The Ex-Dragonetti, Italian Double Bass by Gennaro Gagliano, Naples circa 1764 – Review

How do you know that this double bass once belonged to Domenico Dragonetti?

On page 72 and 73 of the pioneering book “Introduction To The Double Bass” by Raymond Elgar (Published by the author in 1960.) there is a short history and full-frontal photograph of the instrument.

What does the book say?

Reproduced from page 72 of the book. 'The double bass illustrated opposite is one of the finest in the world. It was reputed to have been made by Gennaro Gagliano (fl.c.1730–1780 Naples) by Claude Hobday, a great player and recognised authority on basses. This instrument was brought from Italy by Domenico Dragonetti (b-1763, d-1846) who, returning to London, stopped at Vienna to call on Beethoven, with whom he was most friendly and was made very welcome. He enquired if any interesting bass parts had been written recently. Unfortunately not, was the answer, but a cello sonata was just completed. Dragonetti thereupon played it straight away on this bass in such a masterly manner that Beethoven could not refrain from embracing him.'

Wow - that really is an amazing bit of history.

Yes indeed. In fact this Dragonetti - Beethoven encounter took place in 1799 and is famous.

How do you know that?

The anecdote was first recorded by the author Alexander Wheelock Thayer (b-1817, d-1897) in his three-volume biography of Ludwig van Beethoven that was published between 1866 and 1879. Thayer's work was the first scholarly work on Beethoven and set a benchmark for modern standards of accurate biographical research. After many revised editions the work is still regarded as a standard work on the composer.

Does the Elgar book say what Dragonetti did with the instrument?

Yes - there is a second paragraph as follows; 'The instrument passed to Dragonetti's sub-principal at the Opera House, James Howell, who died in 1879. It next passed to another owner and thence to the late Mr Hobday and is now in the possession of a talented lady amateur player. The bass is covered with a fine Italian golden oil varnish that has never since been matched and is truly magnificent to behold. The bass has a modelled or swell back.'

Is the bass featured in any other publications?

Yes. In Raymond Elgar's third book entitled Looking At The Double Bass (Published by the author in 1967) it is featured over no less than four pages. Page 80 is a full frontal view. Page 81 is a full back view. Page 82 shows the rear of the peg box which is “open” and page 83 shows the treble side of the scroll and pegbox.

Do you have any more information on Howell?

In Raymond Elgar's second book entitled More About The Double Bass (Published by the author in 1963) there is a short biography on Howell which records that he was born in Plymouth in 1811 and died in 1879. In 1825 he became a pupil at the Royal Academy of Music where he studied under Anfossi. Later he became a professor at the Academy. After Dragonetti's death in 1846 he succeeded him as the principal bass at the Theatre. Reproduced from page 66 - 67 of the book; 'He was then the most important bass player in Britain for he was an unrivalled orchestral performer and had full knowledge of the traditional method of accompanying recitative passages, making his services at the Royal Italian Opera almost indispensable. His services were sought after by many who had previously engaged Dragonetti. He was often at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where he played (with Pilet and Hancock) Corelli's Trio for two cellos and bass and received suitable publicity on the Theatre bills.'

It crossed my mind that Elgar doesn't provide the name of the theatre that Dragonetti and Howell played at. Why do you think that is?

The name of the theatre changed names in accordance with the sex of the accending monarch. Under George I it was called the King's Theatre. When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837 it was renamed Her Majesty's Theatre.

Do you have any more information on Hobday?

Arthur Claude Hobday (b-1872, d-1954) was one of the great players of the 20th century and a notable collector of double basses. He played in the leading orchestras of the time and was a founder member of Beecham's Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He was also a member of the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal English Opera House and the Glasgow Choral Union and is recognized as being the first double bassist to record a large amount of chamber music. As well as the Gennaro Gagliano he owned basses by Montagnana, Gasparo da Salo and Vincenzo Panormo and in 1898 he acquired the exalted ex-Bottesini 1716 Carlo Antonio Testore.

A liberal account of Hobday's fascinating life and career is reported by Tully Potter in an article entitled "Hobday's heyday" on pages 22 - 24 of the Double Bassist magazine (Orpheus Publications) number 18 from Autumn 2001.

Is the Gennaro Gagliano mentioned in the article?

Yes, it is mentioned in no less than three paragraphs. In the second paragraph it talks about his fine recordings of the “Trout”, his one-to-a-part recording of the “Eine kleine Nachtmusic” for HMV and discs of the “Beethoven Septet” and “Schubert Octet” and due to the beauty of the sound proffers -'No doubt it is the Gagliano that can be heard on Hobday's recordings'.

Do you have any other interesting facts on Hobday?

