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The Viola: Originality v Copyist Culture.

October 2011

Why new design?  With more talented luthiers working now than ever before, I find it difficult to comprehend why we still work in a period in which a copyist culture predominates, one in which originality is often found wanting. As luthiers, I feel we have lost, not the ability, but perhaps the resource, or even the inclination, to understand how to draw out  in our workshops the dimensions required for an instrument of the violin family. Perhaps it is just too easy to put a pencil around another violin and claim to make models of this or that famous maker. That's fine, but as they say 'the proof is in the pudding'. I'd prefer to put my own name to something more original.

For the luthier working today, the rise in popularity of the viola in recent years has brought  with it not only challenges, but also opportunity. The copyist is faced with a difficult task of looking for a defined viola form, as there is not much choice out there, unlike the very readily accessible developed pattern of the violin. Very simply, as the demand for violas in different sizes increases, the luthier is faced with the not so straight forward task of  deciding what is a good or a bad feature in the basic dimension, how this relates to tone, and how this translates into a particular size.

Like other luthiers of my own time, I was first introduced to the trade by learning to make copies of the famous Italians, which I still feel is the best way to begin. Such a process of assimilation while one learns the 'tools of the trade' is traditionally the way to get a sure footing, and it is important to do your time in workshops where you can benefit by the exposure to many instruments of different quality and style. This is a crucial part of one's career, even though the choice of reputable establishments can be somewhat limited. But where to go from here?

I felt that I was being offered a choice; either I carry on making endless copies, or I could choose to regain a degree of originality and enjoy taking a more creative initiative. That is what the viola offered me; an opportunity to be involved in the development of  a hitherto neglected form of the violin family at a unique time in its history, when the violas repertoire was being rapidly expanded by some very talented players, placing extraordinary demands on the instrument.

If we continue, particularly at a time when  players are gaining increasing confidence in new work, to rely on copying instruments, without really understanding them, the trade will not develop and musicianship will inevitably be restricted. It is my strongly held belief that it is only by making viable musical instruments confidently, under our own name, using individual patterns that display a clear understanding of the mechanics of the form, will we as luthiers be able to step up to the mark and work in true partnership with the player.

There are challenges. Controversial acceptance of the variability of size has given the modern viola the potential to enjoy a somewhat broader tonal focus. However, it seems that most attention concerning the modern interpretation of the viola, has been centred on  attempting either, a standard single size, or, whilst trying to translate the inherent tone of the larger instrument into that of the smaller, creating some very odd ball instruments indeed. Although genuine responses in their own right, both routes appear to take the premise that the violas traditional form is in some way wanting. Perhaps in the modern context it is, but what I feel is really required is to listen to what the players are actually asking us for; to produce violas of varying dimension representative of the modern ideal of a single viola voice.

The viola presents some very practical concerns not readily encountered in other members of the violin family. Let me outline the problem. Firstly, there are very few extant early viola instruments, either to copy, or to inspire new design. The few remaining original violas of the 16th and 17th centuries have, in most cases, experienced considerable changes to their set up over the years, neck set and length followed advances in string making technology and playing technique, alterations made to whatever was considered appropriate at the time. Towards the end of the 17th century the viola fell from fashion, the spotlight was now on the violin, many of the larger tenors were cut down and shortened so their dimensions became out of proportion. I have heard many times the comment that as a particular viola had originally been a tenor, but now cut down, it had retained some of the original tenor characteristics. At first this comment seems somewhat false, as once the body is reduced in size then the tone inevitably changes. However, consider what is retained; broader dimension across the middle of the instrument, longer ff's and longer C's, these features are all 'mechanically' desirable to good tonal production.

If any period of making can be seen as representative of genuine originality for the viola form it has to be the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Briefly, the early viola, or the instrument we have come to call by that name, held a very exclusive, well defined part, in those early violin consorts  of the 16th century, Peter Holman  in his work 'Four and Twenty Fiddlers', puts forward a well researched and convincing view of the developing string consort during the late 15th and early 16th centuries.  Violas were the instrument(s) of the middle. Sharing the same tuning, with two distinctive voices, the alto and the tenor. This was achieved by using two contrasting sizes, one small and one large, built to express these respective parts. However, despite textural references to the existence of  a smaller contralto form in the early violin consorts of the greater part of the 16th century, the earliest extant altos we have are the Brothers Amati 1615 and 1620, while larger tenors from the mid 1500's are better known, which would suggest that the establishment of a consort of violins was not as linear as we might expect. Maybe the contralto, in this early refined form, was indeed only properly defined in the early 17th century

Andrea Amati’s work, which suddenly bursts onto the scene in the mid 16th century in a very refined geometrical form, appears only to have made the larger viola form with no reference available to us concerning a smaller alto. This does not appear until his later sons work. But what is apparent in all the Amati families work is the fundamental geometrical application and principal of simple geometric form and the proportion of parts.

