Chapter Three, Stradivari's Violas

Inlaid viola by StradivariStradivari made few violas. We are acquainted with only ten examples. In an old note-book in our possession there is a reference to one, dated 1695, but we have failed to find its present owner.

Arisi tells us that in September 1685 Bartolomeo Grandi, called "Il Fassini," ordered from Stradivari a whole set of instruments for the Court orchestra of the Duke of Savoy: this set would have included at least two violas. Again, in 1707 the Marquis Desiderio Cleri wrote from Barcelona to Stradivari by order of King Charles 111. of Spain, ordering six violins, two violas, and one violoncello. Not one of these violas is now known to exist, whilst of the two made for the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1690 only one remains; and similarly, of the pair which formed part of the set of inlaid instruments that passed into the hands of the Spanish Court in 1772, one example only can be now accounted for.

At the commencement of the master's career the accepted design and dimensions for a viola were those defined and carried out by Gasparo, da Salo and the Amati family during upwards of a century, the general proportions of which varied but little. The attention of those accustomed to these dimensions, and occasionally to even larger ones, is at once arrested by the considerably smaller form of the earliest known Stradivari viola, made in 1672, and some explanation of this departure from the previously accepted design is naturally sought for.

We cannot accept Stradivari as the originator of the smaller type of viola, for, in addition to other evidence, we know of a fine A. and H. Amati made in 1615, a Stainer made in 1660, and several notable examples by Andrea Guarneri-contemporaneous productions-which are of similar size. The A. and H. Amati viola, being earlier and the work of famed craftsmen, served in all probability as a model for later makers. Stradivari in particular seems to have profited by the study of it, for we observe great similarity of form and dimensions in his viola of 1672, though the Amati, with a small and delicately proportioned head of violin pattern, is by far the more gracefully designed instrument of the two. Was the smaller form of viola initiated by the brothers Amati? We think it was; but can make no positive statement, owing to the ruthless manner in which many of their violas have been reduced in size-some of the old violas being even converted into violins. We can only conjecture what were their original proportions.

The viola of 1672 shows in the arching, long corners, form of edge, sound-holes, design of head, and the pale golden varnish, just what we should expect from its date- a following of the Amati tradition; though the whole instrument, with its unsymmetrical outline (too wide for the length), ungainly head, and general stiff robustness, is without the grace inherent in the productions of the Amati. The wood of the back and sides is of poplar; that of the belly in width and straightness of grain is admirable, the whole selection being acoustically faultless. The dimensions agree with those of Stradivari's later examples, with the exception of the widths; the sound-holes are also placed higher up on the belly. The condition of this viola is practically perfect; the neck is the original one, and it is interesting to remark that the label is signed "Antonins"-the "u" inverted.

The gradual introduction about this period, 1660-90, of the smaller type of viola, which offers greater technical facility to the performer, is difficult to account for. The printed music of the time provides no clue, for the earliest important viola part, that of Corelli's "XII Concerti Grossi," published in 1712, could be quite easily played on a Gasparo, or Amati, and in a performance the balance of sound would be incomparably better preserved by the tone of the larger viola. Even later, in the time of Handel, the compass of viola parts seldom, if ever, necessitated the shifting of the hand above the first position; therefore no difficulty was presented by the use of a large viola. (See the interesting analysis of the orchestral parts of the "Messiah" used by Handel, and now preserved at the Foundling Hospital, by Dr. E. Prout in the Monthly Musical Record, April 1894.)

It is astonishing, too, to observe how small is the quantity of chamber music, which included a part for the viola, written from 1683, the date of Corelli's earliest composition ("XII Trios for Two Violins and Bass"), until nearly a century later, when Boccherini and Haydn were ensuring permanency for the string quartet.

Corelli's celebrated "Forty-eight Trios for Two Violins and Bass" met with such universal approval that this combination became the favourite one, and later composers of all degrees of merit adopted it, to the exclusion of nearly all other forms of chamber music. The finer form of string trio, that for violin, viola, and violoncello, seems only to have come into existence with the string quartet; and of Boccherini's published collection of fifty-two string trios only twelve are for this combination of instruments.

Seeing, then, that the music of the epoch can scarcely have led to the introduction of the smaller viola, what other cause can be assigned for the change? It was an experimental age in instrument-making, and the small viola may have been an experiment at first, subsequently securing a permanent position because it proved more convenient to the ordinary viola player, who would in nine cases out of ten be a violinist, and therefore find playing on a large viola fatiguing and disturbing to his technique. The violin had been evolved from and superseded the smaller types of viols, and the violoncello of reduced proportions was on its trial; therefore makers may have reasoned that a smaller type of viola might equally supply a want.

