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A brief history of the viola

“Yes, a violist! he repeated as if the strings family suddenly had no secret for him anymore, though a few minutes before he ignored the existence of this instrument. He, that now seemed to know that the viola was the ancestor of the string instruments, that the body of this instrument measures from thirty-eight to forty-three centimetres, that its playing corresponds to the one of the violin, though it is harder to make it sound with virtuosity, that many violas sizes of the XVII th century were bigger, since the necessity of a solid tenor instrument for the writing for five-strings instruments, such as it was performed in those times; instruments the parts of which could never go lower than C, which used to be played leaning on the arm, the score of which was written in Tenor clef and Alto clef, and the most famous of which remains the viola medicea made by Stradivarius for the Duke of Toscana; that, since the writing for strings got reduced to four parts in the XVIII th century, those instruments vanished, except the alto violo, generally too small to reach the C note: hence the many attempts to transform the viola in the XIX th century: Dubois’ tenor viola, Vuillaume’s contralto, Rotter’s viola alta, Stelzner’s violetto — all instruments far too difficult to play, and that did not stand out more than the arpeggione to which Franz Schubert dedicated a sonata now performed on a cello. He also seemed to know, this father fervently watching me with a glitter of victory in the eye, that the XX th century stringed-instrument makers have accepted that improving the viola could be done only by conserving the traditional measures of the instrument: they’ve reached such remarkable results that its sonority is superior to many of the previous ones, even if every violist will dream of playing on an instrument made by Brescia’s school, on a Gasparo Da Salo dating back to 1560, for instance.”

Richard Millet, La voix d’alto ©Gallimard

“An autumnal voice”

“A whole repertoire (…) it would only be up to me to illustrate it, he added, with this instrument, that, now I knew, did not have the bright virtuoso of the violin nor the pathos of the cello, even less the meditative dimension of the viola da gamba, but that is a beautiful instrument gifted with an autumnal voice, that passes on in both a virile and feminine way, able to make emotion emerge without claiming for it, a little distant — very modern indeed —, with a warmth either motherly or drier according to its making — Italian or French —, and to the way it spreads out the sound or tends to keep it if its top is flat or curved (…).”

Richard Millet, La voix d’alto ©Gallimard