In a short history, Benjamin Hebbert explores more than five hundred years of violin making in the British Isles. For more detailed information about different makers, the BVMA published The British Violin: A Catalogue of the Exhibition of 400 Years of Making in the British Isles (2000) which is available from us.
The Sixteenth Century
The violin is thought to have emerged in the 1490s at the Ferrarese court of Isabella d’Este with the concept of a consort of monophonic bowed string instruments (i.e. playing one note at a time, rather than for playing chords like a lute or viol) intended to replace the sackbut and cornet ensembles for the purposes of dance music. Although the modern design would not emerge for another few generations, nevertheless the concept spread rapidly through Europe. When Catherine of Aragon came to England in 1501 to marry Prince Arthur she and her ladies in waiting ‘called for their Minstrellis, and with right goodly Behaviour and Manner solaced themselves with the Disports of Dauncing’. The same minstrels appear in later court records associated with stringed instrument playing, suggesting that the new Italian ideal of a bowed instrument for dance music had reached England within a decade of its invention. Amongst the Italian musicians who came to London around 1540, those who either made or dealt in musical instruments included the Bassano, Lupo, Kellim, Comey and Galliardello families from Venice, Milan, Vincenza, Cremona and Brescia. George Comey a string-player specified as from Cremona seems to have had more than a musicians knowledge of stringed instruments, for he was charged with taking viols between London and Sion House in 1551 – a job normally associated with appointed keepers and repairers of instruments. He would be the first of a dynasty of makers and musicians that would be active for more than a century, the violin maker Henry Comer being the last of his line in the 1660s. Somewhat surprisingly, the result being that there were Italian and even Cremonese stringed instrument makers active in England some decades before the violin evolved into its modern form in Cremonese at the workshop of Andrea Amati sometime before 1564. Early fiddles survive from the wreck of the Mary Rose which sank in 1545, and early violins bearing the armorial marks of the Bassano family survive that could have been made at any time after 1540 to the end of the sixteenth century although their shape is so archaic that the later in the century the more unlikely they become. A remarkable survival from an earlier time, fourteenth-century citole in the British Museum shows the Bassano’s hand when it was turned into a violin in 1578.
Whilst Henry VIII has sent his ‘ministers of pastime’ across Europe in 1538 to seek out artists and musicians for the English court, a philosophical tension began to emerge between the patronage of native and overseas artists and musicians in the court, which came to a head in 1575 with the prefatory remarks of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis’s Cantiones Sacra. Tallis made the direct statement that “In former days our England admired the splendid works of these men [from other nations] but always allowed her own to lie in obscurity; but now that she has happily found leaders in Tallis and Byrd, to whom she gave birth, she allows her children to enjoy the light, and, such is the favour they have won in battle, to be carried through foreign lands for appraisement by masters of the art”. The tension went further than national pride, but was a discourse about national prestige, and how the country was represented overseas. In musical instrument making, different cities across Europe had developed reputations for particular kinds of instruments - Cremona and Brescia for violins, Antwerp for harpsichords, Venice for wind and Nuremburg for brass instruments. London fed into this as it developed it distinctive school of viola da gamba making. The father of English viol making, John Rose was active by 1552 and in 1556 Queen Mary I presented the Spanish court with ‘un cofre de vihuelas que vinjeron de Ynglaterra’ - a chest of English viols. If those instruments were by John Rose, as seems likely, it explains something of the reputation that he had developed by 1561, the year that Edward VI rewarded him with a lease on the principle apartments of Bridewell Palace as a workshop and dwelling place. The ‘said Rose hathe a most notable gift given of God in the making of instruments even soche a gift as his fame is sped thorough a great part of Christendom and his name as moche and now both for virtue and conning commended in Italy than in this his natural contery’. In fact, a bridewell instrument workshop had been established sometime around 1510-20 for making pipe organs, and it seems likely that this had survived Henry VIII’s reformation, only to be closed and substituted with Rose’s workshop during the strident second wave of the reformation that had followed Mary I’s death. Whilst the Rose workshop produced a variety of extraordinary instruments that survive to this day, including inventions of the Orpharion and Bandora, it seems to have worked as a royal monopoly and that it may have regulated the trade more than encouraged it.
It is unclear when the first recognisable Cremonese violins arrived in England or when they were first emulated by makers living in England. The commission of instruments by Catherine de Medici for Andrea Amati to produce a set of violins for the court of Charles IX in France in 1564 probably had a more profound effect on pan-European culture than has been regarded, as these coincide with a succession of ‘festivities’ that took place across a Royal Progress in the years that followed. Some of Andrea Amati’s instruments show the arms of Philip II of Spain instead of Charles IX, but seem to have been made at exactly the same time. Rather than being a separate set, the mixture of arms on different instruments seems symbolic of the intended outcome of the celebration of harmony between the two nations which was celebrated in 1571 at the Festivities at Bayonne, an assembly of dignitaries and ambassadors from around the world. A small band of violins played in 1578 in England at the festivities at Kennilworth Castle, where Sir Robert Dudley entertained Queen Elizabeth I, the choreography of which directly maps the descriptions of Bayonne. Whether Cremonese violins and reached Britain, their attendant culture had been adopted and drawn into English court culture.
