A small violoncello with a back length of just 632mm was made in London by Barak Norman and his assistant, Nathaniel Cross in 1724. The instrument is important as amongst the last works from Barak Norman’s workshop, dated at a time when he was incapacitated and anticipating his succession. The instrument itself has it’s own mysteries: Possibly made simply for a viol player wanting a cello of comparable scale, it forms the ideal of what a violoncello piccolo should be though the lack of obvious use for a violoncello piccolo in England at that time means that it is difficult to describe its intended use with any significant degree of certainty.
Barak Norman (1651-1725) is regarded as the foremost British violin and viol maker of his time. He worked at the centre of a community in St Paul’s Churchyard from 1690 until shortly before his death in 1725. At the time, St Paul’s Cathedral was being built and held status as one of the wonders of the modern world and his shop in the North West corner was amongst the most prestigious addresses. For a short time from the 1690s into the early 1720s this small area in London was the most populous centre of instrument making of any major European city, competing directly with Venice for importance. Hence his work represents the zenith of the mainstream of making for England at the time of Stradivari. In terms of international taste, there is much evidence that his viols received the same attention across France and Germany as well as in England as the equivalent finest Cremonese violins of the day.
Much evidence suggests that Nathaniel Cross (fl.1714- d.1751) was Barak Norman’s apprentice, not least an instrument of 1713 labelled, stamped, branded and monogrammed for Barak Norman with a second label on the interior reading “Nathol Cross now wrought my back and belly”, which may be interpreted as an indication that he had completed an apprenticeship and was now able to sign his instruments. From that point onwards, violoncellos from the Barak Norman workshop become more numerous, following a specific design, whose traits and characteristics follow through into Nathaniel Cross’s identifiable hand after the middle of the 1720s. Working in the employment of Barak Norman as a ‘journeyman’ he would have been prohibited from signing his own name on instruments he made, which leaves this particular example as a bit of a conundrum.
Whilst the Barak Norman workshop is famous for viols, it is also very significant for violin family instruments. In 1704 Gaspar Visconti arrived in England from Cremona via Rome as a pupil of Corelli, assigning John Hare, a business associate of Norman’s to publish his sonatas. (Dom Desidero Arisi, the Cremonese monk and biographer who interviewed Stradivari names Visconti as the musician who assisted Stradivari in his designs). From that point on, Norman and his close associates began to make their own interpretations of Stradivari’s work. The most important of these is Daniel Parker, but W.E. Hill & Sons in their book on Stradivari made the point that in various works of Nathaniel Cross they had seen varied elements of intelligent interpretation of Stradivari’s work, to the point that although they had never seen a fully Stradivarian instrument, it was a foregone conclusion that one may exist.
The small violoncello of 1724 is an important example of Italianate work. The slight extra turn in the original scroll is an allusion to Brescian work of Giovanni Paolo Maggini, whose work is commonly cited in the purfling patterns on the back of Barak Norman viols. The soundholes are likewise a near perfect interpreteation of a sixteenth-century Maggini model. The model both in shape and size is uniquely characteristic to Nathaniel Cross’s work (including those for Barak Norman in the decade before 1724), but the arching begs very close and considered comparison to Cremonese instruments. Like Daniel Parker’s work, it tends towards a more exaggerated arch than most contemporary Cremonese instruments, but it works very much to the same formula. On one hand, for example, all long-pattern violins by Stradivari have a very flat arch, but all long pattern violins by Daniel Parker have a very full arch, suggesting an exaggerated style. Nevertheless, within a broader reading of Cremonese instruments, these stand comparison as proportionate interpretations of classical making. To my mind these stand comparison with the notions of Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor (the latter a customer of Barak Normans), creating the greatest work of Italianate architecture seen out of Italy, and adapting a similar set of rules to suit their own unique interpretations. As a result, this work is no more a “copy” of Italian work than St Paul’s Cathedral is a copy of St Peter’s in Rome.
