The Ex-Gordon Neal 5-String Double Bass by Ferdinand Seitz circa 1850 – Review

Who was Gordon Neal?

Gordon Neal (b-1929, d-1978) was a member of the London Symphony Orchestra for twenty-two years. Prior to his joining the LSO and whilst still studying at the Manchester College of Music with Arthur Shaw he gained work as an extra with the Halle Orchestra in Manchester. In 1952 Neal was appointed a member of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and it was in 1956 that he joined the LSO. Neal was a close friend of the eminent bass player Stuart Knussen (b-1923, d-1998) who was the principal of the LSO for nineteen years and the highly acclaimed international violin soloist Alfredo Campoli (b-1906, d-1991).

Tell me a little about the instrument?

"Big Bertha" as it was aptly named due to its true 5/4 size was purchased by Neal in Barnsley, South Yorkshire around 1952 whilst he was living in Birmingham. Due to it bearing the ancient Anglo-Saxon name "CODDEN" on one of the labels on the inside back and an upper-back English style angle break it was always thought to be English.

Do you think that the angle-break on the back was a later alteration?

Yes indeed. Originally the instrument would have had a flat back that sloped gently in towards the neck. The upper back must have been cut and the upper ribs altered in order to make the instrument easier to play. In so doing it made the form of the instrument look incredibly English thereby confusing all who saw her.

I must say that the varnish also looks incredibly English.

Yes - the varnish on this instrument is absolutely exquisite. There are hews, under colours and textures similar to those found on the greatest of Fendt basses.

Is there any more recent documentation that supports the long term belief that the bass was English?

Yes - in March 2001 the vendor paid for a valuation for insurance purposes from a well established violin shop in Guildford, Surrey. The valuation describes the instrument as follows; "This bass is possibly an old English bass, made in the late 18th century, or early 19th Century, possibly in the north of England."

It is a bit of a cheeky question but can you tell me - where did you purchase the instrument?

The instrument was purchased by The Contrabass Shoppe Ltd in July 2010 from Neal's widow - a Mrs Patricia Weller. At the time of purchase it was stored in a bedroom cupboard in her sister's house along with another of Neal's instruments and a large pile of his bass bows including a rare but unfortunately very worn bass bow by James Tubbs that had been gifted to Neal as a 21st birthday present by Campoli.

Is that how you know so much about the provenance of the instrument?

Yes indeed. In fact ever since the insurance valuations on the two instruments and bows had been written Mrs Wella had been forking out a significant amount of money each year in insurance premiums. Certainly not an ideal situation for any pensioner.

What state was the instrument in when you purchased it?

The instrument had been in storage and un-played ever since Neal's untimely death thirty-two years earlier. Structurally it had deteriorated into quite a poor state.

What would you have said was of most concern?

The bass had a particularly low neck angle and was fitted with an incredibly thick and rigid brass tail wire. This coupled with the lengthy storage at full playing string tension had contributed to the collapse of the lower table area and severe sinkage and buckling right along the length of the bass bar. In addition there was a particularly nasty open post crack on the front and a wear and pressure depression directly under the treble foot of the bridge.

That sounds like a lot of work to repair.

Yes indeed. The instrument merited a full rebuild - and that's exactly what we decided should be done.

Can you give me a brief summary of the rebuild programme?

    1. Yes. Let's start with the front
    2. Remove front from ribs.
    3. Make plaster cast to facilitate extended repair work.
    4. Remove old bass bar, clean area, make and fit new bass bar.
    5. Clean reset and reinforce ten cracks.
    6. Half edge and edge the entire front.
    7. Replace one wing.
    8. Reshape the table arch using hot sandbags.
    9. Reinforce the arching with patches.
    10. Re-glue front onto ribs.

What did you do to the back?

    1. Remove back from ribs.
    2. Make and fit patch for upper block area.
    3. Make and fit new back-button.
    4. Make and fit new ebony strip to upper outside back and back button.
    5. Re-glue back braces.
    6. Remove upper back from the angle break, reset and secure with new brace.
    7. Clean, reset and stud all cracks.
    8. Re-glue back onto ribs.

What did you do to the ribs?

    1. Clean, reset and protect all cracks with stud work and where necessary patches.
    2. Make and fit eight new inner linings.

What did you do to the neck and scroll?

    1. Chop out old neck.
    2. Select and prepare wood for new neck.
    3. Re-bush eighteen old peg holes and seventy-six screw holes in peg box walls.
    4. Make and fit one small piece to the outer volute of the bass side scroll.
    5. "French" graft new neck onto the pegbox.
    6. Set neck into top block.
    7. Fit new fingerboard.
    8. Shape neck and fingerboard and finish.
    9. Make and fit new top nut.
    10. Make and fit new brass plates to peg box.
    11. Fit new set of tuners to the pegbox.

