Joachim Tielke (1641–1719)

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  • Violoncello Head
  • Guitar
  • Violin
  • Division Viol
  • Cittern

Works of Art (6)


Joachim Tielke is considered one of the great instrument makers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Alongside the members of his large business of luthiers and specialty carvers, he is responsible for an oeuvre of staggering variety renowned for superb craftsmanship and use of luxury materials. The extant violins (1992.333), guitars (53.56.3), violas da gamba (89.4.956), bell citterns (1985.124), lutes, and other instruments that bear Tielke’s name number more than 130 in total, and today may be seen in museums and private collections throughout the world. Tielke’s skill as craftsman, decorative artist, and businessman continues to inspire instrument makers, musicians, and historians centuries after his death.

Not much is known of Tielke’s early life. He was born into a large musical family in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), but eventually settled in Hamburg, a city whose vibrant musical community and repository of Baroque luminaries—among his acquaintances were organist Andreas Kneller and composer Dietrich Buxtehude—served as inspiration for his craft. He and his older brother Gottfried (who later took holy orders and gave up instrument making) were taught to make instruments in a workshop in Königsberg whose origins remain unknown, and most likely did not apprentice with Italian luthiers in Brescia, as was once thought. In 1667, at the age of twenty-five, Tielke moved to Hamburg and joined the workshop of Dutch-born instrument maker Christoffer Fleischer, whose daughter, Catharina, he married; two years later, he became a freeman (Neubürger) and citizen of Hamburg after taking an oath (and paying heavily), but he did not join the powerful guild system. This gave him leave to form a workshop of his own, which serviced his reputation as luthier, merchant, and entrepreneur and encouraged the growth of what would become an impressive business.

Chief among Tielke’s contributions are the Hamburger Cithrinchen, or bell citterns (1985.124), instruments highly fashionable in Hamburg from around 1650 to 1750. Named for their supposed place of origin and elongated bell-shaped outline, bell citterns are derivatives of the larger six-course Italian citterns, which date to the mid-fifteenth century. While the Hamburger Cithrinchen have long been considered Tielke’s invention, there is now evidence in support of their construction at the hands of other German luthiers, as well as by makers in Salzburg. The Hamburger Cithrinchen are made with five double courses of metallic strings that are tuned like the upper five courses of the guitar, unlike French and English instruments, whose four strings can be tuned in a variety of ways. Citterns can either be strummed with a plectrum—which produces the loud, tinny sound associated with the rousing joviality of the tavern or barber’s shop—or played more gently with the fingers, as with a Baroque guitar, to create the sophisticated sort of sound common at the time in Dutch domestic settings. Tielke’s citterns are often lavishly decorated with Laub und Bandelwerk (leaf- and bandwork), and inlaid with expensive materials such as ivory, tortoiseshell, ebony, or mother-of-pearl. On certain pieces, the inlaid pattern reflects, in reverse, that of another instrument, as in the case of a cittern in the Hamburg Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, whose decorative back and side bouts are the counterpart to those of the cittern at the Metropolitan (1985.124).

This technique of reverse inlay—at once an artful method of conserving material and a reflection of precision handiwork—is known as intarsio, and it also appears on a number of Tielke’s Baroque guitars. The more decorated instruments feature complex floral marquetry that stretches from the back of the instrument, along the neck, and around the whole of the pegbox; the pattern it forms is then echoed beautifully in the rosette—carved in a lace pattern on the center of the table. At times, Tielke’s décor features more elaborate, classical iconography—often with easily readable moralizing scenes, or epigrammatic messages upon banners held by putti—alluding to music’s role as a high art. One source of these allegories is Otto van Veen’s Amorum emblemata, the 124-plate volume of design published in Antwerp in 1608, whose templates were consulted by decorative artists throughout northern Europe.

Instruments traveled, like other goods in Tielke’s day, through an international network of luthiers and dealers, and were bought and sold to suit the needs of wealthy patrons and the musicians that had begun to call cities like Hamburg home. Tielke played a dominant role in this system and is now considered the most important dealer of the time in Hamburg. As musical repertoire began to increase in difficulty, the violin and ‘cello—two members of the violin family to emerge as solo instruments during the Baroque era—were in high demand and became grounds upon which makers experimented with sound production, proportion, and size. In the hands of the numerous craftsmen in Tielke’s workshop, these instruments also became the decorative equivalents of the virtuosic music for which they were used. His violins typically feature delicate edgework and corners, pegboxes that terminate in human or animal heads, and bird’s eye maple backs and sides; at times, they take a feminine form, which might allude to the higher pitch of the instrument. The violin in the Metropolitan’s collection (1992.333) retains its original neck, which has been angled back and reshaped to conform to modern playing requirements. A surviving head of a ‘cello (1998.458) is also carved in maple, and reveals an open mouth, protruding tongue, and long, flowing mane. Although the body is lost, the personified scroll that would have originally surmounted a four-hole pegbox is one such detail that emerges when such pieces are studied closely.

Due to the even greater demand in Tielke’s day for the viola da gamba—the instrument whose flat back, sloping shoulders, and six or seven strings distinguish it from members of the violin family—Tielke and his workshop would produce many, indeed, more viols than any other instrument. The viol is ideal for domestic music making and was thus immensely popular among both amateur and professional musicians, partially due to the fact that its frets (made from gut and wrapped around the neck) make it comparatively easy to play in tune. The neck of the viol is wider than that of a violin (1992.333), viola, or ‘cello (1998.458), so as to accommodate a greater number of strings; its sides are deeper and its back flat and bent in toward the neck. Tielke’s viols and division viols (89.4.956) often feature, like his violins and ‘cellos, superbly carved scrolls in the form of human or bestial heads, side bouts with intricate floral patterns, and decorative purfling, or inlaid detail around the table. Classical imagery covers the backs of instruments bound for wealthier patrons, and the sound production is still considered strong and bright, ideal for solo playing. The viola da gamba’s popularity would not last, however, and by the end of the eighteenth century many instruments, including Tielke’s, would be cut down to form violins and ‘cellos, which were rapidly replacing the viol in the musical repertoire. Tielke’s surviving viols in their original form are visual testaments to the extraordinary period of flourishing the instrument once enjoyed, and lend credence to organologist Anthony Baines’s declaration that “musical instruments should be considered in the light of their contribution to the study and enjoyment of the decorative crafts, as well as to the world of music.”

Elizabeth Weinfield
Independent Scholar

April 2010


Weinfield, Elizabeth. “Joachim Tielke (1641–1719).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (April 2010)

Further Reading

Hellwig, Günther Joachim. Tielke: Ein Hamburger Lauten- und Violenmacher der Barockzeit. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag das Musikinstrument, 1980.

Pilipczuk, Alexander. "Joachim Tielke, Instrument-Maker and Merchant of Hamburg: Recent Findings about His Education and Professional Life." Galpin Society Journal 61 (2008), pp. 129–46. n/a: n/a, n/a.