Flexible Friend

Stefan Krattenmacher examines a c.1800 double bass by John Betts. Based on a Maggini model, its adaptable playability makes it ideal for its current orchestral role

The British luthier John Betts was probably born in Stamford in 1752. Thirteen years later he had already started his apprenticeship with Richard Duke in Holborn, an arrangement probably made by his relative Arthur Betts who was making poor Stainer copies for Duke at the time. After seven years as an apprentice in Duke's workshop, Betts became foreman and eventually bought the business from his master c.1780. He must have done well, as by 1782 he had already moved to new premises at the Royal Exchange in the City of London and was able to employ his first apprentice, George Gillingham.

Having spent 17 years as an employee, Betts tried to differ from the dealers and self-taught makers in those early years by calling himself a 'real instrument maker'. As his shop became more busy, Betts employed many of the great English violin makers of the 19th century, including Vincenzo Panormo, Joseph Hill II, Henry Lockey Hill, Richard Tobin, Bernhard Fendt I and II and John Furber and, ironically, became more of a dealer himself.

Many great musicians, as well as great instruments, were regular visitors to his workshop. One such visitor was the famous Italian violinist Viotti who brought his Stradivari to Betts and asked him to make an exact copy of the masterpiece, including all the varnish, wear and cracks. Betts promised to fulfil the task within a month, but once Viotti's back was turned, Betts took the Cremonese masterpiece to Fendt and asked him to make two exact copies of the Strad. Viotti came on the agreed date to pick up his old Cremonese instrument and the English version of it, but, unbeknown to him, he never saw his original Strad again as Betts gave him both copies without Viotti realising the 'exchange'!

After a long and successful career as a maker, businessman and dealer, Betts died unmarried in 1823 and was buried at Cripplegate Cemetery, leaving the business to his younger brother Arthur. The bass pictured was made in c.1800 and is based on a 17th-century instrument made by Maggini in Brescia, northern Italy. Betts must have had the instrument in his workshop for repair or because someone had ordered a copy of the original, but since the bass is stamped with the typical Betts stamp and shows typical characteristics of the English bass making school, Betts did obviously not do an 'exchange' in this case and pass off his copy as the original Maggini.

Viewing the instrument from a distance, one sees grace and harmony in its outlines. Slightly short in length, the widths of the bass are broad, with the middle bout appearing short and round. The worn corners provide an elegant base for the double-purfling which is inlaid with great precision and shows the master's hands at work. The centre white of the inlay, as well as the stained-black stripes, is most likely to have been made of willow or a similar wood. The table wood is of the highest quality, fine-grained spruce. There is a well built-up patina in the prominent softer summer grain which lets the dark-orange colour of the table appear much darker than it really is. The table arching is fairly flat, but constructed in a Cremonese manner, showing gentle curves throughout.

The small wings of the long, elegant Maggini-style f-holes are slightly hollowed and find their conclusion in nearly equally sized, smallish balls. The great width between the holes creates a stable base position for the bridge. The two-piece flat back, ribs and head are made of slightly figured, but fine, grained maple, and like the front, the back contains a double-purfling and is again in good condition. Fairly high up, the back is bent on a steep angle towards the upper block. The scroll shows the typical extra half turn and the volutes are medium deep all over. Light in colour, the oil varnish, with its yellow and orange pigments, lies on a soft golden-brown ground and the patina adds a lot to the dark appearance of the bass.

This bass has been with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London for several decades. Until recently, it was owned by its bassist Geoffrey Clark. When Clark died in 1978, his widowed wife offered the instrument to Neil Tarlton, the orchestra's present principal, for an inadequately low price. Tarlton, knowing the potential of this beautiful and unique example of the London bass making school of this period, could not agree on the low price she was willing to accept and insisted on paying her twice the amount. The bass has a dark and warm sound and is flexible and willing to accept different articulations within different styles. In its orchestral role it has the ability to project its sound and gains from its easy playability.

Originally published in Double Bassist 16, Spring 2001
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