtenhofen was actually born?

Yes indeed. An even more incredible thought is that it has survived not one but two world wars.

Besides the repair invoice does the instrument have any other documents with it?

Yes there is an insurance valuation from the shop that did the restoration work on it.

What is the date of the insurance valuation and how does it identify the instrument.

The valuation is dated 23rd August 2009 and it identifies the instrument under the heading "labelled" as "Ferdinand Seitz Mittenwald 1834".

Have you seen the label yourself?

No. It is not in the normal position on the back and we couldn't see anything by looking through the endpin hole or by using mirrors. That doesn't mean to say that it is not in there. Its just that we haven't been able to find it without removing the table.

If you haven't seen the label how do you know for sure that it was made my Seitz?

The model, dimensions, workmanship and quality of timber used is typical of Seitz's output. You could say - that these magnificent instruments were his trade mark.

Do either of the instruments in the archive pages have a label or inscription?

Yes. The second one has a near identical LOB measurement of 120.0cm and is signed in ink - 'Ferdinand Seitz 1856' - on the bass side lower table.

Ferdinand Seitz - he was famed for his basses wasn't he?

Yes he was. Although there is very little recorded about Ferdinand Seitz - even in the larger reference books - double bass players the world over recognise his name as being synonymous with these large well sounding orchestral instruments. German opera-orchestra players especially favour these 5/4 size instruments that were often made - as is this example - with the rounded or "Busetto" type lower corners.

Why German opera-orchestra players?

The sound of a Seitz bass is particularly suited to the Grand Opera and every German bass player well understands the patriotic significance and prestige of owning and playing on an instrument by this legendary maker. Of perhaps equal consideration is the fact that opera players don't have to carry their instruments around that much.

OK - how about some more information on Seitz.

Ferdinand worked around about 1840-1857. There were several generations of violinmakers with the name Seitz. Most of them worked in and around Mittenwald. The double volume Encyclopaedia on Violin Makers by Karel Jalovec (1st pub in GB 1968 – translated by J.B. Kozak. Prepared by Artia for Paul Hamlyn Ltd) records no less than 18 with a surname spelt either Seitz or Seiz. Many of the makers worked for or supplied instruments or parts of violins exclusively for the dealers and manufacturers of the time - namely Matthias Neuner (3rd) and Matthias Hornsteinster.

More info on 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.

More info on Mathias Klotz.

Mathias Klotz (1653-1743) can be considered the founder of violin making in Mittenwald. In 1685 he 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.

Instrument characteristics.

The instrument is made in the traditional style of the Mittenwald School. It is viol shaped with rounded or "Busetto" type lower corners. It has a flat back that slopes gently in towards the neck and along the length of the back centre join is a characteristic strip of ebony. The spruce table is - as one would expect from a master maker - sensibly thicknessed and characterised by having a fine grain. The maple used to construction the back and ribs is lightly figured. The carving details of the arching, edgework, ƒ holes and purfilling are neat and well controlled.

Have you done anything to the instrument at all?

As explained previously the instrument was "revarnished and restored" to a certain standard by another shop prior to The Contrabass Shoppe purchasing it. Rather than spending several months in terms of time simply undoing and then redoing all the work to our own standard we came to the decision that the most sensible course of action was to get it playing well by doing the bare minimum necessary.

And then when ready for sale - offer it at a price commensurate to its overall condition.

Yes - affirmative.

I have to admit that does seem sensible. So what did you actually do to it?

When we purchased the instrument it was set up with what can only be described as a five string conversion of the lowest standard imaginable. The neck was at a low angle, there was a simply gross looking wedge under a very thick fingerboard and the pegbox machinery was about as basic as it is possible to purchase.

Wow the whole revarnish, restoration work and five string conversion sound like it was total "budget -job".

Sadly we would have to say that this is true.

So to get the instrument playing you put in a new neck, a new board and a decent set of cogs.

You make it sound so simple but in a word yes. With thoughtful planning and skilfully execution - fitment of the new neck and board by restorer Jeroen Bruynooghe resulted in a reduction of the string length from a challenging 109.5cm down to a very manageable 107.0cm.

Phew - that does sound like a good result. I'll bet that the neck feels great too.

Yes indeed and what's more - the instrument is easy to bow.

So what about the new cogs on the peg box? They look just right for this instrument.

Thank you. We'll take that as a compliment. The peg box has been adorned with the reassuringly expensive Irving Sloane machines imported by ourselves directly from the USA. These precision engineered beauties really are smooth operators.

Does the instrument "speak" reasonably quickly on the bottom strings?

We've set the instrument up with a set of the fabulous Belcanto strings and a Superflexible B-string. As a result the instrument 'speaks' so quickly that we'll be very impressed if your bowing technique can match what this instrument is capable of doing.

How about a final summary?

The basses made by Ferdinand Seitz are highly prized for their huge organ-like sound. This particular instrument has been nicknamed "The Red Baron" by our restorer because of the bright revarnish job done by another shop. The work could of course be redone more sympathetically at a later date. As is - this is a great opportunity to purchase a big named instrument with a big and tonally awesome sound for much less than half the price of one with its original varnish.

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