The next viola known to us is dated 1690-eighteen years later-the year which gives the first of the "Long Strad" violins as well as the "Tuscan" set-and the creative capacity displayed in these instruments is equally traceable in the viola. The distinctive features at once apparent between this and the former viola are the narrower outline, the lower and more slanting position of the sound- holes, flatter arching, broader edge, and shorter corners.

The diminution of the outline in width at top and bottom (see Appendix), and the lower position of the sound-holes, clearly improve the proportions. The wood of the back, sides, and head is of attractive appearance ; and though the varnish is not sufficiently definite in colour, the fine style and preservation afford ample compensation.

The principles and details of the work are those embodied in the violins of this period. We know not which to admire most - the determination Stradivari evinces to form a style of his own, or the intuition which enables him at this stage to design the form which was to serve for all his subsequent violas, with the exception of the two large ones.

Tuscan BridgesThe "Tuscan" viola, preserved in the Musical Institute of Florence, is of extremely large dimensions, exceeding those of Gasparo and Amati. It is worthy in every respect of its surviving companions of the quintet-the violin and violoncello; wood and varnish are identical with those used for them, though the viola seems a shade lighter in colour than the violin. (At left are two views of the bridge made by Stradivari for the "Tenore" of the "Tuscan" Quintet.)

Stradivari's very graceful monogram is stamped in the mortise of the neck, which is original, as are also the finger-board, tail-piece, tail-pin, tail-nut, and even the bridge. Indeed, except for somewhat serious beetle ravages, set up probably through the instrument being locked up in a museum rather than remaining in the hands of a loving appreciator, it is as it left the maker, and is a truly grand example.

We know of only one other similarly proportioned viola made by the master-namely, the corresponding instrument of the inlaid quintet. The moulds and other necessary patterns used in making , the violas of the "Tuscan" set are preserved in the Dalla Valle Collection, and we note with interest that Stradivari calls the larger one "tenore," the smaller "contralto"; the moulds are also lettered T.V. and C.V.. The distinctive titles favour the supposition that these two distinct types of violas were then generally recognised and known respectively by the names cited. These pairs of violas by Stradivari were doubtless intended to be played in compositions of the character of the "Sonata a cinque," by G. Legrenzi (1625-90), and the "Sonata Varie," by J. B. Vitali (1644-92).

A brief reference to the course which viola-making followed may prove instructive.

Before 1660 we find the makers -- Zanetto, Gasparo, Maggini, the Amati, and others -- frequently constructing the large viola, but very rarely the small one. From 1660 to 1700 the small viola was superseding the large one, though fewer violas of any kind were then made. Between 1700 and 1750 there was almost a cessation of viola making in all countries; this coincides with the dearth of chamber music composed at this period in which the viola was given a part.

We now pass on to 1696, which year gives us two remarkable violas-that of the quintet of inlaid instruments which for some years was owned by the Spanish King, Philip IV., and another known as the "Archinto," from having belonged to a Count of that name, who was also the owner of a Stradivari quartet. We presume he was the "Conte Giuseppe Archinto" to whom the well-known Alessandro Rolla dedicated some of his duets for violin and viola.

Inlaid Viola by StradivariThe inlaid tenor, illustrations of which we give, exhibits a masterly combination of choice material, appro- priate ornamentation, and refined style. The figure of the maple used for back, sides, and head is charming, and homogeneous throughout ; the beauty of the slender and wavy curls being shown up by the delicate golden varnish of perfect transparency and lightness of texture. The freshness of this instrument's appearance and its state of preservation are extraordinary ; the sound-holes and head convey the impression of their having been wrought but yesterday; even the black lines with which Stradivari out- lined the curves of the head are unworn, and the original neck still remains.

The "Archinto" viola is equally beautiful, presenting a number of interesting variations on the previous example, though the maple used is very similar; the arching of the model is fuller, the corners longer. These, added to the neat edge and graceful purfling, again reflect Amati's teaching. The head and sound-holes remain distinctly Stradivarian, and the varnish is of a lustrous red, perhaps the most brilliant in appearance of any used on the violas.