In 1724 Elizabeth Norman was assigned “widow” to denote a legal status as head of the family and company, although Barak Norman was clearly infirm and would die the following year. Under Elizabeth, the firm would carry on until 1730 when it was dissolved by auction passing on to Daniel Wright, then the Thompson family, maintained as a musical retail business into the early nineteenth century under Charles Whittaker when the building was demolished and the piazza around St Paul’s remodelled. In 1724, it is evident that Nathaniel Cross was in line to take a more prominent role in the business, but it was still a business firmly under the control of the Norman family.
Just as the “Nathanol Cross now wrought my back and belly” label is an almost unprecedented survival from 1713 of an apprentice asserting their authorship, matched by the comprehensive attempts of Barak Norman to assert authority by marking the instrument as his own in every manner possible, other instances suggest a forceful character: Early instruments by Alexander Kennedy from the 1740s include long inscriptions on the inside asserting that he was apprentice of Nathaniel Cross, following an equally unique and unprecedented manner for English instrument makers. In the violoncello of 1724 the battle of characters seems to be inherent yet again. The label asserting Barak Norman’s position as head of the firm “Barak Norman/ and Nathaniel Cross..” is surmounted by a Cross of St Crispin, subverting the order of precedence with the mark used both by Nathaniel Cross but his forebearers who were Huguenot music engravers working in London from at least the 1680s. Again on the back, a painted inscription “Norman & Crofs” is surmounted by his cross, and on the inside beneath the treble soundhole there is an inked cross drawn onto the inside of the back of the instrument. We are under no illusion, as a result, that the instrument though intentionally sold as the joint work of Barak Norman and Nathaniel Cross is manifestly of Cross’s own making (the head, in my judgement is nevertheless likely to be by Norman’s hand).
Sometime in 1724 Cross left the Norman workshop to work at “ye Crown” near St James Church, Piccadilly, close to “ye Harp and Crown” occupied by John Barrett, and working with him thereafter. A violin from 1726 entirely in Nathaniel Cross’s hand has the label of John Barrett, and other instruments show very close cooperation between the two. Nevertheless, he moved back to the City of London by the early 1730s and latterly to the sign of the “Bass Viol” in Bow Churchyard, barely more than 200 meters from the sign of the Bass viol in St Paul’s Churchyard. He may by this point have focussed his efforts on dealing rather than making, because strong evidence of his activity is contradicted by a very slim survival rate of his instruments.
ABOUT THE VIOLONCELLO
The violoncello is of a particularly rare and unusual size. There is only one other cello made to this size known to me by Barak Norman, which was made in 1721 and was in extremely poor wormed condition when it was on the market at auction 20 years ago. An earlier example exists only as a body (with a replaced pegbox for five strings) by William Baker, made in Oxford in 1683, and another by Edward Lewis (II) exists in similarly incomplete condition from the 1730s. I should note that most Barak Norman cellos measure around 715mm, which is comparatively speaking a “small-full-sized” cello, wheres this in modern terms approximates “half-size” – references to “small” Barak Norman cellos would be misleading in the context of how unusual this one is. In order to provide an explanation for this, I have submitted photographs below in which I have placed it against a case fitted for a 1690 Barak Norman viol in order to demonstrate that it is made to a similar relative scale.
I contend that this was made for an experienced viol player who was interested in playing violoncello repertoire, but was perhaps circumspect about adopting a new instrument of a different size. I cannot speculate on the tuning as a result, and I do not think that this affords nomenclature as a tenor-violin, viola da spalla, pomposa or such like. I think it would have simply been seen as a variant violoncello in its time, and regarded nonetheless as unusual. I note that in 1712 Barak Norman’s near neighbour, Richard Meares reproduced Christopher Simpson’s Division Viol adding an appendix of Corelli Sonatas rewritten for bass viol demonstrating in a similar manner the transitioning nature of music at that time.
