When around 1530-1550 the first violin family instruments were built in Northern Italy, all of them were called “Viola da Braccio” – arm viola as opposed to “Viola da Gamba”-leg viola, whether they represented the soprano, alto or tenor voice. Thus the viola is the ancestor of the violin family, violino being the small viola.
Today the first Brescian violas are revered, but many of them, meant to represent the tenor voice and having a corpus length of well over 42cm, have been shortened in the quest to make them physically less taxing to play. Modern violists would like to have it both ways: tenor and alto, but not the physical strain of the extra large body. The Viola da Braccio ( German Bratsche) is an arm full.
There are a number of dedicated viola makers, who customize for the demands of the modern viola professional and their virtuosi repertoire. Those luthiers offer ergonomic models: Heart shaped bottom bouts for example, extend the fullness of the body while allowing closer access in the length. Asymmetric outlines with slimmer treble shoulders or even without a treble corner will ease playing in the high positions. Viola specialists might also finesse the traditional body for proportions, which allow maximized body versus reasonable string length. Some make super slender necks and lighten the scrolls by carving out the volutes entirely.
My 5’1″ height makes it almost impossible to try out any viola, but a 15″ model. So I had put violas mostly out of my mind. Like many viola jokers, I was initially ignorant in my approach to the instrument. My mother, an avid amateur violin player, owned a “Bratsche”, which only saw the outside of the case, when no one else would take it on, implying that it was a slog. We called the instrument “the crocodile”, which actually points to a certain fascination rather than characterizing a civil servant performance.
Once I found quartet partners and played in a community orchestra, I started to appreciate the quality and power of the viola.A pivot experience was Walter Babiak’s coaching at the Kincardine Summer Music Festival chamber music course. He commanded a moderately talented quartet from the viola and made them jive. ( W. Babiak, musician and pedagogue co-created the composer story series for children: ” Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery, Bach comes to call, Beethoven lives upstairs…” ).
So who can resist the allure of the androgynous voice in the long run? Around 1990 I made my second viola by scaling down a Jacob Stainer outline and pairing it with an entirely different long sound hole and scroll. Apart from a viola made at school and one experimental instrument from treated wood ( swan head), this has been my model ever since.
I have been exploring many different violin and cello models, but rely on this basic outline and consistent materials for violas: The backs, Canadian red maple slab paired with European Alpine spruce for the top. The body length is 16″ ( 408mm) with a string length of 14 3/8th ( 366mm). The arching is influenced by whatever violin or cello I have made before. I allow myself the luxury of making without agonizing. The prospective player is on my mind and I honour the materials as precious.
In a short 2021 break from pandemic islolation, I made a tour to Hamilton and Kitchener Ontario to hear Katie Schlaikjer solo in concert, and visit with musicians and their spouses. It was invigorating to experience their undaunted creativity. I reconnected with Elspeth Thomson, assistant viola principal with the Hamilton Symphony. She is great company and stabilized the core of the Georgian Bay Symphony for years with her viola magic until she could no longer coordinate the long treck to Owen Sound and juggle opportunities close to home. At Elspeth’s I met also Caitlin Boyle of the Isabel Quartet. She took my new viola on an outing to the Toronto Sinfonia and presented me with some lovely sound profiles: intro to Bartok Concerto and Bach Gigue