The Library has been known to save a life … the life of an instrument, that is. While it’s always exciting when a new discovery is made within the institution’s vaults, it’s equally amazing when we can share it.
In 1937, H. Blakiston Wilkins made a gift to the Library of six early stringed instruments: a pardessus de viole (five-string treble viol) made by Louis Guersan of Paris (1749); a 14-string viola d’amore by an unknown German maker (second half of the 18th century); a 12-string viola d’amore by Ferdinando Gagliano of Naples (1763); a seven-string bass viol (viola da gamba) by Pieter Rombouts of Amsterdam (1708); a quinton (a five-string combination of violin and treble viol) by François le Jeune of Paris (1760); and the remains of a late-17th-century bass viol (possibly by Joachim Teilke, Hamburg), which was converted into a cello, likely around the early 19th century.
The instruments Wilkins donated remained boxed up, never were played and needed repair until a recent opportunity presented itself for Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, curator of the Library’s musical instrument collection, to have them refurbished. The viola da gamba made its Coolidge Auditorium debut earlier this year in a concert featuring Paolo Pandolfo. This was the bass viol’s first playing since arriving at the Library some 70 years ago. And who knows how long it had been before then that the instrument was played, since there’s not much background on any of the strings in the Wilkins collection beyond their date and maker. Describing the sound as “beautiful,” Pandolfo played two pieces by Marin Marais for his encore:
Wilkins, in 1937, was the honorary curator for both the Library’s Stradivarius collection and the Folger Library’s collection of instruments. But little is really known of the man or the instruments he donated. Originally from Baltimore, Wilkins studied at the Sorbonne, ultimately staying in France and in Italy for some 30 years. He eventually returned to Washington and began his very short tenure at the Library. According to Ward-Bamford, legend has it that Wilkins always carried a gun in a holster on his leg whenever he was near the Strads. He died in 1940 after a long illness.
One interesting tidbit about the Wilkins strings: Despite the fact that most of the other strings in the Library’s collections are older, the Wilkins instruments are deemed “early strings,” because they have not been modernized. They look and sound much as they did 300-plus years ago.
According to Ward-Bamford, the Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati are in altered form regarding original neck and bass bar design. As the violin grew in prominence, playing of the viols, such as the instruments in the Wilkins Collection, began to decline. Concert halls and audiences were larger, composers were writing for larger ensembles in larger spaces, and sound projection was increasingly important. So the instruments were physically altered to allow for these demands and are not wholly original.