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Viola size has always been, to a greater or lesser degree, a controversial topic since the early 17th century when the instrument we know today as ‘the viola’ was more clearly represented by at least two distinct forms. Since the viola has, in more recent times, found a greater popularity the issue as to the instruments ‘correct’ size has evoked a continued debate. To look for reasons for the present confusion both the origins of the string quartet in the late 17th and early 18th Century, and to the situation that persisted before this time should be considered.
During the early period of the violas history, at a time when the violin family was emerging as a group, the different instruments generally represented the vocal pattern of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Two different sizes of violas were used to cover the middle voices. The ‘alto’ viola (small viola), and ‘tenor’ viola (large viola), both had the same tuning (c, g, d’, a’), which is a fifth lower than the violin (soprano), (g, d’, a’, e’’), but due to their different sizes they had quite different timbres, or sound qualities. However as the tuning of both the alto and tenor instruments is so far removed from the bass tuning a true tenor tuning of (F, c, g, d’), was sometimes used.
Historically then, three distinct forms of viola seem to have existed; the ‘alto’ viola in alto tuning (smaller body size), the ‘tenor’ viola in alto tuning (larger body size but with a relatively short neck), and the true ‘tenor’ tuned to F. Since the 18th Century, however, the string quartet has used just three different sizes of instrument, the violin, viola and violoncello. The bass instrument of the violin family, the violoncello, encompasses the tenor register whilst the viola generally covers the alto voice. These new roles for the instruments of the middle register overlap somewhat and reflect the situation that persists today. The term ‘contralto viola’ probably best describes the instrument suited to this contemporary role, occupying the ground somewhere between the soprano and tenor registers, historically represented by the older forms of viola.
The challenge, which faces the contemporary luthier, is how to define an instrument that will fit the middle voice separating the soprano from the bass, and what quality of sound should this instrument possess? Which is the more desirable, the alto or tenor timbre? Does the current desired tone colour call for a resonance that is nasal or completely clear?
William Primrose, “That there is a difference in sound quality goes without argument, and it is up to the individual player, to say nothing of the individual listener, to prefer one type of sonority to another. In my own case I must confess to a strong preference for the mezzo-soprano quality over the darker contralto sound….” However Primrose does go on to say, “experience has taught me not to expect a satisfactory ‘viola’ sound from a short model….”
Lionel Tertis, “The small violas have insufficient air space and therefore lack C string sonority. The large ones of over 17” or 18” in length, with their cumbersome features effectively prevent ease of manipulation.”
Contemporary performance demands an instrument that is neither too small for efficient sonority nor too large as to compromise technical accomplishment. It  would appear to remain, however, that the dark and pure tenor  timbre is still the desired quality sought after by many instrumentalists today. Given that a suitable size of viola is required to give this desired timbre, that the instrument should be of a playable dimension, and that the form is required to preserve the classical unity of the string family, what then are the factors pertinent to achieving the ideal size of viola?
An increase in the body length goes some way to achieving the goal of a darker tenor quality and there exist certain arguments as to what this ideal size should be. Let us first realise, however, that by modern set up criteria, developed over the preceding centuries to establish the higher tension instruments in use today, that the body length of an instrument will dictate, by proportion, the final string length. For a given body length a stop length is established, which is determined by the design of the model. Using the modern proportion of 2:3 a final string length is achieved.
It should be born in mind that the string is the acoustical centre of any instrument, and consideration should also be given to the tension of the strings as this gives the variable downward force on the body of the instrument. For any given instrument there will be an optimum tension of string that will cause the body to resonate at is full potential.
As the viola is tuned a fifth below that of the violin and that the fifth indicates a vibratory ratio of 3:2, it has been reasoned that an instrument built in proper proportion should have a body length in a proportion of 3:2 to that of the violin. This would result in a viola with a body length of 54 cm. (21 in.), which for my part is not an acceptable goal, and is a solution that ignores other critical aspects of an instruments design. Eugene Sprenger (1882 - 1953), a luthier from Frankfurt, made use of basic design criteria to produce a viola that had a broader body combined with deeper ribs giving an increased air volume to the body of the instrument, effectively lowering the air space resonance tone. This ‘Sprenger model’ viola was used regularly by Paul Hindemith and had a ‘strong tone with full character’. Lionel Tertis also used similar considerations combined with a wider bridge platform in his ‘Tertis model’ viola to good effect, and William Primrose comments when comparing the models of Andrea Guarneri to that of Stradivari, “The middle bout is wider, and therein lies the source of the greater sonority on the lowest string…” The most extreme example of this feature is most amusingly displayed by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume’s earlier contribution to this argument, his ‘Contralto’ viola of 1855, which has a body length of only 41.3 cm. (16 ¼ in.), but one that makes a valuable comment as to the criteria for design proportions.
Considering the question of body length of the viola, it is interesting to note that if we divide what has at times been suggested as the ‘standard’ size for a viola, 16¾ in., by 6, the violin dimension of 14 in. is achieved, and similarly if a fifth of the violin dimension is added to its length of 14 in., then a 16 ¾ in viola is obtained. Whilst the stature of any individual player will ultimately determine the size of viola sought, it should be remembered that an instruments body length is not the only consideration. An ‘ideal’ model should also display other features essential to good sonority.  Not least, the neck should be in proper proportion to the body length to give the correct length of string. Suitable width, especially in the C bout, effectively widens the bridge platform and broadens the arching, allowing for a better mechanical dynamic. Good rib depth combined with considered arching also contribute to establishing the final enclosed air volume of the body with its associated resonance’s, whilst the style of arching, combined with sensitive thickness, determines the final response of the instrument.  All of these elements, each individually important, should in their turn be tempered by sensible playing considerations.
What then should be the point of departure for present day luthiers when considering viola design? The variable size range is a unique feature of the viola, and this does provide for individual requirements and taste. When considering viola size, the following comments are enlightening:
Robert Dolejsi makes the very valid point in his article in Violins and Violinists, December 1943, titled ‘What size viola?’, “…whose opinion and recommendation would be considered authoritive to define proper viola dimensions, I would not hesitate to state that those of us who have spent a lifetime with the viola under all the trying conditions of symphony, opera, chamber music and solo engagements, constitute a group of criterions worthy to form a definite opinion on the subject.” Dolejsi continues, “The viola of from 16½ to 17 inches is ideal from all viewpoints.”  In the same vein Lionel Tertis comments, “…I have kept my eyes and ears open for nearly half a century and have put two and two together. In other words the design (of the ‘Tertis’ model viola), is simply an amalgamation of all the good points of the old masters in the many instruments I have seen, heard and played, plus anything I have learned that makes for ease in manipulating the larger dimension of viola.” Tertis also states regarding his own ‘Tertis’ model, “It is 16¾ inches long….the minimum from which to hope for really satisfactory C string sonority.” And finally from William Primrose, “I adjure violists to seek instruments not less in length than the models of Stradivari and Guarneri with an eye to those, like Guarneri’s, with a wider middle bout. With that dimension up to seventeen inches I deem practical.” And when considering the smaller dimension of instrument goes on to say, “…seek instruments of the widest dimensions and with deep ribs. These departures from the norm sometimes make up for the shorter lineal dimension. But, avoid the oddball models that have been offered from time to time.”  

Revised  Oct. 2004
Viola Size

“The subject of viola size has been an area of controversy and confusion, not least among recent generations of luthiers.”