Öhberg at the Opera

Stefan Krattenmacher examines a bass by the Swedish luthiers Johann Öhberg Snr and Johan Öhberg Jr, dating from around 1778

Johann Öhberg Senior was probably born in Stockholm, Sweden around 1723, although this is unconfirmed. He started his apprenticeship in the 1750s, at around the age of 30, at the best workshop he could find in Stockholm – that of Sven Beckman. It is also not known how Öhberg earned a living before becoming a luthier at this comparatively old age. He was urged to produce cellos at an early stage in his career, as he had a family to support. His archings and body contours have often been associated with Italian masters of the Florentine school such as Gabrielli. One of Öhberg's cellos was repeatedly issued certificates as Gabrielli's work, as well as later being granted a certificate as having been made by Carcassi.

Öhberg Snr produced a large number of instruments: some 100 cellos and more than 270 violins, among them a large number of cheaper fiddles without purfling, which have injured his reputation. He also produced 16 violas and many other plucked instruments, which is quite remarkable considering his late start and his death at only 56. In 1764, after the death of his wife, he became responsible for bringing up their only son, Johan, who probably spent a lot of time in his father's workshop, growing up among workbenches, wood shavings and half-finished instruments.

In 1775 Gustav III, King of Sweden commissioned the original Stockholm Opera House, the work of architect Carl Fredrik Adelkrantz. The king was a strong adherent to the ideal of an enlightened monarchy, and as such was a great patron of the arts. The first Opera House performance took place in 1782.

Coincidentally, it was in this very building that the king was to meet his fate, during a masquerade at the opera. On 16 March 1792, he was shot by Jacob Johan Anckarström, and died several days later. This event inspired Eugène Scribe when writing his play Gustave III, which in turn became the basis for Verdi's opera Un Ballo in Maschera.

A year after the Opera House opened, Sweden introduced a ban on the import of musical instruments. Following this, many Swedish makers became affiliated to the Inspectorate of Hallmarking, which would put a seal on the scroll of each instrument to be sold. The seal would bear the year and a profile of St Erik, saint and patron of Stockholm. Although examples of this seal exist, very few of Öhberg's instruments still bear them. In 1778, the musical instrument import ban was lifted, and instruments made after that date therefore show no hallmarking.

Gustav III ordered the bass pictured here to be built for his Opera House and it is still the property of the Royal Opera House in Stockholm. Although there is another bass mentioned [?where?] as being made by the Öhbergs, the instrument here is – to date – the only bass clearly identified as the work of the Swedish masters. It doesn't bear any label, brandstamp or hallmarking of the type mentioned above. This is most likely an indication that the instrument was started by Öhberg Snr just before he became very ill with dropsy (of which he died in 1775), and subsequently completed by his son Johan Jr.

Johan Öhberg Jr was born in 1753, and was trained by his father whom he succeeded in 1776. In the same year, he was granted the title of Court Instrument maker. But Öhberg Jr had other interests in addition to continuing his father's work, and one year after Öhberg Snr's death he got the high profile job of organist at Stockholm cathedral. His versatile talents led him to design and build a clavecin, which was rewarded by the Swedish Royal Academy of Music. He died in 1781, aged only 28.

Among the few instruments that we are able to ascribe to him, there are three cellos and his part-completion of this bass. In this instance, he finished his father's work by making the scroll and the table.

This instrument convinces straight away with its very well-balanced outline.The open and beautifully designed middle bouts and the Staineresque curved upper and lower bouts are very similar to the shape of his cellos. Since this instrument shows traces of being altered from a pure cello shape with round shoulders to a bass player-friendly sloping upper bout, it seems logical to conclude that Öhberg Snr or didn't try to make anything other than a rather large cello. The royal luthier mainly used imported wood from Switzerland and he continued the practice for this instrument.

Looking at Öhberg Jr's work, we find a lot of Stainer's influence. The table arching raises steep from the edges and is full all over. The f-holes are set straight to the grain and wide apart giving a large platform for the bridge. Although Öhberg Jr didn't find the time to lay a purfling into the table, he did cut the f-holes with care and elegance and they show a great talent at work. The upper and lower wings of the f-holes are parallel to each other and rather large, but Öhberg Jr left only a small gap at the narrow gateway connecting the shaft with the balls. The balls are cut circle round. The nicks marking the position of the bridge are cut small. Öhberg Snr took great care when sculpting the scrolls of his instruments.

His cello heads are especially handsome, and became a trademark of his work. Unfortunately, his illness in later years seems to have weakened him so much that he could not make the scroll of this royal commission. So, the younger Johan had to make it, clearly without much enthusiasm. In comparison to the elegance of his father's work, this head looks stubby and lacks the harmony of a well-balanced scroll. The side-view shows a pegbox running in a strong curve from the top nut into an open mouth at the scroll. The scroll itself is a bit square-looking with big champfers and hardly any fluting. The pegbox looks long and narrow from the front. A very good woodcarver in Stockholm probably did the carving at the back of the pegbox, showing a Gustav III monogram.
The back seems to be the work of Öhberg Snr, who carved it from a two piece half slap-cut narrow flamed maple. In contrast to the table, the back is beautifully purfled. The three stripes are placed in a channel close to the edge, and at the worn corners their meeting is narrow. The black stripes of the inlay seem to be stained pearwood and the white could be from poplar or a similar wood. On the button at the back we see the brand stamp of the Royal Opera House. The table's arching is as full as the back's. The light yellow-coloured varnish lays on a golden ground. It is of medium hardness and very attractive.

Although this Öhberg bass is not the most powerful instrument in the Opera House's collection, its soft and dark sound character makes it a very special instrument, which the bassists there relish playing.

Vital statistics
Table length 113.5 cm
Rib height at bottom block 17 cm
rib height at upper block 16 cm
string length 107.3 cm
body width: upper bout 49 cm
middle bout 34.5 cm
lower bout 65.5 cm

Originally published in Double Bassist 28, Spring 2004
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