The Early Seventeenth Century
The review of royal warrants that took place upon the accession of James I to the English throne in 1603 saw the end of the musical instrument making workshop at Bridewell. Simultaneously the registers of the Fletcher’s Company record the freedom of three instrument makers, Henry Jaye, Floris and Thomas Barnard, admitted through the unusual process of redemption - the act of paying a fine to become a member and forgoing the usual process of apprenticeship, which demonstrates that they were already recognised as masters in their craft. Instrument making as a whole was never a big enough industry in England to have its own guild, and it seems that the ancient Worshipful Company of Fletchers was responding to the decline of the bow and arrow, and diversifying to recognise valuable trades that had no other means of entering the City of London. The decision may have been influenced by at least one family of Fletchers, for the family of William Byrd were all members of the company, and his brother-in-law, Robert Broughe, also a Fletcher was a virginals and organ maker. There seems to have been a continuous line of stringed instrument makers through the following century up to the death of Richard Meares (II) in 1724.
Several instruments survive that were made by Henry Jaye, and although his instruments progress stylistically away from those of Rose, elements of his making demonstrate a direct connection to Rose’s working techniques. Whilst English makers of this period - Henry Jaye, Richard Blunt, Henry Smith seem to have focussed most of their energies on making viola da gamba and other ‘English’ instruments, violin making attracted German immigrants to London. Luce Rayman is recorded from a census in Blackman’s Yard in Southwark (amongst various possibilities, “Luce” may be a transliteration for lute, an indication of his profession rather than his name as a recent immigrant). Violins by Jacob Rayman, a Füssen-trained maker dwelling in Bell Yard, off Blackman Street in Southwark are known from this period. Between his workshop and that of Henry Jaye there seems to have been a vibrant community of makers, some of whom had come from overseas. Of the few pieces of evidence that we have, the Latinised name “Petrus Raitta” in a cittern of this period, with many features common to Jaye’s viols could indicate “Peter of Raitea”, the Roman name given to the province around Füssen. Likewise, “Thomas Miller alias Maller” of St Andrew’s Holborn “Dutchman and noe denizen” was recorded as a lute maker in 1621 amongst the register of aliens working in Southwark. As he was living in Holborn, it suggests that he was commuting to Southwark and would have been working in someone else workshop.
Outside of viol making, very little is known of early seventeenth century stringed instrument making. There was yet to be any representation of instrument makers inside the City of London, and for economic reasons they gravitated towards its city walls. William Turner made viols in the 1640s at Gravell Lane in Aldgate, “Florence Barnet” emerged in the writings of John Evelyn as working in the Strand, whilst Henry Smith and Richard Blunt are recorded as working in Holborn. Makers working in the West End were situated between the city and the Royal Court, near to the Inns of Court which promoted their own rich cultural life of theatre and court masques. For others, their situation on the main arteries of trade to-and-from the city gave them a commercial advantage. Inside the City of London, before the Fire of London, streets were populated according to the old established trades. Instrument makers were too few to take advantage of this ancient system of trade.
Civil War and the Fire of London
Before the middle of the seventeenth century, few violin makers are known in Europe, and even in Italy there were relatively few working outside of the major instrument making centres of Brescia and Cremona, attesting to how rare the violin (at least in the form that we know it) was as an instrument, with its use largely restricted to the royal and aristocratic courts. By the second half of the seventeenth century that had all changed as the instrument’s popularity shifted, in part due to new types of music: The evolution of the violin sonata gave the violin a domestic reach that was different from the formal court bands of the previous generations. The stratospheric rise in popularity of the violin across Europe is witnessed from the 1650s onwards through the growth in violin making in a way that is perhaps more dramatic than is indicated through a musical history of composers and their works. In the preceding decades, Nicolo Amati was the only violin maker in Cremona of any note, but his workshop swelled in size with generations of apprentices alongside the establishment of rival dynasties of Ruggeri, Guarneri and ultimately Stradivari in the middle of the seventeenth century. By the 1670s violin makers producing instruments of a recognisable form were established in effectively every major city in Europe. Some of this may have come from the substitution of the Italian style of violin making replacing more archaic and vernacular forms of the instrument, but even if this is the case, it directly follows the dissemination of Italian musical styles across Europe. By the end of the century the printing houses of London and Amsterdam would be as important as those in Rome for disseminating the works of leading composers such as Corelli.
