I’ve been working on this design for several months. One of my customers contacted me to float the idea of a commission for a new model viola. She has one of my 15 inch two-cornered violas, which she is generally happy with, but felt that a new instrument with a few changes would suit her even better. She wanted an instrument even easier to get round, particularly to reach higher positions. Also she has a long neck and struggles constantly with finding the right chinrest and shoulder rest.
My idea was to make an asymmetric viola; not at all a new idea as a number of violin makers have developed this idea, notably David Rivinus with his Daliesque Pellegrina viola. I’ve become increasingly interested in the idea of asymmetry in violin making; some of my all-time favourite instruments, those of the early Brescian maker Gasparo da Salo, show no interest at all in matching up the left and the right side, and these sound fantastic. And the dendrochronological research on the fronts of historical instruments (dendrochronology is the science of dating wood by analysing the patterns of the annual rings, which like supermarket bar codes give data of the time and location of the tree’s growth) shows that often the two jointed halves of the fronts come from different trees of differing dates. So I was really enthusiastic about developing the idea of asymmetry even further.
I wanted to start with a simple shape, so picked as a basis a treble viol, scaled to the required body length. Then I squashed the outline so that there was less wood in the upper treble bout and more in the upper bass bout, then more wood in the lower treble bout and less in the lower bass. From there I drew and redrew, adjusting the proportions until it looked right.
To accommodate Liz’s long neck I will increase the rib depth from my normal standard, and the viola will have lower arching to fit with this. An interesting idea from David Rivinius’ work is to taper the ribs from bass to treble, so that the neck of the viola is canted significantly to the treble, meaning less twisting of the player’s left wrist as she reaches onto the C string. I was eager to try this, so I’m making the ribs significantly high on the bass side, tapering more than 10mm down to the treble, and still leaving a good height at the chinrest position.
We batted ideas backwards and forwards, and I sent Liz drawings of my proposal. She’s no slouch in the craft department herself, and sent me photos of a wonderful cardboard mock-up she made.
In early December I was ready to start work, and prepared the templates and mould. I spent a long time thinking through the implications of the tapered ribs, and prepared drawings of everything carefully in advance so that (I hope) there will be no nasty surprises as I proceed with the work. It’s quite strange making each corner block a different height.
With the ribs finished, it’s time to turn to the back and front. For the back I’ve chosen a nice piece of poplar with some attractive small knots. I often use poplar for violas and cellos; it’s a little lighter in weight than maple, always an advantage, and lends richness as well as an immediate, responsive quality to the sound of the instrument. The front is of spruce. I’ve continued the asymmetrical theme and jointed two pieces from different trees, as was commonly done on 18th century instruments. Both the pieces are quite broad-grained, which I think works well for violas, and I’ve used the slightly wider-grained piece for the bass side.
After roughing out the arching shapes, I’ve finalised the outline and then fitted the purfling, prior to finalising the arching shapes.
The arching is now finished. It’s slightly strange working on the asymmetric outline. I found that mostly it flowed quite logically but there were places where I instinctively left too much wood, until I checked by looking from the ends and could then correct. As the viola has quite deep ribs, I’ve left the arching correspondingly low to compensate, and I found that this low, strong arching fits well on the outline.
After arching comes thicknessing. It’s different for each instrument, depending on the weight and stiffness of the wood and the shape of the arching. I test frequently as I get close, tapping and listening, flexing the plate and weighing. This feels good now. Then the fun job of cutting the f-holes. I lined them up with the asymmetric outline, so the bass one is about 5mm higher than the treble. I think it’s really interesting how they actually seem to look much fresher and more cheerful than if they were perfectly matched. Indeed just like human faces.
The final stage of the body is to fit the bass bar, which reinforces the lower register of the viola. Then I take the ribs off the mould, finish the internal surfaces and glue the ribs first to the back, then the front.
I’ve now made the head of the viola, using the simple streamlined shape that I developed for my two-cornered 15 inch violas. That done, I fitted the neck into the body and spent some time shaping the neck so that it’s slim and comfortable for the player. The viola is now ready for varnishing.
I’ve now varnished the viola and set it up. Liz has asked for a couple of non-standard fittings; firstly geared pegs. After some discussion we have settled on the Wittner pegs. Not the most beautiful, but easy to turn (the mechanism is in the head) and they seem to have a nice smooth action allowing for easy accurate tuning. The other new-to-me is the Kréddle chinrest – completely adjustable as regards height and angle. It will be interesting to see how players react to these. As well as to the viola itself, which I’m dying to hear… Watch this space.
Liz is now in possession of her new viola. We’ve exchanged a number of emails since she picked it up, and this is what she’s written:
‘I love the darker sound and it blends really well with the rest of the section at orchestra. The viola is responsive and the tone is even across strings and registers. Although the viola is slightly heavier than my previous 15 inch it doesn’t cause a problem as it feels nicely balanced on my shoulder and the tapering doesn’t cause it to slide. Thanks to the tapered ribs I can now play with a curved third finger on the C string. Before it was always stretched out and flat – not good from a technique or strength point of view but I couldn’t curve it, it wasn’t long enough. Now it curves and it’s not because my finger’s suddenly got longer! Adapting to the tilted fingerboard has caused no problems for bowing – spiccato on the A string is fine and I’m not bowing into my knee when sitting.
Thanks to the reduced upper bout, I can now play in upper positions on any string I like. I no longer have to finger passages according to whether I can reach particular notes in a particular position but can play phrases wherever I like and works best. It’s liberating, and something most players take for granted!
The viola’s sound is developing fast and the tone colour and depth is really starting to come through. The instrument responds quickly to changes in dynamics, colour and articulation.
And tuning with geared pegs is a doddle. Wish I’d had them years ago.’