Unlike the violin and cello which, together with the viola, make up our current violin group, the viola appears unique in that it is available in many different sizes. Essentially, this means that the viola player may choose both a suitable playing size, and also, a particular voice for their instrument. However, this apparent flexibility, some may interpret this as a lack of standardization, does indeed present a number of particular draw backs. Firstly, differences in both string length and neck/stop ratios (the relationship between the position of the bridge and the length of the neck), can cause certain difficulties for the player. For instance, it is common that a viola of one particular size will have a different set up and string length than another of seemingly equivalent body size, making a direct comparison between the two, apparently similar instruments, difficult. Then there is of course the difference in the voice of a smaller instrument to that of a larger one, this can be further complicated by an impaired tonal quality resulting from the use of either a restrictive pattern or an inappropriate set up. This disparity between available instruments and their intended use is part of what Tertis was attempting to address with his 'Tertis Model' viola, indeed an admiral and perceptive aim, the real success of which, however, was to re-initiate an approach to viola making where the requirements of the player, rather than the perceived historical interpretations of the maker, once again became central to the design. The 'Tertis Model' has a very simple legacy; makers should not restrict themselves to simply copying a limited number of older forms, and this often without any real understanding of either their design, or their intended function. It was this very situation, made acute by a low standard of playing ability, that prompted Richard Wagner's derogatory comments in the late 19th Century.
The need for a contemporary viola design began to be recognized in the mid 19th century, and from this time to the present day, a number of avenues of experimentation have been followed. These range from trying to reintroduce the larger tenor style instrument, to the outright obscure. The Ritter-Sprenger-Tertis line, however, being the most original in attempting to directly address the needs of contemporary players. Although many 'oddball' designs appear from time to time, I do not believe that there is any need to depart from the conventionally accepted form of the wider violin group, a design that has endured some four centuries. Both the violin and cello form have gone through significant changes throughout their history, arriving at the almost 'perfect' forms in use today, and this without a great departure from their original concept. This process for the viola was, however, lost at the beginning of the 17th century, as composition styles and fashion changed. The threads of this design were not to be picked up again until the late 19th century, it is not surprising therefore, that this has been a somewhat difficult road back to perceptive instrument design.
Returning to the consideration of viola size in contemporary use. In order to understand more fully the issues surrounding the question of viola size, it is important to gain an appreciation of the violas position in the wider context of the emerging violin group of instruments that became established during the later 16th century. Consideration of this period becomes essential in order to enable the continuation of the design process from the point at which it was, in effect, abandoned.
Very briefly, from the emergence of the violin group, comprising originally of three string instruments, during the early 16th century, the middle registers were expressed by two different sizes of instrument, tuned the same, cgd' , their different voices gained by virtue of their different body sizes. This is illustrated well by Agricola, Musica instrumentalis deudsch,Wittenberg 1529, for the tuning of this early three string violin group.
By the middle of the 16th century, however, the addition of a fourth string was established, expanding the range of each individual instrument. The middle violas were to gain their upper fourth sting giving the familiar tuning cgd'a', and by the latter part of the 16th century a structured consort of instruments were in place, separated by their tuning and associated size. However, it was to be further developments in both playing technique and string manufacture that were to make some of these instruments redundant. For example, the smaller treble violin was used extensively throughout this period, only later to be superseded when a shifting technique allowed these higher registers to be encompassed by the larger descant instrument, or 'violin'. A similar story exists for the bass instruments, which where later to be singularly represented by the later form of violoncello, after the introduction of over-spun strings in the mid 17th century permitted better sonority to be attained than was previously achievable with the earlier thicker bass strings.
However, returning our attention to the later part of the 16th century, we see a further refinement of this concept of different voices attained by two instruments tuned the same, but of different sizes. The introduction of a much smaller viola, (for example Gasparo da Salo 1580, 386mm, 15 ¼ in. body length), was intended to express more precisely the upper part of the alto register, and together with the then more common larger viola, further developed this idea. Also at about this time the short lived, much larger tenor viola was introduced, (for example Andrea Amati 1574, 470mm, 18 ½ in. body length), this perhaps with the tuning Gdae'. However, the tenor viola has to be viewed in context with the small bass violin of the same tuning, this instrument often being referred to as a 'tenor violin'.
Essentially, without going into further detail of the early violin consort, its changing sizes and related tunings, it becomes very clear that for each body size there is a particular voice. This may be thought of as the natural body resonance, determined by an instruments body size, and serves to reinforce a particular tonal range. From my own work I have found that a 16in., model will express a natural body frequency at g', a 16 ¾ in., f', and a 17 ¼ in., e'. For a violin this corresponding body frequency is commonly found at c''. So I suppose this does really answer the question, 'what is the ideal sized viola?', at least from a makers perspective. A viola at 16 ¾ in., or thereabouts, with a natural body frequency at f ' is pitched exactly one fifth below that of the violin, and is therefore ideally suited to expressing the alto register, in effect the ideal viola. I am unable to agree with the long standing argument that the viola is too small for its intended register, the size often quoted of 21in., which is in fact a size better associated with an instrument built to express the tenor register, not the alto. This true tenor instrument did indeed exist in the early 17th century, often referred to now as a 'tenor violin'. It was in fact a small bass violin played in either an upright position or across the chest, ('da spalla'), known by various names at the time and tuned at first to Fcgd', then later to Gdae' The role of the large tenor viola of the late 16th century was ultimately better suited to this small bass, or early form of violoncello, and later advances in string technology during the 17th century firmly established this tenor role with the violoncello style of instrument, rather than the large tenor viola, which ultimately fell from favour.
The idea of two instruments tuned the same, cgd'a', with different voices achieved by virtue of their relative sizes alone, expressing either the upper and lower parts of the alto register respectfully, was firmly established during the late 16th century. Although this principal has since been neglected, it is an important inheritance that cannot be ignored. It is in fact the root cause of the misconception that there is a problem with viola size, and the reason that there are instruments of such varying size. As the viola is today represented by just a single instrument in the modern quartet, should the player consider not only the size that is best suited to their own needs, but also the relative voice of the instrument as well? This choice is made all the more difficult, however, by the limited number of suitable instruments currently available. A large or small viola will always present with a different voice, but what is perceived as desirable should really be seen in the context of an instruments intended role. If both the quality of design and execution of build are of sufficient standard, neither a small or a large instrument should suffer from either a lack of projection or tonal focus. A viola tuned to f' may be considered ideal from a generalized point of view, fulfilling the function of a correctly placed voice capable of adequately expressing the intended register, but other voices and timbres, inherent of different sizes, can only add to the violas unique tonal quality. It is an inheritance worth preserving, but one that could be better understood.
My own approach to contemporary viola design is such that I aim to present a classic range of instruments, rather than a single voice. Tonal and playing characteristics inherent of the design are maintained across the viola group, thus giving a choice of both size and voice. This has essentially been achieved by developing a practical working workshop model that enables the same design criteria to be applied to each of the desired sizes. Perhaps, conceptuality, not that dissimilar an approach to original instrument workshop design and practice?
The Viola Workshop 2006.
Why are there different sizes for the viola?
I was recently asked the rather obvious question 'Why isn't there just one size for the viola, as there are for the violin and cello?' First thoughts might indeed be that viola players do naturally seek such variation of the tonal colour associated with the different sizes of their instrument. But why then is there such a debate about the 'ideal' viola sound, and, or, size, if this variation is actually sought? It is with this apparent conflict between these two opposing viewpoints where a better understanding of the nature of our alto instrument may be gained.