What did the finishing work involve?

    1. Purfilling work to the front.
    2. Clean and varnish work.
    3. Polish work.
    4. Full set-up.

What about the string length? Very often you find that Seitz basses traditionally have a huge string length. Did you manage to make any adjustments to that during the rebuild?

Yes. By replacing and repositioning the upper block to a slightly lower position the string length was reduced from 112.0cm to the very manageable length of 107.2cm. The work also involved the slight recutting of the upper front, the removal of a section of wood from the upper back at the angle break and the rebending of the upper ribs.

Ouch - that is a lot of work. What a great result on the string length. What a great result on the repair. Who did the work?

The work took nearly 15 weeks to complete and was performed by self-employed luthier Jeroen Bruynooghe who currently lives in France. Jeroen comments "The Seitz was definitely the biggest job that I've ever done".

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!

Can you tell me more about the CODDEN label on the inside?

The label simply says in capital letters "W. CODDEN 1884" and is positioned on the bass side central back brace.

Do you have any information on Codden?

In a word no. Even though we have searched our entire reference library, asked two authors of books on the English violin and three other knowledgeable violin dealers each with their own extensive libraries we have not been able to come up with anything. If any of our readership can help on this it would be greatly appreciated.

Are there any more labels or inscriptions?

Yes. There is a small label seemingly made up of a name label and an address label positioned in close proximity and located slightly upper of the back central brace on the bass side. On the top line the first two words are badly worn however with a not inconsiderable amount of deductive work our boffins here at The Contrabass Shoppe have been able to work out that it bears the company name "M/s BIRD & SON". On the second line the address "56, Berwick Street," is provided and on the third line in very small text "One door from Oxford Street".

Labels and inscription inside the "Ex-Gordon Neal" 5-string double bass by Ferdinand Seitz

Labels and inscription inside the "Ex-Gordon Neal" 5-string double bass by Ferdinand Seitz

Labels and inscription inside the "Ex-Gordon Neal" 5-string double bass by Ferdinand Seitz

Looking at the label do you think that the "s" in M/s is on a higher level than you have indicated here?

Yes. It's extremely difficult to make out but the impression of an "s" more or less appears to be on the level that we would normally position an apostrophe.

What do you think that the M/s means?

M/s is used here as an abbreviation for the title Messrs which in turn is the English abbreviation of the French word "messieurs". The English translation of messieurs being "misters". It is used as a title to refer formally to more than one man simultaneously or in names of companies.

What info do you have on Messrs Bird & Son in your reference library?

Unfortunately very little if nothing is recorded on Bird & Son. The only possible reference that we can find is made by Dennis. G. Plowright in his "Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers" (Published 1994 by the author. ISBN No. 0 9523081 0 X). On page 12 he writes an incredibly brief entry as follows; "BIRD C.A.E, London"

That is brief - but still it's a very useful entry for future research. Did you find any other reference to Messrs Bird & Son anywhere else?

Yes. On the web pages of the US bass guitar manufacturer and retailer - Ken Smith - we were fortunate to find a reference to a Messrs Bird & Sons business card that had been affixed onto the outside lower rib of an English double bass circa 1830 by John Thomas Hart. Reproduced from the page; "This bass had a Business Card (sic) laminated to the lower Rib (sic) at the Block (sic) under the Varnish (sic) by "MESSRS. BIRD & SONS" (c.1890) ....."

So what does the actual label say?

Again reproduced (August 2014) from the page of the Ken Smith web site;

56 Berwick St. 1 Door from Oxford St. 
50 Double Basses on sale from 8 to 100 guineas
The Double Bass and 40 Music stands can be had on hire
Professional Gentlemen can have a Double Bass at a Moderate Price

Wow - that is incredibly interesting. What else does Smith say on his page?

Smith goes on to say that this text is only a partial reproduction of the information that was on the card.

Why would that be?

I wrote to Smith and he was good enough to reply as follows; "The card was varnished over and was hard to read as the solvents blended with the ink on the card."

With all that info on the card it must be pretty large?

Smith confirmed that the card was approximately 4.0in x 2.5in (10.2cm x 6.4cm) in size.

What can we deduce from the information on the card?

Bird & Son and with the later addition of another son becoming of age to join the shop Bird & Sons - they were specialists in double bass sales and restoration. One would have to agree that fifty double basses all ready for sale or hire is certainly a pretty decent sized bass shop! This would also be the logical explanation as to why Bird & Son or Bird & Sons has been omitted or overlooked from violin maker's dictionaries and encyclopaedias.

