Ben Hebbert

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    Violin dealer and researcher based in central London. Visit my website, or email to arrange a visit. My stock ranges from fine contemporary makers to outstanding classic Italian instruments.
  1. 'Strad in the attic' myth ? Newspaper clipping from 1965

    Take your personal instrument that you love, and play it for half an hour in the most resonant place you can find... that tends to wash the ears out and reset them well enough...
  2. My Linarol viola

    It really does, and a bit too much like those photographs, which seem fairly crudely cropped to a clear background... I'm afraid to say a lot of the ugliness of this makes me feel that it's directly inspired by the photos on his website, and may be less like the viola in real life. Having said that, I think its an impressive effort at interpreting something in many respects and have no wish to be rude or unkind about it... but a good look at some real Linarols would be very very very very informative before making a second attempt.
  3. Messiah wood (again....)

    The sooner a tree rustler leaves the better.
  4. Messiah wood (again....)

    With all due respect to the above, Coal is very difficult to extract, but that doesn’t mean that people didn’t dig Mines in order to extract it. Just because there are no roadways in a certain place, there is nothing to stop extraction by Oxen or by horse... it’s all a matter of economics. I think we over-romanticise the last sometimes without really u derstanding wjat motivated people and what resources they wrrr really able to use.
  5. Best gadget for taking internal photos of violins etc.?

    When I bought the vastly expensive Cremona Tools camera - which at the time was the only thing in the market, and proved it’s value - it didn’t come with its own software. For Mac the recommendation is an app called i-glasses which automatically detects any camera. Once that is running and has locked into the external camera (it works for all kinds of microscopes and such), I then open “photo booth” and use that as my capture software. It would not surprise me if there are better systems out there now. But for the moment that works and I have not been bothered to seek a better solution.
  6. Berlioz, Paganini and the biggest viola you’ll ever see!!

    Hardie, Vuillaume, Norman... all to scale, just for fun (or for Marty - to emphasise why this doesn’t count in the big viola debate)
  7. Auction Houses and Online Bidding

    Nothing beats using your own expert judgement. There are times when auctioneers or any agent selling something can be pressured into a high valuation and times when they have seen a violin in the final moments before a deadline and just go with what the owner will suggest. caveat emptor either way! As policy, Christie’s over the collectibles division used to try to get the high estimate at 60% of the anticipated hammer price on the argument that it would instil excitement in the room, and raise the potential winning bid. In reality with an 85% reserve against the low end of the estimate it meant that you could avoid a problem: A violin that should hammer at £10 would estimate at £4-6, and reserve at £3.5.
  8. Auction Houses and Online Bidding

    Having been at Christie’s when the buyer’s commission went up, the argument (which I thought was heinous at the time and still do) was that it “increased competitiveness” by allowing the company to be more competitive in terms of the vendor’s commission. Much longer ago there was a lawsuit brought about by a syndicate of antique dealers against Sotheby’s and Christie’s offering 0% commission to sellers when in fact there were hidden charges put over to the buyer. The ruling was that there was nothing illegal in this practice, though the judge made it clear that his sympathies where with the moral case against them. Of course, when Christie’s increased the premium, and mysteriously Sotheby’s followed suit 3 months later without the slightest scent of collusion, Small auction houses followed suit. It allows them to be competitive and profitable at the higher end for sure, but for most things sold it’s just a massive scam to print money.
  9. Messiah wood (again....)

