The desire for a “dark” timbre
The history of the viola is closely linked to the development of the other instruments in the violin family, which were first made in northern Italy between 1530 and 1550. It may be assumed that the alto, tenor and bass versions emerged soon after the soprano instrument. Illustrious names such as Andrea and Nicola Amati, Gasparo da Salò, Andrea Guarnieri and Antonio Stradivari were already associated with cities such as Milan, Brescia, Cremona and Venice at this time.
The names of all stringed instruments are derived from the term “viola”; in the 16th and 17th centuries it described two families of stringed instruments, the viola da braccio and the viola da gamba. The appellations da braccio and da gamba have two meanings; on the one hand they describe the playing position. Da braccio is Italian for “played on the arm” and refers to the horizontal playing position. Da gamba means “played at the leg” and refers to the vertical playing position.
On the other hand they also describe the two instruments’ characteristic construction: The viola da braccio, the forerunner of the instruments of the violin family, had low ribs, a rounded back, F-shaped sound holes, a fretless fingerboard, a neck raised from the body with a scroll and four strings across a curved bridge, which meant that they could be bowed individually. The viola da gamba had high ribs, a vaulted belly, a flat back and C or F-shaped sound holes. The body extended upwards toward the neck, the fingerboard had seven frets and the five to seven strings lay across a rather flat bridge which meant that the bow could play more than two adjacent strings at once.
In terms of construction and sound the violoncello also belongs to the violin family but is played da gamba.
The splitting of the middle register
In the 16th century it was customary for alto and tenor instruments to be made in different sizes but with exactly the same tuning. The alto and tenor versions of the viola were generally tuned as follows: C3, G3, D4, A4, in other words, the same tuning as the modern viola. This tuning was a fifth lower than the soprano tuning (G3, D4, A4, E5) and two fifths higher than the bass tuning (Bb1, F2, C3, G3). Because the alto and tenor tunings were so far apart from the bass tuning, larger instruments in the true tenor tuning (F2, C3, G3, D4) began to be made. Tenor violas in the “alto tuning” remained in use, however.
In 16th and 17th century France five-part string ensembles were the norm. The middle register was played by three violas in the same tuning but of various sizes (cinquième, haute-contre, taille). The court string ensemble called the 24 “violins du roi” laid the foundation for the five-part string orchestra.
There were, therefore, three types of instrument: the alto violas in the alto tuning, whose body (40–42 cm) corresponded to that of today’s standard; the tenor violas, 42–45 cm long, with a relatively short neck and in the same tuning; and the “genuine” tenor instruments tuned to F. The overlapping in the middle register was one of the most distinctive features of the string orchestra of that time and led to a reallocation of tasks in the period that followed.
Roles are clearly defined
The 17th century saw a shift in the requirements made of stringed instruments. The growing popularity of baroque opera also had consequences for the development of the orchestra: The need to project the splendor of baroque music and fill large rooms with it meant that the powerful and brilliant da braccio violins finally gained predominance over the softer and more mellow-sounding da gambas.
The composition of the string ensemble also changed, abandoning the five-part ensemble in favor of the four-part with two violins, an alto viola and a violoncello as bass. This development, which was completed in around 1750, signaled the death-knell of the tenor viola, which, although full-sounding, was not particularly agile. From the middle of the 18th century the violoncello, which was actually the violin family’s bass instrument, emerged to take on the role of playing the lower middle (tenor) register. The thumb position enabled the cello to rise high into the tenor (and even alto) range and bridge the gap left by the tenor viola. This new allocation of roles in the middle register contained the area of overlapping which has remained obligatory to this day.
The first instructional works for the viola began to appear in around 1780 and were written for experienced violinists, which demonstrates the great similarity of the two instruments’ playing techniques.
Modernization around 1800
Because music was now being performed more often in concert halls, and also because François Tourte (1747–1835) had strengthened the bow, a succession of changes to the construction of the instruments in the violin family, including the viola, were made at the turn of the 19th century. The strings were made heavier and their tension increased to improve projection; the neck was set at a slight backward angle to the body and was now longer, retaining the same circumference along its whole length to make it easier for the left hand to slide up and down to different positions. At the same time the body, bridge and bass bar were reinforced.
It was not until the end of the 19th century that the viola gained the same status as the violin. The great difficulty was to find the perfect balance between size and ease of playing, as is shown by several attempts to improve the instrument’s construction which led to the development of various different types of viola in the first half of the 20th century. Smaller instruments are easier to play, but their sound is too soft; larger instruments produce the desired volume but are harder to play. In 1875 Hermann Ritter made a so-called viola alta which had a body 48 cm long. Although Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss appreciated its powerful sound and made use of it in the orchestra, it presented the musicians with considerable difficulties – which were even detrimental to their health. In the 1930s the Englishman Lionel Tertis made a model with a 43 cm long body, which successfully combined size (= volume) and ease of playing. Its full, deep and warm sound was impressive. As a rule larger instruments (approx. 43 cm) are used by professional musicians, while smaller models (approx. 40 cm) are intended for amateurs.