The Viennese double bass: The long pattern

Alex Kanzian and Bram de Man wrote an article about the Viennese bass which was published in the Strad magazine Issue in October 2022.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, double basses made in Vienna had distinctive shapes and characteristics that gave them tremendous sound quality. Bass maker and restorer Alex Kanzian examines the evolution of these instruments, and how they differ from the norm.

The Viennese double bass is unique. It has a long history comprising numerous makers, specific aesthetics, uncommon shape characteristics and of course, virtuoso players. A complete history would be far too much to condense into a few pages, so this article is intended as merely an introduction to this exciting subject.

It might seem rather pointless to begin by explaining the Viennese bass’s geographical situation. That it has something to do with Vienna may seem logical, but there’s more to say than just that. When looking at shape characteristics, some aspects can be found in other parts of Europe. For instance, the protruding points at the pegbox are strongly reminiscent of some Brescian double basses, and the distinctive outline of the corpus can be seen in the area of Bohemia. Not uncommonly, this can result in the term ‘Viennese’ being attributed to rather crudely made basses from, for example, what is now the Czech Republic. The real Viennese bass, however, is indeed made in Vienna, even though many famous makers of Viennese-style basses from Prague, Bratislava and Budapest were all trained there.

Nikolaus Partl, Vienna 1756
Martin Stoss, Vienna c.1820
K&T, Viennese Model, 2020

Vienna, being a metropolis with a deeply rooted music culture, was a magnet for young violin makers in the 19th century. They learnt their craft in Vienna and naturally spread the Viennese school of violin making to many other cities in Europe: Johann Baptist Schweitzer brought the model to Budapest; Jan Kulik was trained by Martin Stoss and became one of Prague’s most famous violin makers. Josef Hamberger still made very Viennese-looking instruments in Bratislava around 1840 (though abandoning the Viennese scroll for an Italian style model). The Viennese bass model seemed to become less popular in the 1830s, as the latest Viennese basses we know of were made by Martin Stoss and Jakob Krasny at this time. Bass making became increasingly outsourced to Bohemia, and the few workshops still making basses (such as those of David Bittner, Franz Feilnreiter and his son Georg) started incorporating Italian features.

Form and aesthetics

But what exactly are those typical Viennese characteristics? Very often, Viennese basses can not only be described by a few of those characteristics: they bear all of them. Summarised together, the most important aspects are the following:

  • An elongated gamba contour at the corpus
  • An elongated pegbox with a protruding section halfway down, notched in either two or three lines, with no pronounced heel
  • Originally constructed as a five-stringed instrument, without tuning mechanisms
  • No overhang on either the top or the back: the ribs are flush with the plates
  • A butt-jointed (not inserted) neck, set in place with a dowel
  • High arching of the top plate
  • Straight f-holes, with deeply turned wings
  • A flat back with a rather high bend, the plate bent to a convex shape
  • Three braces on the back plate
  • Purfling only in the top plate, none on the back

Of course, every maker will put their own aesthetic on to those points. Viennese makers were part of a guild, so a strict eye was kept on the executors of the craft. The usual exceptions aside, we see phenomenal workmanship and innovative designs to create a very strong instrument with an enormous sound.

The earliest examples of Viennese basses we have worked on were made by Antony Posch and date back to 1730. A 1686 bass made by Wolfgang Sagmayr in Graz is made in a similar style to that of the Viennese basses, but bears an outline and f-holes that are more archaic. Several basses by Mathias Thir, Johann Georg Thir, the Stadlmann family and Sebastian Dallinger serve here as a perfect illustration for some of those typical Viennese characteristics.

The top plate

What is immediately striking about the top plate is the high and bulbous arching, crafted from top-quality quarter-cut spruce. While not all Viennese basses are so extreme, the highest archings I have seen in my 15-year career of making and restoring instruments have belonged to Viennese basses. Those tops used to be given either a glued-in or a sculpted-out slender bass-bar, often positioned rather inward in comparison to modern basses.

Since the basses are gamba-shaped, they have no overhang of the plates on the ribs. This flush setting can offer quite some difficulty while making basses in that fashion, but more on that later. The edge of the plate is simply turned over, and adorned by a single strand of three-strip purfling. The geometry of Viennese basses tends to vary slightly, especially in the position of the f-holes. This is not uncommon in basses of other countries and schools, and facilitates use of the same model for an altered string length.

Viennese f-holes do have a very distinctive form. They are set remarkably straight with a narrow shaft, sometimes with oval eyes and a deeper-turned wing than their Italian counterparts. On rare occasions even flame-shaped holes were used, in a similar manner as the viola d’amore, especially in the later instruments of Sebastian Dallinger.

The back plate

The Viennese bass can be considered as the last stage in the evolution of the viola da gamba that is still in use today. All Viennese basses have a flat back instead of a carved one. A flat back saves time and material, as there is no need to carve it from a big block of maple. But good back braces need to be made from perfectly split and seasoned spruce.

Traditionally, Viennese basses used to have three braces, the central bar being the one supporting the soundpost. Some of the backs had graduating thicknesses, and most of them were not just flat but bent in a convex shape. This convex shape gives a lot of strength to the complete structure; however, when not done correctly, it can tear the whole instrument apart.

Although it seems rather straightforward, a lot of skill and care goes into making a stable and well-functioning flat back. First of all, the enormous pieces of wood need to be very old and relieved of any internal stresses. When we make our basses, we cut the pieces to a thickness of about 15mm and store them perfectly flat. After ten years the wood has moved in all directions and the only way to plane these pieces perfectly straight is by doing it by hand. After jointing those, to ensure the pieces stay tension-free, we keep them stabilised even longer between thick MDF plates, until they are ready for the back braces. All those steps – the thicknessing, the jointing, the gluing and shaping of the bars, and the making of the bend – have to be done in a very precisely controlled environment, with particular attention given to the temperature and air humidity. This way, we end up closing the instruments with minimum force, and can ensure the backs remain crack-free.