    Of interest, we have several British sources that state in the seventeenth century the use of “Cullen cleff” (depending on the spelling). “Cleff” is etymologically quite easy and relates to “Clap”, “Cleft” and other similar words used to describe split wood and the process of splitting - “Clap boards” on the outside of a house are split. “Cullen” is Cologne, which we also see in the sixteenth century as a source of Lutes, citterns and such like in British customs documents and as an identifier that extends into personal property in wills and such like. All this despite no real centre of instrument making or forests to yield wood. The explanation is that Cologne is the Market at the bottom of the Rhine where goods from upriver would have been traded. “Cullen” instruments are those from Fussen and with them came a trade in alpine spruce that is backed up not just by dendro of English instruments but of various low-countries and Northern European schools. John Dowland’s 1610 letter about lute strings gives valuable detail about the market. We have an equally interesting source from Matthew Hardie in Edinburgh around 1800 implicating Hamburg as a source of tonewood, which also implicated the wood being brought down to Hamburg as a complete log. This is a different alpine source from Northern European woods, but it is very likely that the same rules apply. I do remember that John Topham observed that Stradivari guitars don’t fit with violins, but seemed to have a better relationship with Venetian guitars (although this was very early on, and increased databases may yield a different perspective). It makes sense in this case that Stradivari would have obtained his wood from this important centre of guitar making with interesting implications about his unwillingness to plain down a cello top to provide wood for a guitar, and interesting implications echoing 16th century Venetian inventories of the factory-like conditions that led to thousands of lute parts existing at any one time. The article I wrote here was based on very very early dendro from the 1990s when databases ran to a few hundred instruments at Best, and I would be happy to see a revised view taken in it, but in the main it holds and explains what I know of the Cologne market.
  10. Berlioz, Paganini and the biggest viola you’ll ever see!!

    I know and agree completely. I think with the development of Alexander Technique and Feldenkrass, there are more and more opportuniti a for musicians to observe their posture and root out problems. Somewhere along the educational process it is important to raise awareness about posture. Violin makers and dealers can be influential about this, but sometimes we are the last people a musician will listen to. Despite this post I’m a constant advocate of smaller violas, but I find that is the last thing ambitious young pros want to hear.
  11. Berlioz, Paganini and the biggest viola you’ll ever see!!

    Marty, you curmudgeonly old cynic... We’ve all known as part of the folklore of the viola that the ideal size is “too big to play” and that hasn’t inspired legions of players to try and prove the point. The instrument is a bit of an oddity because patently it would be absurd to play it as a regular gigging instrument subject to the kind of pressures of chamber music or orchestral performance. I think as a specialist instrument it’s profoundly interesting. There are a number of works I can think of it taking a place for - Brandenburg 6 maybe, Purcell fantasias, maybe, Brahms liede, maybe, goofing around on cello suites and similar... but ... it self-evidently falls into a category of specialist tool at the very most. I can quite confidently state that it’s not going to kick off a revolution. the real danger in viola playing is the ever so slightly too large ones, because players don’t understand they are causing damage until it creeps up on them and is suddenly too late...
  12. Messiah wood (again....)

    I agree that alpine spruce would have been a finite commodity in Cremona back then, and therefore however you quantify finite - as precious or expensive, it would be wrong to automatically assume that it was easy to come by. Certainly many of the B-grade Cremonese instruments - Andrea Guarneri, 1660-1670 Strads with knots in the wood and other defects would seem to be justified by spruce being scarce enough to drive an economy that justified use of such wood. I see where HoGo is going on this... I wish we had a better grasp of the supply chain between the mountains and the workbench. What is important as a principle is that along any supply chain, each part should try to maximise the profit and efficiency of what it does... hence in an extreme, the chiltern bodgers who you can watch below, evolved green wood furniture making to the point that the trees would be felled and all the work except assembly would be done on site in the woods so no waste material was taken out of the woods... you can see them in the 1930s here. .... but here in the 1950s you can see how the industrial premise of chair making changed completely, and how it became necessary to extract whole logs from the forest to be rendered and seasoned down the line... If we extend this to Cremona, it seems pretty likely that wood arrived in log form by river, but who took responsibility for its delivery - arguably whoever had the monopoly on tone wood also controlled the quality standards to which different makers were able to work, reserving the best wood for the best makers. In the absence of a musical instrument guild, this actually has the economic control over the industry which may explain how we are able to delineate makers based on quality - it follows that the Amati family probably had direct or indirect control over wood as da facto heads of the community, followed by Stradivari, whether as an agreement with a wood merchant or an extension of their overall business. If this involve purchase and storage of wood, it also involves maximising profit from it, so if the woodsman had the option, he would want to split the wood to sell the billets separately if he could, and even potentially do preparation work including jointing and flattening the wood... if he had control of a finite supply, then to an extent he could dictate how the wood left the premises. The more work done on it the higher the charge, and the more economically viable the operation.... I'd love to have tighter evidence, that's my working hypothesis at least... and it may help to explain anomalies between sides of the front, with someone working through batches of wood and slightly less invested in the finished product, selecting wood for a visual match rather than a physical adjacency... thoughts only...
  13. Berlioz, Paganini and the biggest viola you’ll ever see!!