We now come to probably the best-known example of the violas-that named the "Macdonald," dated 1701-- It was brought to England at the end of the eighteenth century by the Marquis dalla Rosa, and was subsequently successively owned by Lord Macdonald, Mr. Goding, the Vicomte de janz6, and the Duc de Camposelice. A record in our possession made a century ago gives the date as of the year 1701, but at some later time the last two figures were clumsily altered to read 1720. So things remained until recently, when a slight repair necessitated the instrument being taken to pieces, and enabled us to critically examine the label. Pleasurable indeed was our surprise, on removing it, to find that the original ink had passed through the paper and clearly showed the traces of its correct date.

The style of this viola in certain details-the flat model, the squarer outline and corners, broad edge, and very sturdy aspect as a whole - plainly heralds that of many of Stradivari's later productions; but the rather small and slightly Amatise sound-holes and clean finish of the work are typical of the earlier period. The wood of the back is of one piece, of broad and moderately handsome curl, the sides and head matching; that of the belly shows a broad and well-marked grain; the instrument is well covered with the red varnish so favoured by the master (a red tinged with orange), and its state of preservation leaves no room for complaint.

We know of another viola which we should assign to the same period as the "Macdonald" ; but again the original figures have been tampered with and, in this instance, rendered illegible. It is in all essentials closely related to the "Macdonald." The only distinctive features calling for notice are the joined back in lieu of the whole one and the slightly inferior state of preservation.

The construction of the violas is more uniform than that of the violins or violoncellos, and a comparison of the tone gives a corresponding result- Any difference of tone in the violas is so slight that their quality in this respect may properly be treated collectively. We have shown that Stradivari adopted other principles of viola construction than those of Gasparo and the Amati; and, in consequence, the deep expansive volume and timbre of the Gasparo viola are very different to those of the Stradivari instrument.

In this we find a tone which reflects that of his violins in the clear and full woody quality, and in the easy and rapid articulation of the sounds, particularly on the G and C strings. There is, however, we consider, a deficiency in weight and reserve of tone in these two strings; and in listening to a Stradivari viola, associated with other fine instruments of the maker in the performance of a quartet, we have always felt, when a sonorous solo passage on the G and C strings was rendered, that the tone became tight and lost its resonance. In other words, the instrument was overtasked, and the player, with all possible skill and goodwill, could not, owing to the more limited resources of the Stradivari viola, emulate or support his colleagues' efforts.

The great similarity of the timbre in Stradivari's violins and violas deprives listeners, too, of variety in tone colour. The first and second violin parts of a string quartet naturally resemble each other in quality; therefore the viola part should in its timbre be distinctive from that of the violins, and partake of the qualities of the contralto rather than of the soprano voice.

The great composers, from Haydn onwards, have indicated by the nature of the solo passages allotted to the viola in their compositions how admirably they understood the true viola quality. One meets passage after passage which, for a perfect interpretation, requires the expressive plaintive quality-akin to that of the pure contralto voice-of the Gasparo, Maggini, or Amati viola. Nevertheless, the tone of the Stradivari viola must always command admiration for its beauty, purity, and easy enun- ciation, the demerits being such only as the expert would detect; and, from the point of view of the violinist-viola player, it must be admitted that the instrument is completely satisfactory.

From 1701 we pass to 1727 before meeting with another viola; other examples, the work of intervening years, may exist, but we have hitherto failed to discover them. In Gallay's curious and interesting book, "Un Inventaire sous la Terreur," a Stradivari viola dated 1710 was included in the list of instruments seized at the country house of Tavernier de Boulogne. (The instruments thus seized at the houses of the "Emigres," by order of the Revolutionary Government, were classified by the distinguished composer and violinist Bruni. We question whether he possessed the requisite expert knowledge to name correctly the makers of the instrurnents.) The instrument of this year (the last figure of the label has been touched, to make the inscription pass as 1721), though agreeing as a whole with its companion instruments, yet possesses some distinctive features, and may be said to be one of those examples in which the master presents familiar ideas employed in a fresh way. Stradivari had now reached old age, and the stiffness of the curves, in short, the whole character of the work, betrays the fact. The original traits of this instrument, however-the model, pretty small curl of the wood of the back, ample covering of fine varnish, and fine preservation-go to the making of what must be admitted to be a production marked by strong individuality.

The next example was made in 1731; and here again we find the original inscription falsified, the date, as in the previous instance, being altered to 1721. The label is of 1730-37 type, and the cunning falsifier, in order to hide this fact, cut out the lower half of the Roman v in "Stradivari"-one of the distinguishing features of the period of the label-so that it might pass as an accidentally mutilated letter of the previous type, as seen in pre-1730 labels.