Yes. After reading this review a genealogist friend of ours decided to conducted some research into Claude Hobday and discovered that there is an entry for his father in the 1881 census (under the civil parish of Faversham). Of significant interest is the fact that for his profession Charles D. Hobday is cited as a musical instrument dealer. This one suspects must surely have been a positive influence on his son`s passion for the collecting of the very finest and rarest of Italian double basses. Indeed one could easily imagine that there was some expertise and financial involvement too. Our thanks to Edward G. Hellewell for his excellent research.

Do you know who the owners of the instrument were after Claude Hobday and the female amateur?

The current owner informed me that the instrument was in the ownership of Don Cheeseman and Ernest Ineson - who were both legendry English players.

Do you have any more information on Ineson?

Ernest Ineson was a pupil of Claude Hobday. He was a former principal and founder member of Sir Thomas Beecham's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946. Ineson was also a member of the Brighton Philharmonic and was a professor at the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall.

Do you have any more information on Cheeseman?

Charles Henry (known as Don) Cheeseman (b-1899, d-?) was a former principal player of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

What about the current owner?

The current owner has been a member of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for over 32 years. Prior to this he was a member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He has also written a number of solo study books and arranged orchestral repertoire books for double bass that are highly regarded by both teachers and students.

Going back to the books by Raymond Elgar. Do you have any idea what happened to his original research material, photographs, transcripts, letters and correspondence?

Yes - The Contrabass Shoppe Ltd purchased all the material that was related to the three books directly from his son.

Gosh - that has to be an invaluable resource in your line of business.

It certainly is and in terms of this particular instance on the reverse of the original photograph of this instrument Raymond Elgar has written in blue pen the name of the instrument, its measurements in inches, a brief description and of particular interest 'S. Allen on bridge'. Indeed, the current owner of the instrument has informed me that not only did he make and fit a bridge for the instrument all the current internal restoration work was performed by Allen.

Can you tell me who S. Allen was?

Samuel Allen (b-1838, d-c1898) is best associated with the fact that he became the workshop manager at W.E. Hill & Sons of Bond Street - the world-renowned firm of instrument makers, dealers and restorers. The reference work W. E. Hill & Sons (1880 – 1992) - A Tribute by Richard Sadler (Published in 1996 by Ealing Strings Ltd – ISBN 0 9504357 2 4) records that as a bow maker he was regarded by Retford and his fellow craftsmen at the Hill workshop as an “exceptional craftsman”.

Does the book confirm that he went into bass making?

Yes - Allen 'branched out into the making of violins - and double basses!' after he left Hills to set up business on his own around 1890.

So this remarkable and indeed legendary craftsman worked on the Gagliano then?

Yep - appears so.

Is there any other form of documentation to support the authenticity of this instrument?

Yes - there is a 14-page tree-ring analysis report by John C. Topham dated 8th June 2018. The analysis was carried out on two tree-ring sequences representing the bass and treble sides of the front. The sequences were then compared with established reference chronologies and date sequences.

This sounds like a weighty document. Can you provide a summary of the results?

The results show that the most significant cross-matching dates obtained for the youngest rings measured on the bass and treble were AD1754 and AD1759 respectively. Due to the fact that violin wood needs to be seasoned for a number of years before it can be used the latest date is unlikely to be the felling date of the tree. The chapter sub-headed “discussion” concludes that at least 5 year should be added to this date.

So in what year does Topham conclude that this instrument was made?

Topham writes “In this case a date of not earlier than AD1764 for the manufacture of the front is possible”.

Does this all tie in well with Gennaro Gagliano's making career?

Yes indeed it does.

Is the instrument in top playing order?

The instrument is in good order. Having said that we do believe that the playability of the instrument could be improved by the fitment of a new neck, fingerboard, bridge and set-up.

Why haven't you done this work?

The instrument is being sold on a commission basis with instructions from the current owner to find a new home for it in the same condition that he has been playing on it for the past 21 years as a member of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

I understand. The fitment of a new neck and set-up wouldn't break the bank anyway. How about a final summary?

This ownership of this rare and exceptional instrument can be traced right back to Domenico Dragonetti - the legendary mid-18th to mid-19th century double bass virtuoso who bought it over to the UK directly from Italy. Over the past quarter of a millennium the instrument has been played and coveted by a string of eminent players, nearly all of whom have been principal players of some of the UK's greatest orchestras. In addition the provenance of the instrument is well documented in no less than two of the pioneering publications about the double bass by Raymond Elgar and more recently a dendrochronology report provides a conclusive date match to the making career of Gennaro Gagliano.

How about a final, final summary?

This really is a very desirable instrument for any player or investor.

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