In this light, relevant context arises from the arrival of Giovanni Bononcini (II) in London. His father was a pioneer of solo repertoire on the violoncello as it developed to be in the Ducal court in Modena, and it may be significant that cellos made by the appointed made to the Modenese court, Antonio Cassini tend towards to small size, measuring around 70 cm, indicating an idea of using shorter string lengths to support more virtuosic music (the Norman/Cross is considerably shorter at 64cm). Bononcini arrived in London in 1720 where he became a co-founder of the Royal Academy of Music with Georg Friederick Handel. During the period when there was a rift in the Royal Family between the King and the Prince of Wales, Handel was patronised by the King, holding his operas in the Theatre Royal, whilst the Prince was the patron of Bononcini. Hence, the Whigs favoured Handel and the Tories favoured Bononcini, and it became a matter of political association which operas the fashionable would attend. Within this, Handel on the Harpsichord and Bononicini on the violoncello would ‘duel’ with improvised variations on a theme, much in the style popularised in Britain after Simpson’s Division viol. John Byrom, the poet, styled them “Tweedledum and Tweedledee”. Many of these duels appear from records to have been held in a music shop with a large room at St Paul’s Churchyard.
Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Strange all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee!
Just as portraits of Handel almost universally portray him in an indistinguishable manner from George I, the Prince of Wales took up the cello in response to a self-fashioning that surrounded the cult of Bononcini. Various portraits of him playing the cello with his sisters survive by Philip Mercier, and contemporary accounts reveal how he took to gathering his servants at Kensington Palace, and performing French songs to the cello by candlelight to an open window where passer’s by could hear him. His activity with the cello making it a symbol of Tory culture in Britain, and establishing the tradition in Royal circles that led ultimately to the tradition of cello playing within the Royal Household that is symbolised by the Royal Forster cello. Although we have no direct provenance, it is certainly relevant to associate the cello with the kind of soloistic repertoire that was born out of English traditions of extemporisation to which Handel and Bononcini engaged in contest with one and other precisely around the time this was made.
LIMITS OF TERMINOLOGY:
Various historical terms have been used to describe small cellos built for a purpose other than for the use of children, the most common of these being the violoncello piccolo. Interest in the violoncello piccolo arises from J.S. Bach’s six cello suites written between 1717 and 1723, which are scored (in Anna Magdalena’s manuscript copy) the sixth suite is scored variously for ‘violoncello senza basso’, and simultaneously for ‘vc a cinq chordes’. Elsewhere J.S. Bach references the ‘violoncello piccolo’ in terms of an accompanying instrument for his cantatas, and hence there is a conflation that a violoncello piccolo is both a five-stringed and a small instrument. The archetypal example of this in the 20th century is a small cello by the Brothers Amati from about 1600 which belonged to Amaryllis Fleming, but the head that was married to it in the 20th century is the work of Nicolo Amati from around 1680 and there is no evidence to connect that kind of head to that kind of body. In fact, an exactly contemporaneous five-string head by Antonio Stradivari exists on the 1684 “General Kyd” to which it is original, and Stradivari’s drawings for the head and neck naming it rather confusingly ‘viola da gamba’ are preserved in Cremona. This is a larger-than-usual cello, and we believe that Stradivari used the word ‘viola da gamba’ to express a cello capable of soloistic repertoire in contrast to the continuo-playing ‘bass violin’, as there is no illusion that the templates relate to anything other than this surviving cello. Although there is no reason to take Stradivari and Bach as corroborative owing to the geographical and cultural distance between them, they do seem to confirm one and other. At a time of considerable experimentation, including Bach’s own invention with J.C. Hoffmans of the viola pomposa in 1725, the existence of the viola da spalla, and the theoretical tenor violin, it would make sense to see variations around this general theme. Current thinking on the pomposa links it to a five-stringed instrument surviving in Brussels, with a body length of 45cm, similar to the Cremonese ‘tenore’ size viola (see for example the Andrea Guarneri in the National Music Museum) but with enlarged ribs scaled proportionately to a violoncello. The viola da spalla seems to be identical.
Of interest however, is a copper-plate engraving from 1701 by the Huguenot engraver Bernard Picard produced in Paris showing as similar-sized an instrument as it is possible to estimate on the basis of an engraving. It is not possible to determine whether the other subject in the engraving is dancing or singing, but he is certainly giving a performance accompanied by the cello. It is tempting to hope that he is singing because that would corroborate with the use of the ‘violoncello piccolo’ as an accompanying instrument for Bach’s cantatas. I would argue towards a cantata or accompanied song because having a hat in your hand would go against concepts of French court dancing.