    Marty, Its interesting... I've shown this one to quite a few very serious pros, and its one of those things that is universally admired though no one would be daft enough to take it up professionally... Irrespective of quality as such, I think it's interesting that this kind of air volume seems in my opinion to provide an air resonance that is fairly much in tune with an ideal vocal 'tenor'. Instinctively it would work fabulously as a vocal accompaniment - almost immediately we've had discussions about it in the context of the Brahms songs with viola accompaniment, and more recently Mark Caudle has pointed out the potential writing for it in theatre airs published around 1700-1710 in London. So to some extent I view it as the "ideal" viola, though too cumbersome in nature to be used as a regular professional piece of kit. Plans are afoot to provide drawings of it, so if anyone's mad enough, be my guest!
  14. Berlioz, Paganini and the biggest viola you’ll ever see!!

    Paul’s 1620 is a bit of a dwarf by comparison to this I don’t believe for a second this was a viola played regularly, in fact a huge amount of the project balanced on whether it is possible to play or not. It certainly needs its own technique ... and we’ve been surprised at how easy it becomes. I didn’t read your post as diminishing... at the same time though, I am very mindful of what we don’t know... so this is very firmly an experiment and not a statement of historical fact.
  15. Berlioz, Paganini and the biggest viola you’ll ever see!!

    Michael It's not as straightforward a story as one would like. LONDON: We know that when Paganini was in Italy in 1832 he commissioned a maker named Francesco Borghi to make a five stringed 'gran viola', the same instrument that he brought to London in 1833 and that was impounded in customs until 1 April 1834. Meanwhile he acquires his Strad in 1832 from George Corsby in London, so there seems to be quite a period of experimentation and going between the two instruments. On 28th April he had completed and performed the Sonata per il gran viola. Paul Silverthorne has made a compelling case in his new edition of the work that Paganini had abandoned the fifth string by then. This according to the Times was the first time Paganini ever gave a public performance on the viola. END OF THE LONDON CHAPTER. THE PARIS CHAPTER As a result of acquiring the Strad, he calls for Berlioz to write Harold in Italy with the Strad in mind. When Chretien Urhan premiers it, it is with the Strad. It is presumably still with the Strad at the performance that Paganini finally attends. Paganini dies in 1840. The end. BACK TO LONDON We presume that the London music society have no real interest in what happens in Paris, and it's up to Henry Hill to figure out what to do. We have Berlioz's description of "incomparable" which I've justified, and Haweis's other description. Whatever the earlier history was, there is no question that Berlioz was deeply moved by the capacity of Hill's interpretation both as a musician and in terms of his choice of instrument. Without question there were special elements of this performance that separate it from Urhan's reputation as it's first soloist. It is sensible to imagine that the English would have looked back 14 years to their encounter with Paganini and his experiments with a 'gran viola'. If this thing that fits the bill was available at the time, there would have been good incentive for Hill to play it as an appropriate reflection of Paganini's own ideas as understood by the English. We have to remember that Harold in Italy was already heavily mythologised as a Paganiniesque creation even if he never performed it. In 1848 Paganini had been dead for eight years, so whatever the politics were of his lifetime, I think we can look at this event as a retrospective, with all the rose-tinted hindsight to be expected.. so I think we can accept a margin between the reality of the moment and the mythology that arose immediately after Paganini's death. - With this all in mind, it's an experiment with a hypothesis that is well worth exploring, and I hope that we are expressing an ethically sound position where near-certainty does not equate to total certainty, since things cannot be proven outright despite reasonable levels of probability. The level of musical success will be the most interesting part of the whole thing.