Britain, which seems to have been ahead of the curve in the hundred years previously was at a disadvantage as a series of calamities struck the nation. The English Civil War, followed by the Interregnum and afterwards the Plague in 1664 that lasted until the Fire of London in 1666. The period has traditionally been seen as a kind of dark-age in musical culture under the puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell where theatres were closed, the destruction of church organs and the banning of singing in churches, and religious edicts limited music and dancing. Instead there seems to have been positive effects as well as bad. The war itself saw enormous social change in England which seems to have had an immediate effect on the kinds of people who engaged in the kind of music that had been previously reserved for the cultured gentry and aristocratic courts. The civil war had undoubtedly revised social barriers in England, and music seems to have played a significant part on both sides in maintaining the morale of troops during the endless inactivity between battles. As Britain emerged from this period of political and social difficulty, music of a kind that traditionally belonged to court-culture, would seem to be much more democratised than in other countries. Evidence from within the Civil War period is scant, but in London the viol maker William Turner appears to have enjoyed particular success working in the heavily garrisoned area of Aldgate in Gravel Lane through the 1640s making instruments whose rough-and-ready appearance sets them aside from earlier and later makers, and could quite easily be the result of making ‘campaign’ instruments for the use of the Parliamentary troops. John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, who had enlisted as a private in the Parliamentary army made both a flute (fashioned from a chair leg from his time in prison) and a violin made from metal which survive at the Bunyan Museum in Helstow, Bedfordshire. Anthony à Wood describes the novelty of the violin, which he began to play in 1652, remarking that the violin was such a novelty at the time that the teacher in Oxford was only familiar with the viol, and taught the violin tuned in thirds. Roger North, describing a time when the dangers of discontented soldiers garrisoned in the city made the night times particularly perilous for it’s citizens memorably remarked of the violin that “When most other good arts languished Musick held up her head, not at Court nor (in the cant of those times) profane Theaters, but in private society, for may chose rather to fiddle at home, than to got out, and be knockt on the head abroad…”
During the period of the Interregnum, musical education of the kind enjoyed by Antony à Wood in Oxford became more widespread amongst society. The dissolution of the Royal Court, the closure of the theatres and abolition of cathedral musical establishments all had dramatic effects on the leading musicians of the time. Meanwhile, their traditional Royalist clientele was dispersed, either keeping away from major cities, exiled or otherwise living in reduced circumstances. Some musicians disappeared to the country remaining under the patronage of royalist supporters over the years that followed such as Christopher Simpson the viol player who moved to Scampton in Lincolnshire under the patronage of Sir Robert Bolles. Others found that there was a living to be made amongst the aspirant merchant classes in London. Hence, the biography of the merchant’s daughter Susanna Perwich, written in 1661 that was written as a testimony of sober virtue of the time provides a near-encyclopediaic list of music teachers that had belonged to the court and cathedral musical establishments from before the civil war.
Among the best evidence for changing attitudes towards domestic music making in London during this period comes from the emerging publications of John Playford. His earliest musical work, The English Dancing Master published in 1651 has its roots as a compendium of dancing tunes from before the Civil War, perhaps connected to the theatre and courtly masque culture of the previous era (as an apprentice, he was involved in the publication of the complete works of Ben Johnson, and during the Civil War his master had participated in the publication of a volume of Shakespeare’s ‘poems’. Whatever the origin, these works took on a gently critical of the puritan regime, and came at the end of a more vigorous career of political publishing that had pitched him at various times against both Crown and Parliament. These dance tunes harked back to a period before the Civil War, and before the tyranny of Charles I’s reign. Hence the ability of domestic music to empower expressions of subversive political protest seems to have been a significant factor in the 1650s towards the popularity of the violin. The English Dancing Master remained in constant publication through at least 33 editions up to 1728, meanwhile, the first simplified tutor for instrumental music, A Brief Introduction to the Skill of Musick saw similar popularity after it’s first edition in 1654.
The Treble-Violin s a cheerful and sprightly Instrument, and much practise of late, some by the Book, and some without; which of these two is th best way, may easily be resolved: To learn to play by Rote or by Ear without Book, is the way never to Play more than what may be gain’d by hearing another Play, which may soon be forgot; . – John Playford A Brief Introduction to the Skill of Musick, 1654.
With Playford’s publications popularising the violin, it was coming to increasing prominence with the best musicians taking a leading place amongst London’s musical society. When Thomas Baltzar arrived in England in the same year his presence and skill sparked a cult of virtuoso violinists. The clock maker, Davis Mell, and John Bannister who would later lead the King’s four and twenty violins became the chief exponents of solo violin playing in England inspiring a tradition of playing divisions on a ground that would dominate English repertoire for the next thirty-or-so years.