Significantly, in almost every example of a makers work known to us from the 17th century there appears a distinctive separation of these two sizes in which the stop/body  relationship share a common proportionality. Sizes between these two forms did not appear to have been common until the tenor viola, having become redundant in the later part of the 17th century, began to be cut down in size to become more accessible in what had became a less well defined role. These cut down tenors became the middle sized 16 ½ 'ish', type, and  it is these instruments, subsequently copied by successive makers, which has given root to the confusion of size and voice that exists today. The viola had lost its identity.

The large tenor was overtaken by events and fashionable preference, its tenor role eventually to be taken by the later violoncello. Interest in the viola diminished as the new kid on the block, the 'violin', began to enjoy a meteoric rise in popularity, as it was the ideal instrument to express the fashionable musical styles of the day. It was not until the late 19th century that the violas fortunes began to change, and it would not be out of place to consider the later 20th century as a 'Renaissance of the Viola'. This popularity continues today, but now the viola is seen as a single voice, but one represented by many different sizes of instrument, a heritage of the 'cut down' years. Subsequent debate as to a 'true' viola tone has resulted in the quest for an elusive singular ideal and it is, in my own opinion, a lack of awareness of the violin consorts of those early centuries that has resulted in many entrenched and mistaken views about the viola today.

The suggestion is that if the viola is a 5th lower in its register than the violin, then it should be a corresponding 5th larger. If a 5th is given as a ratio of 2:3 then by the same proportion the corresponding length is indeed 21''. However, one could also argue, similarly, that if that if the viola is a 5th lower, then, by proportion it should be 1/5th longer in its length, giving a viola of about 16 ¾ '', which would be much more viable if such an 'ideal' size were to be sought. Such terms as the viola is 'not acoustically perfect' and  the viola is 'an instrument of compromise' really arise from the acoustical work of Felix Savart during the mid 19th century, a time known as the 'age of enlightenment' when reason displaced mysticism and the modern scientific age was born. Savart proposed that an ideal middle range instrument, one in tonal balance with the 'acoustically perfect' violin, would have to be of a much greater string length and have a corresponding body size of 21in., This idea was to become firmly rooted in a the contemporary mind, but a mind unaware of the true character of the viola. Maybe this theoretical giant is tonally ideal for the middle register, but this is not the viola!  The viola is far more subtle; the understanding of which is buried in the late 16th century. Here we see two sizes of the viola form expressing different characteristic tonal qualities, an expression later abandoned, as the viola was overshadowed by the rising star of its smaller sister, the violin, and later by the rationalization of the bass instrument into the violoncello, which was to ultimately better encompass the tenor register in its upper positions, thus superseding the tenor viola. Good luck to anyone trying to market , or play, the 'ideal' 21 in., viola!

To understand the viola in its modern context, one has to account for these 16th century consort beginnings; the legacy of size and tonal variation. The concept of an instrument of two different proportions, but  sharing the same tuning, is an inheritance that has, ironically, been preserved by virtue of the violas neglect during intervening centuries, and is one that has proved too enduring to ignore. Later attempts to standardize the violas dimension have always been fraught with difficulty, and the idea that it is too small to express its intended register is simply misguided.

Change is driven by demand, and today that demand is most certainly for instruments of different sizes, not to express a tonal variation, but to accommodate players of different stature, the challenge; to make each individual instrument size achieve its true tonal potential.

Each viola will have its own tonal spectrum and timbre, this diversity ultimately contributing to the broader tonal landscape expressed by the range of varying instrument sizes.  This is a unique inheritance! Change only takes hold when there is a good reason for that change to occur and it is worth remembering this when approaching the design of an instrument, particularly one that has been around for over four hundred years.  It is in response to current demand for different sized violas that I have developed my own workshop practices, based on solid geometrical principals supporting true proportionality, enabling me to focus on the development of a 'scaled' viola pattern.