Stradivarius Viola ScrollThough showing noticeable signs of an old man's hand in the finish of the work, this viola exhibits a well-conceived and broadly-carried-out design, in agreement with that of the "Macdonald." In fine preservation, its appearance is rendered specially attractive by a whole back of broad curl, and varnish of Stradivari's favourite orange-red colour picturesquely worn. In the early years of the nineteenth century this instrument was in the collection of Mr. Stephenson, the banker, and later passed into the hands of Corsby, the instrument-dealer, who in 1832-33 sold it to Paganini, the viola remaining with the great violinist until he died, when it was bought by Vuillaume. In 1833 Paganini's appreciation of the viola was the cause of his asking Berlioz to compose a solo for it, "Les Derniers Instants de Marie Stuart" being selected as a fitting theme (!) for the display of the virtuoso's extraordinary powers. Berlioz, happily, was soon afterwards inspired with a worthier subject-the symphony "Harold in Italy," which contains a fine solo part for the viola. Paganini, however, as was anticipated by Berlioz, neither approved of the part, nor would he play it; consequently, at the first performance of the symphony in Paris in 1834, it was played by C. Urhan, and by Henry Hill (uncle of the writers) on the corresponding occasion in London in 1848.

The last Stradivari viola in chronological order known to us is also of this period, though its original label is unfortunately wanting: we refer to the viola which is the property of the distinguished player Mr. Alfred Gibson; and those who have the pleasure of listening to his performances on it must admit that no artist could bring out its tonal qualities more effectively.

If we now review the violas as a whole, we find that their characteristics-i.e the wood, the colour of the varnish, and the principal features of the work and style-agree with those of the violins made during corresponding years, the "Macdonald" example being perhaps the chief exception.

Excluding the two instruments of large size (tenori), and the viola made in 1672, we see that the example dated 1690 served as the model for all its successors. There is a difference in length occasionally of one-eighth of an inch, but this is to be accounted for by a broader edge; and similar variations in the style led to other slight changes. Stradivari made all his viola heads of the same design as that of the Amati-a design originated, we believe, by Andrea Amati, and found on all their large-sized instruments.

Both Gasparo and Maggini used the violin form of head. But the viola head of Stradivari is formed like those of the violoncello, and is distinguished from that of the violin by the cheeks protruding instead of being flush where the neck emerges from the head, and by an extension of the fluting at the back. Though, as designed and made by the Amati, this head possesses perfection of form and workmanship, and is in complete harmony with the body of the instrument, it is unsuitable for the viola because it inconveniences the player's left hand. With the introduction of the smaller-sized viola it was necessary to proportionately diminish the head; and strangely in contrast with that fine sense of symmetry which Stradivari so frequently displayed, we here see a comparative failure-the scroll being too large for the box which it overhangs, and the whole being stunted and ill-proportioned. Still, in summing up the violas broadly, we must admit in them the same consummate mastery of Stradivari over his materials as is exhibited in his other productions. There is the same broad and aesthetic mode of treatment, and it is with the conception rather than with its working out that we find fault.

The violin having come to be recognised as the leading and most important of the stringed instruments, the viola occupied the attention of makers less and less. There was in existence at the commencement of Stradivari's career a considerable number of fine violas by Gasparo and the Amati, and in consequence the construction of violins and violoncellos afforded more scope for his exceptional powers.

We may mention that neither Joseph Guarnerius filius Andreae, Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu, nor Carlo Bergonzi appears to have made a single viola. David Tecchler of Rome, the maker of so many fine violoncellos, gives a little side information which is of interest here, when he records on the margin of his label, dated 1730, "La terza viola." Thus in upwards of forty years of his working life he had made only three violas.

It is our loss, we believe, that the influences of the time were not in sympathy with the viola. With a greater incentive Stradivari would have risen to the occasion, and we can imagine the result-a viola constructed on Maggini lines, about 16 3/4 inches in length of body, a combination of Brescian principles and his own ideas, with a tone which, while retaining Gasparo quality and sufficient sonority, would have had in addition some of that woody brilliancy so characteristic of the instruments of Stradivari.

For more information about violas in general, you may enjoy visiting these links:
Viola.Com website.
A copy of the 1690 Strad Viola
A copy of the 1701 "MacDonald" Viola
Copy of a sixteen inch Strad viola


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