Viola sizes, in fact sizes in general

Posted By on October 18, 2011

Somebody recently asked me for a 5/8 size violin – which I don’t possess – and it set me to thinking about the sizeist bullying that many players are subject to. There really shouldn’t be any hard and fast rules about sizes. Play what’s comfortable and you’ll play better. I know of a professional violinist in a major orchestra who uses a viola bow – he says he gets a more powerful tone as a result. And I know of the opposite, a viola player who uses a violin bow – she says she finds it less tiring. Who am I to disagree? Nobody notices unless it’s pointed out to them.

So this 5/8 size violin . . . no, a ½ size or a ¾ size wouldn’t do: it had to be exactly right for the child. And yet young piano players don’t get half-size or whatever pianos to learn on; they just have to get on with it. If they can’t reach, well, they play something that doesn’t demand such big hands. It used to be the same for violinists, too, for most of the 18th and 19th century virtuosi learnt their craft on full-sized violins. Child’s violins are largely an invention of the early 20th Century – this is quite different from the small-sized violin called the violino piccolo used by Bach, for example in the first Brandenberg concerto.

With violas the problem continues into adulthood. There’s a school of thought which says you can’t be serious about playing the viola unless you have an instrument of at least 16 in. (or 40cm.) body length. And yet I’ve sold three excellent small English violas, by Forster, Banks and Kennedy, to satisfied but surprised clients. All of them shared the common difficulty of finding some of the left-hand stretches uncomfortable, and all wanted a small instrument that sounded good. Their surprise stemmed from the fact that the instruments sounded so good.

Violas are, by their very nature, compromise instruments. In the seventeenth century there were two types of different sizes; altos (about 15 in.) and tenors (perhaps 17in.): today’s 16in instrument lies somewhere between the two.

Here are a few commonsense facts about small violas.

1) They are normally more powerful than larger instruments. Think. Small violins, like those by Guarneri, tend to be even more powerful than normal-sized ones by Stradivari. Violins are just as loud as cellos, and louder than double basses. Acoustic volume is not dependent upon physical volume. A tiny shepherd’s shawm, with a similar reed to that of an oboe or a bassoon, is far louder than either of these.

2) This is still true for the lowest string, the C string. All else being equal, the C string of a small viola is, actually, louder than that of a large viola. That’s the big surprise.

3) Of course a smaller viola will sound less like a cello than a bigger one. That’s the inevitable consequence. But it’ll still sound different from a violin, and be able to play the viola repertoire.

Viola by Fendt

Now I’ve got a yet another small English viola. It’s by Bernhard Simon Fendt, made between 1798 and 1809. Its body is 15 3/16 in. (385mm.) long, with a string length of 13 7/8 in. (351mm.). It has, in common with most instruments made by Fendt, a one-piece table with wide, not particularly straight grain on the bass side. It’s in excellent condition, and still retains a one-piece bottom rib. It’s going to sound wonderful.

It was made while he was working for Thomas Dodd, and has a huge original label inside:

Actually the label’s not like this: it’s impossible to photograph and this is the best I could do. The real label has a large image of a bass with its bow in the middle.

Purely coincidentally, just now I have a violin and a cello by B.S. Fendt for sale as well.

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