A Pochette

There was a time when it was essential for upper and middle class women to be able to dance. Hard to imagine now, but for most of the 18th century European society would know exactly what was expected, and more prosaically where to put its legs, if the band struck up a bourée, or a rigaudon, or a forlane, or half a dozen other dances.

There were dancing teachers, of course. In fact it was not an uncommon profession, for the demand was urgent. They had to be able to play the music and demonstrate the dance steps. This required a small instrument; in fact a pocket-sized instrument. It was also necessary for it to be very quiet: houses were crowded, and not everybody needed dancing lessons.

Carved head of pochette

The Dancing Master’s Kit, or Pochette, fitted the bill perfectly. The strings are roughly the same length as those of a violin, and similarly tuned, so any fiddle player can use it. Having such a tiny soundbox means it can never be noisy. The term “Kit” tends to be used by the English: “Pochette”, a French word, was used in mainland Europe. In modern usage pochette can mean a wallet, but it’s any small pocket.

Inexplicably, there was a rush of fakes that flooded the market in the 1990’s. They were superficially convincing, but were generally easy to spot because the details were incorrect and because of indifferent workmanship. This isn’t one of those. Incredibly, the very narrow purfling around the edge of the table is not painted on, but is actually inlaid. It’s just a single strip, but it really does protect the front from creeping edge cracks.

The back is in two pieces, which is rather unusual. Such small instruments tend to have one-piece backs (the fakes always do) and quite commonly the backs and sides are all carved out of one bit of wood. The back here is of beech, with an obliquely-cut knot at the bottom. Because the two halves are matched the knot appears heart-shaped.

Back of pochette

There’s a repaired crack through the knot, because it’s structurally weaker here and because this is, after all, perhaps over three hundred years old. This has proper ribs, and they are of plainer beech. The table is of wide-grained pine. Neither the front nor the back have any overhang: they are flush with the ribs. Well of course they are: there’s less to get snagged when taking it out of a pocket. The ebony fingerboard is of a later date, but the ivory saddle and end-pin are probably original.

I’m unhappy with the pegs. They have what looks like teeth-marks on them. This is perfectly OK. When pegs become hopelessly jammed people do sometimes use their teeth to grip them, but these marks are too regular, and look intentional. The pegs are later.

Now . . . where did it come from? Pochettes were made all over Europe.

It isn’t English. It’s festoon outline discounts that, as do the soundholes and head. At first the head looks French. It’s an odd mixture of adult hair-do with baby’s face, and similar finials can be found on some pardessus-de viole and larger viols, also quintons and occasionally violins. However most of these have running decoration along the outside edges of the pegbox, whereas this is plain. Some makers from Prague made similar finials – Hulinzky, for example. I’m sure it’s not Italian. Italian pochettes tend to be of the straight-sided variety, and their pegboxes are not like this. I don’t think it’s Flemish either. I suppose there must be exceptions, but I’d expect a Flemish pochette to have soundholes shaped like the letter C.

Front of pochette


I reckon it’s Bavarian. The varnish looks Bavarian – Augsburg perhaps, or Nuremberg. The soundholes are squeezed within the outline, but being vaguely flame-shaped are more likely from there or from further east, for example Vienna. These soundholes are quite strongly similar to those of a maker called Ernst Busch, who worked in Nuremberg in the mid-17th century. Well, perhaps it is that old. Also the very architectural tailpiece, which I think is pearwood, may well be original and is, to my eye, more Germanic than anything else.