This night I was invited by Mr. Rog: L'Estrange to heare the incomperable Lubicer on the Violin, his variety upon a few notes & plaine ground with that wonderfull dexterity, as was admirable, & though a very young man, yet so perfect & skillful as there was nothing so crosse & perplext, which being by our Artists, brought to him, which he did not at first sight, with ravishing sweetenesse & improvements, play off, to the astonishment of our best Masters: In Summ, he plaid on that single Instrument a full Consort, so as the rest, flung-downe their Instruments, as acknowledging a victory. – The diary of John Evelyn, 4 March 1655.
THE RESTORATION: England to the time of Handel.
In 1658 Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England died and was replaced in office by his son Richard who spent the last two years of his life setting the country on course for the restoration of the Monarch. In 1660 Prince Charles set sail from France arriving in England to be crowned king. Charles had spent his exile in Paris and his cultural focus had been the French Court of Louis XIV. The result was to transform the violin in England as he created his four and twenty fiddlers in direct homage to Lully’s quatre-vingt violons du Roi of the Versailles Court. Immediately Baltzar, Mell and Bannister become members of his private musick, and Bannister was sent to Paris before becoming leader of the royal band, to learn the 'lully way’ from a year spent in the French court. The instrumental ensemble of the English court gave rise to a new genre of theatre music as the theatres strove to emulate the royal court.
When Charles II returned to England, it was to a country that was still religiously conservative even if it had mostly thrown off the depravations of Puritan extremism, the English still harboured suspicions about Continental fashions, relating them to Roman Catholicism. Charles himself was sixteen when he escaped to France in anticipation of his father’s impending defeat. For the next fourteen years he had been under the influence of his Roman Catholic mother, Henrietta Maria. English protestant fears were well-founded, for although Charles II behaved as a protestant King and head of the church, he was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed. His brother James II would prove their fears justified as his ambitions on British religion led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the end of the Stuart monarchy. If music had become a symbol of political expression in the years of the Interregnum, this culture became more obvious during the later Stuart period. English viol making enjoyed a resurgence that extended into the 1720s despite the relatively few active composers for the instrument. Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument published in 1676 seems to give purpose to this trend, subtitled as a remembrancer of the best musick that ever was, it harked back to a romanticised time in English history under Elizabeth I and James I that formed both a golden period of English monarchy, and in the development of a distinctive English musical and artistic culture. Archival documents from this period describe craftsmen as ‘fiddlemakers’, a reference that seems to purposefully offer no differentiation between the violin and viol, and many makers produced both. However, fiddlemakers around the City of London congregating in Bishopsgate east of the city walls - Christopher Wise, George Miller and Richard Meares (I) predominantly made viols.
Viol makers tended to congregate around the City; Christopher Wise, George Miller and Richard Meares in Bishopshgate outside the city walls seemingly forming a tight-knit centre for makers who focused on the English viol from the 1660s onwards. The West End, between the City and the Royal Court at Whitehall had different tastes, representing a more Royalist part of London’s population. The Strand in particular appears to have become a focus of violin
which represented the kind of monarchy to which many wanted to return. Meanwhile, the fashion for the violin was being influenced by the may Royalists returning from an exile in continental Europe that had become a de-facto Grand Tour. Whilst the music of the Royal Court echoed the French styles of Lully, simultaneously developments in solo repertoire in Northern Italy were
e restoration of the monarchy was essentially a popular decision, but even amongst those who called for it’s return, it was not altogether straightforward.
The restoration of the monarchy was not altogether straightforward amongst those who called for the monarchy’s return, for the country was deeply protestant with a lingering religious conservatism across much of the population. By contrast, the new King was the son of a catholic queen brought up in a catholic country with potential sympathies that raised the spectre of religious reform, or at least the cultural change that came from a more continentally styled monarch. Concerns that were certainly vindicated by the attempts of his brother, James II, to
though it was universally supported throughout the country, many including the population of the City of London that had supported the Parliamen
tary cause remained religiously conservative, by contrast to the new styles of a King who was fashioning himself in the model of the Catholic monarchs of Europe. Moreover the English had idolised a perception of a monarchy based on the golden-period of Queen Elizabeth and James I, in their view a time of economic supremacy, political stability and cultural blossoming. If music had become a means for expressing political loyalties in the Interregnum, it became a full-blown expression of taste in the years that followed, and musical taste appears to have mirrored political discourse. At a time when there were few composers for the viola da gamba of any note, a burgeoning market for these instruments, reflecting a conservative and older style of playing developed. Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument published in 1676 was subtitled A Remembrancer of the best musick that ever was, pointing to its celebration of Elizabethan and early-seventeenth century music of a bygone golden age.