Grand gesture

Stefan Krattenmacher takes a closer look
at a 1830's instrument by Bernhard Simon Fendt

The Fendts- father Bernhard and his eldest son Bernhard Simon- gifted craftsmen whose skill in violin making were of the highest standard. However, this was not the only thing they had in common. They also both suffered poverty for most of their lives caused by their extravagant life styles.  

Bernhard Fendt was born in 1776 in Innsbruck, Tyrol, into a family of violin makers. His mother Anna was related to the Klotz family in Mittenwald. Fendt learned his trade with his Paris-based uncle François, who had moved there in 1760.

By the time Fendt joined him, François was already well established as a maker.

In 1798, two years after his uncle's death, Bernhard Fendt left good food and wine behind, and moved to London.

On his arrival, he married Caroline (his first wife and mother of Bernhard Simon), and joined the workshop of Thomas Dodd in Covent Garden, where he stayed for 11 years. John Frederick Lott sen., another great bass maker from that period, worked alongside him at Dodd's. When Dodd moved his workshop to St. Martins Lane, Fendt left and became head of John Betts' workshop for the ensuing 14 years. After an argument with Betts, Fendt joined Bett's nephew Vernon in a new shop at 37 Cornhill. To this day, we only know of one violin bearing a label by Bernhard Fendt, as most of his work was carried out under the name of other makers.
Born in 1801, Bernhard Simon Fendt studied with his father in John Betts' workshop, and he remained there until c. 1823. In the early 1830's he went into partnership with Charles Joseph Farn, (an ex-employee of Vernon's), at 72 Lombard Street, London. After Farn's death, he started a business with Georg Prudy, first based in the city, with later branches in Haymarket and Soho. Bernhard Simon Fendt died in 1852 , the same year as his 19-year-old son William, who had worked with him as an assistant.

The double bass shown here dates from the 1830s and is a very good example of Bernhard Simon's work. Although the instrument is not labelled or stamped, it bears clear marks of the maker's hand.

The bass takes a Maggini pattern as a model, and it displays grace and a perfectly balanced outline. Size obviously did not an matter to Fendt, as the instrument is of a grand scale. (Not only Fendt followed this trend in early-19th-century London, but most of the other English makers worked to similar proportions). The combination of a flat back, deep rib height and a highly arched table -made of first class, fine grain spruce- produces a very powerful, dark, focused and immediate sound. The instrument's strength lies not only in the volume created because of its size, but also in the sound quality, as the player can feel that his pp still carries a certain richness right at the back of a big hall.

This bass is now the everyday companion of John Law, Principal Bass of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra. Using Pirastro's Oliv label, he says that the sonority of the whole orchestra is enriched by the depth of tone of this instrument. To him, it is like having an entire section under his bow.

The f-holes of this bass are identical to the ones carved by John Betts on his Maggini copies- maybe Fendt took the pattern with him after leaving the Betts workshop. The f-holes form a wide platform across the table arching and add to the character of the instrument. The arching is designed in a Cremonese style.

Like most of his contemporaries, Fendt used willow for his double purfling. The black and white are of similar width and slightly cracked in the wear areas. The cutting shows a master's hand at work, it is laid with elegance and precision. Table and back are pinned to the block in order to hold them into place. The maple used for the back and ribs is not from the same tree, the back being not as strongly figured as the ribs. The back is quarter sawn, and even after nearly two hundred years the back is still perfectly straight.

The whole instrument is in good condition, only one of the middle-bout ribs has a crack splitting the entire rib into two separate pieces. Block and linings are made of pine and are joined to the ribs with great skill. The large upper-block used to provide a substantial platform for the neck-block and was pinned only (it has now been fitted into the block)
The fine craftsmanship of the body of the instrument is rounded off in the design and cutting of the scroll. This head shows his beautiful throughout: the extra half-turn and the pinned ear extensions are typical of Fendt s work. The volute is cut only slightly at the wide end of the scroll, but it runs more deeply in the final narrow turn. The walls of the pegbox are relatively parallel and broad, so there is plenty of space for the strings to find their way to the pegs. Fendt wanted only the best for this bass, since the Baker machine heads are fitted with ivory handles and made in the best English manner.

The instrument was probably first fitted with three strings, but was soon altered to four. The original tailpiece is made of ebony, and on the top nut Fendt used ivory. The varnish is of a soft quality; the ground colour is yellow base upon with a orange layer on the top. The colour of the table is considerably darker.

Originally published in Double Bassist 19, Winter 2001
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