This viola is a commission from a player in London, a member of the London Lawyers’ Symphony Orchestra who has some arthritis in his hand and therefore needs a really manageable instrument. We met a couple of times and I was able to show him violas of different sizes. This was the one that felt the most comfortable for him; it has a short string length and the body is compact, but there is no sacrifice in quality of sound.
The viola model is based on a slightly larger Gasparo da Salo. Gasparo is one of my viola heroes. He worked in the north Italian town of Brescia in the sixteenth century and was one of the earliest recorded violin makers, specialising in violas. Most of his instruments were of the large tenor size, but this is one of the few smaller instruments he made. The work often looks crude but there is terrific life and vigour in the way they are made, and even though the execution often looks hasty, it’s clear that there is a firm sense of purpose and geometry behind the work. And more importantly, they sound great, pulling off the difficult combination of a rich, dark sound and projection.
I’ve started by making the rib assembly and carving the scroll. When these violas were made, technique was very different, with the viola resting on the arm of the player and high positions seldom used. All the original Gasparo heads are large, great for easy stringing but heavy. For this model, I’ve redrawn a Gasparo head only slightly larger than a violin head, so it’s light and neat but I hope still retains some of the flair and energy you see on the originals.
I’ve not started work on the back and front of the viola. The back is carved from a slab of maple that I bought in France a few years ago. It has an attractive subtle figure. The photo shows the arching roughed out. The front is of some beautiful, light spruce from northern Italy which a guitar-maker friend selected for me last year.
The next stage is to fit the purfling. This is made from three strips of wood glued together; pear dyed black separated by a strip of pale poplar. I cut a channel round the edge of the viola, bend and cut the purfling to fit and glue it in place. Subsequently I cut the fluting; a channel round the edge to drop the level of the purfling, which is then blended into the arching. After that I scrape the arching to its final finish.
With the outside of the back and front finished, I turn my attention to the inside, to finalise the thickness. This is one of the most critical parts of making the instrument. How thick the wood ends up will be different for each instrument; it depends on the arching shape, the density and the strength of the wood, and of course each individual piece of wood is different. I check the weight and also tap and flex the wood until I feel that everything is right. Too thick, the instrument will be dull and unresponsive; too thin, it may be difficult to control and uneven across the strings.
Then comes the pleasurable task of cutting the soundholes. These are like the eyes of the viola and give it a lot of its character. I like that they are not quite symmetrical, that there is a relationship between the two that’s not a mirror image. A bit like a human face; we look more normal when we’re a bit mismatched!
The final stage before starting to glue the instrument together is to fit the bassbar, which helps support the weight of the bridge and also reinforces the lower register of the viola. Then I take the ribs off the mould, finish the internal surfaces of the blocks and linings and glue the ribs to the back, and then the front to the ribs.
This done, I finish the edgework of the back and front and fit the neck. The final job before varnishing is to shape the neck. This is something I discussed carefully with the player the viola is destined for, and we’ve gone for a slim and elegant shape which should feel comfortable in the hand.
The viola is now finished. After applying a golden ground to enhance the wood, I put on a warm golden brown varnish. I’ve set up the viola and it’s working well; the sound is even and responsive, sweet and warm.