Every year, the British Violin Making Association organises a Makers Day in London, a one-day exhibition of contemporary work. At this year’s event I found myself eating my hurried lunch sitting next to Ben Hebbert, the BVMA chairman. He whipped out his phone and showed me photos of an extraordinary viola. “I think you should make a copy of this”, he said, “I’ll lend it to you.”
The next time I was in London, I took up his offer of the loan and came home with this viola. It’s made by the Scottish maker Matthew Hardie, who worked in Edinburgh in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But he didn’t just start as we usually do, with fresh raw wood, he made his viola out of a viola da gamba by the London maker Richard Meares, c.1647 – 1725.
To us this seems like cannibalism, and completely unethical, but these were different times. Hardie was working at a time when there was a growing class of gentleman amateur players; Haydn’s string quartets had been published in the UK and these players needed instruments. If you could get one, a fine old Italian was of course the pinnacle, but if not, the English viols had a pretty good reputation, musically they were obsolete, and this one had a fair amount of woodworm, so if it hadn’t been so drastically adapted it might just have ended up as firewood.
So this is what Matthew Hardie did. He took as his model an enlargement of a long pattern Stradivari violin, made new ribs and scroll and cut the back and front of his viola from the Meares viol. Viols have flat backs so he had to mould the wood of the back to an arched shape in a former using hot sandbags to bend the wood, and then patched the middle of the back. The thickness of the edges of both back and front were built up by adding extra wood on the underside. The front was already arched but also had to be squashed and squeezed to shape. The decoration of the original viol survives, but on the front it is scraped away to give the arching shape down to the edges. Extraordinary.
I spent some time looking at the viola in my workshop, getting to know it and weighing up if and how I might approach it. It ticked a number of boxes; I make a lot of smaller violas, it has a bent rather than carved front, as do all viols, and this is a technique I often use, and I’m also familiar with decorating instruments. However, the model is very different, much narrower than I usually make, and the arching lower. The viola works, it’s been used by Peter Sheppard Skaerved to record Hans Werner Henze’s viola sonata http://www.peter-sheppard-skaerved.com/2016/06/henze-sonata-for-viola-piano/
Although most of my work is commissioned these days, I keep a little time free each year for the opportunity to try something different. So, ever up for a challenge, I decided that this is to be the one this year.
I made a new mould and templates for the viola, and then bent the ribs. Although I’m usually dubious that the narrow width works well for violas, I’m taking a chance and keeping to the original width of the body. It’s interesting to see that the viola has long C bouts, associated with a darker quality of sound, so I’m hoping this will compensate. Stradivari perhaps had this idea in mind with a cello that fascinates me, the late de Munck (which Steven Isserlis had on a long loan). That’s an exceptionally narrow cello, but again has long C bouts.
Ribs finished, I’ve started work on the back, using quarter-sawn figured maple as the original. But in one respect I’m not copying the original viola; rather than bending the wood for the back, I’m carving it from a solid piece. I’ve never really understood the value of bending the wood for backs (fronts are another matter) as the figure in the wood means the grain is already unrelated to the shape of the arching, so carved or bent, it’s much the same.
At the same time as working on the ribs, I’ve made the scroll. Again, I’m deviating from the original viola. Matthew Hardie made a scroll with shoulders for this viola – although it’s delicate and light, I’ve found that nevertheless players prefer scrolls without shoulders. So I’ve worked up a different scroll based on photographs of another Hardie viola.