Wow - that is incredibly interesting. What else does Smith say on his page?

Smith goes on to suggest that Bird Snr was an "indirect link" to various nineteenth century London makers. I have not reproduced this as his style of writing is somewhat confusing, his time line is questionable and when asked about it he confirmed that it was hearsay albeit from the musicologist Duane Rosengard.

Knowing the way you research your stuff - I'll bet that you asked Rosengard if he had indeed provided Smith with this information and to confirm if this was either his own personal research or what sources he had used?

Yes affirmative. One of Smith's statements regarding an introduction by Bird Snr is so massive in historical importance that it would without question appear in most violin dictionaries. Unfortunately to date Rosengard has elected not to reply.

Hmm... Let's move on. Are there any more labels or inscriptions?

Yes. There is a fairly lengthy inscription in pen on the very lower treble side back either side of the lower of two back braces. The inscription appears to be from a past restorer and although it is incredibly faint, worn and virtually indecipherable the upper part appears to read "This bass was restored by G. Micalham on April 8th June 1877". As for the lower part of the inscription it is possible to make out individual letters and the numbers "56" and possibly "12" - but that is about all.

Are there any more labels or inscriptions?

Yes. The date 1/68 is written in pencil on the two lower back braces, on the two lower back treble-side crack patches and on the two centre joint patches immediately above the central brace and upper brace.

When you bought the bass did the five string bridge that was on it have any stamps or markings?

Yes. The bridge is branded Alan Warrick just below the heart and on the apex of the arch of the bridge the name "G NEAL" and date "4/68" is written in pencil.

Do you have any info on Alan Warrick?

Yes. Alan Warrick (b-1919, d-1997) had a string instrument repair shop at 19 Regina Road, Southall, London UB2 5PL. Alan's son Adrian Warrick was kind enough to supply the following information; "Basic data on Alan. Born in 1919, died 1997. He was the third generation of the family business which was started approximately 130 years ago by my great-grandfather Albert Warrick who was trained by G.A. Chanot. The four generations are Albert then Alfred then Alan and finally me. All labels in violins made by my great-grandfather and grandfather were labelled A. Warrick and it is not unusual for instruments to be sold by shops to be erroneously attributed to Alan although he was always too busy to ever make an instrument. Albert won the International Violin Making competition in 1895."

I heard that Ferdinand Seitz was famed for his double basses. Is that correct?

Yes indeed. 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.

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.

Am I correct in thinking that Mathias Klotz is considered the founder of violin making in Mittenwald?

Yes. In 1685 Mathias Klotz (1653-1743) 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.

How would you describe this instrument?

The instrument is made in the traditional style of the Mittenwald School. It is viol shaped with traditional "viol" type corners. It has a flat back with an English style angle break that is the result of later alteration. Along the length of the back centre join is a characteristic of the Mittenwald School - a thin strip of ebony. The spruce table is - as one would expect from a master maker - sensibly thicknessed and characterised by having a visually strong fine-even grain that opens to an even-medium grain on the flanks. The maple used to construct the back is well figured with a flame that descends from the centre joint. The maple ribs are well matched to the back with a strong flame that slightly descends from front to back. The carving details of the arching, edgework, ƒ holes and purfilling are neat and well controlled. The original varnish is a deep-dark red-brown colour over a yellow ground and is of exceptional quality and texture.

How about a final summary?

This truly awesome and characteristic instrument by Ferdinand Seitz was formerly the property of Gordon Neal - a member of the London Symphony Orchestra for twenty-two years. Just consider for a moment - in the history of this one hundred and sixty-four year (at the year 2014) old instrument - during that twenty-two year period alone it would have "done the business" of providing the "foundations of the orchestra" for legendary conductors such as Kripps, Sargent, Britten, Monteux, Dorati, Solti, Kertész, Barbirolli, Bernstein, Davis, Giulini, Previn, Stokowski, Ozawa, Rozhdestvensky, Böhm and Williams to name but a few. What an amazing thought and indeed accolade that is. Now - following a total rebuild that has put this instrument back into structurally A1 condition there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn't see out another century and a half of top class music making in front of new generations of great conductors, soloists, fellow musicians and audiences.

How about a final summary regarding the sound?

The basses made by Ferdinand Seitz have always been highly prized for their huge organ-like sound. With regard to this magnificent instrument there is a huge "octobass" like sound which can only be described as glorious and reverent. Just imagine a jumbo jet flying through the concert hall and you are nearly there.

Older Post Newer Post