The back plate is edged in a similar fashion to the front, without overhang, but has traditionally no inlay, so it becomes difficult to see the original shape of the back if the instrument has been altered throughout the centuries. After opening and restoring more than 30 Viennese basses I can say that repairing them is not an easy task. Some of them are in great condition but after 250 years, shrinking of the plates is a real issue. Since there is no overhang on the top and back plates, many earlier repairers have taken away material from the ribs on the outside in order to achieve the flush edge again. There’s no need to argue that taking away original varnish and wood, reducing the thickness of the rib till it cracks on the lining, is probably not the best way to go forward.

The neck and scroll

Traditionally, a Viennese bass neck was set on the instrument with a butt joint to the internal top-block, supported by an angled wooden dowel. They used to be rather long, with a low heel-block to accommodate the seven frets made of gut, bound around the neck and raised only slightly above the rim of the top plate. The fingerboard used to be made out of maple or another hardwood, and was much shorter than it is today. This, of course, is all parallel to the changes in other stringed instruments throughout the centuries.

Whereas most of the original Viennese necks have been removed throughout the years, the scrolls and pegboxes still remain. The pegboxes are characterised by a long and rather straight profile, with protruding grooved points on the front and back sides, and originally used to accommodate five pegs. Where technically, cello-like pegs could still be used with full gut strings, it was far from practical. Sometimes players used an extra piece of wood as a longer handle to make tuning easier and more precise, and most – if not all – basses later got mechanical tuners. This is the reason why the Viennese basses have those beautiful, big pegs: the old pegs were inserted in the newer tuners to save time, material and work, and the aesthetic was then set for later instruments.

Generally, the scrolls are rather small and turned to the ground, with an elegant flow all around. Some Viennese basses even exhibit beautifully sculpted angel heads, though this is less common.

Original pegs are still used in many basses, and you can sometimes see the fifth peghole with a glued-in old peg to taper the hole.

The ‘sporn’

An idiosyncratic feature of the Viennese bass is the presence of wooden balls (Spörne; singular ‘Sporn’) on the rim of the back’s lower edge. These had several uses: the basses originally had no single endpin, but a small wooden endpin and a metal pin in each Sporn. Thus, it was possible for the bass to stand upright on all three metal pins, so the musician could lean the bass towards the player without it turning. Early paintings even show bass players leaning the bass away from them, which could explain why in early basses the Sporn is only on the treble side.

In the mid-18th century we find basses with two Spörne, and in the latter part of the century the Sporn is only found on the player side. Another practical reason was that the bass could lay down flat on the floor, only touching the floor with both Spörne and the back of the scroll (before tuners were installed). That could be the reason why many Viennese basses show lots of wear on the back of the scroll.
Johann Joseph Stadlmann, Vienna 1762

Modernised basses

Most of the Viennese instruments, having been built as five-strings, are now in a four-string set-up. As with nearly all old violin family instruments, the basses have been modernised too. The Viennese basses had, much like the violins of this time, a Baroque fingerboard and neck: the neck was not inserted into the top-block but fixed with a wooden dowel. The fingerboard, made from maple, became thicker towards the end.

Because of their high arching and smaller size, many Viennese basses are not good five-string instruments (in modern orchestral tuning), but wonderful four-string orchestra or solo instruments. As described, the original pegs are still used in many basses, and you can see the fifth peghole sometimes with a glued-in old peg to taper the hole. At times, though, the peghole is simply left uncovered. In some basses the fifth peghole is hidden by the four tuners added later. But if you have a real 18th- or early 19th-century Viennese bass on the bench, it will certainly have a fifth peghole.

Why many Viennese instruments are black

As a bassist, I always thought black basses were cool. As a violin maker, I found the idea of covering the beauty of the wood instead of enhancing it very disturbing. The best examples I have seen are those of the Johann Joseph Stadlmann workshop: over the years the model has been altered only slightly, but it seemed to me that early Stadlmann basses (built 1750–60) were built of spectacular wood and given a nice, deep red varnish. Much of the colour pigmentation is in the wood, and the varnish seems golden and transparent. This varnish can also be seen in some beautiful Stadlmann cellos, but it was clear that the original finish had been covered with black varnish. Then there were instruments made 1760–80 that still carried this black varnish. Where it faded or was rubbed off, we could see a golden ground on unfigured maple. So it seems they never had the nice dark red varnish the older basses had.

After seeing many instruments of this kind, we concur with the theory advanced by Michel Lorge (The Strad, March 2022) in which he states that after the death of Empress Maria Theresia`s husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, in 1765, some instruments commissioned by the Empress were ordered in black varnish.

Viennese tuning

While the rest of the world was making basses with three or four strings, Viennese basses were made with five. Not only was this instrument specific in its shape, in historical times it had a specific tuning as well: it was tuned in 4ths and 3rds, F–A–D–F sharp–A.

This tuning accommodated virtuosic playing as well as accompaniment, as we can see for instance in the Dittersdorf concertos. Of course, the principle of scordatura was widely used throughout the music world, so it was definitely not uncommon to tune certain strings to different notes, to facilitate playing in the demanded key of the piece. Frets are reminiscent of gamba playing – thus a chordal, accompanying playing style.

Seven frets mounted on the neck also explain why Viennese basses were constructed not with a D-neck (with the curve of the neck heel beginning at the 5th position) but with a E flat neck – otherwise it would not have been possible to mount that 7th fret.

Thanks to my co-author Bram De Man in Brussels for his great help with this article