Although no French cellos are known to me of this size, there are smallish cellos from France and the low countries, by makers including Bertrand (excellent example in the Smithsonian Museum) and Castagneri (likewise, Boston Museum of Fine Arts) of the early 18th century with five strings, but not as small as this and arguably ‘smallish’ being around 71cm isn’t small enough for ‘piccolo’ to have any meaningful value with an average cello size of about 74cm, the uncut Servais Stradivari made on the ‘Venetian’ large pattern is 79cm.
There is an argument which would certainly fit this instrument based on the frontispiece of Anna Magdalena Bach’s manuscript copy of the suites (the earliest source), suggesting that ‘violoncello solo senza basso’ refers to a cello with the strings transposed, i.e. missing the C-string, and with an addition of an e-string. Whilst it would be attractive for this instrument, I think it is a misreading, and the frontispiece merely states that the suites are for violoncello without a bass accompaniment.
Whatever the outcome may be, the suites have provided constant debate in recent years over their interpretation, and it seems that it is erroneous to conflate ‘violoncello piccolo’ of Bach’s cantatas with the ‘vc a cinq cordes’ of the sixth suite just as more recent interpreters have conflated it to indicate the viola da spalla and there is no reason to suppose this is the same instrument at all. In England there is no musicological record for the ‘violoncello piccolo’. Crucially, although there has been a tendency to add a fifth string to Barak Norman smallish cellos this example from 1724 has a pure four-string head which has been untouched. It follows that the justifications for the specific use and specific scale of the violoncello debated in the section above ‘about the violoncello’ are consistent with the kind of instrument that Bach would have described as a violoncello piccolo, and I believe that it is with considerable integrity that we can describe it as such, notwithstanding a degree of pragmatism and discussion.
Length of Back: 632mm
Upper bout: 303mm
Middle bout: 209mm
Lower bout: 376mm
String length: 600mm
Stop length: 353mm
Instruments of this kind tend to be repurposed as child’s cellos, at which point their fate lies within what a child will do to it. Meanwhile the lack of any professional purpose after music became more standardised means that the reasons that enable their preservation diminish also. In this case, wear to the back makes it clear that it hung on the wall for a long period of time as a curiosity, and overall it is in a remarkably clean and good condition. However, we do not see instruments of this size in museums, and antique fractional-sized instruments invariably survive in poor condition. It is simply tremendously rare as an eighteenth-century specimen notwithstanding who made it. The MIMO website lists only five instruments that they classify as violoncello piccolo out of 166 violoncellos, none of which are representative of the mainstream of professional instrument making.
LABELS & IDENTIFYING MARKS
The original label is in its undisturbed original location. Note that the linen strips supporting the two joins in the back are beneath the label. Note further the location of the cross at the top of the label.
An inked cross is also visible through the treble soundhole, apparently serving as a signature identifying the workmanship as by Nathaniel Cross. Given an evidently precarious situation for him, with Barak Norman incapacitated and in which he left for Piccadilly later in the year, it is possible that the purpose of this cross was to identify work amongst the shop stock that he had full title to as the maker.
On the back of the violoncello it is marked “Norman & Cross” below the button, once again below a cross on the button itself. Although it is common to see maker’s marks stamped into the back of violins made after about 1750 in London It is very unusual on instruments of this period. Barak Norman had a circular stamp “BARAK/NORMAN/FECIT” which he applies inside the tulip decorations of his viols and violoncellos around this time, which is also used on the button, and a flat “NORMAN” stamp also exists, which is present on the interior of his ‘gran viola’ (in my private collection) which is in an identical place to the inked cross above. Another violin by Joseph Collingwood at the sign of the Golden Spectacles on London Bridge in 1722 (also in my private collection), showing fundamental similarities to violins of the St Paul’s Churchyard makers is also stamped “Collingwood” in similar Italic font beneath the button (the curvature of the Collingwood stamp resembling curved stamps used by Thomas Stanesby on flutes and recorders of the same period).