A question for the Violists

May 31, 2017, 2:25 PM · Recently reading an article on symphonic strings I noted that the general theory is that a viola should have a 21 inch body to equal the violin. It turns out that a 1/8 Cello has a 21 inch body so it could, in theory, be tuned as a viola and played (baroque style) between the knees bowed like a cello.

The question comes up: Has any professional violist actually used a 1/8 cello as a Viola? If so what was the reaction as well as the sound quality?

Replies (21)

May 31, 2017, 4:11 PM · It would then sound like a 1/8th cello and not a 'common' Viola.

The problem is the viola is supposed to either have it's own sound, or sound in line with the violins to support them (opposed to the cello), depending on who you ask. There is a fashionable dislike for violas that sound like cellos - see the discussion about tertis violas from a couple weeks ago.

Also there is a common conception of what a viola sounds like, and this effects how it is used in composition.

I know I didn't really answer your question, but I did offer related thoughts :)

May 31, 2017, 4:20 PM · I personally want a deep dark growl in a viola, usually not found in anything below 16.5', but there is also the issue of the bulk of a 1/8 cello.

The ribs are quite a bit thicker, as is the overall wood, and how would you find a chin rest to fit it? :D

May 31, 2017, 4:24 PM · A.O,

To be fair he did specify played between the knees, such as a Tenor Viol :P

May 31, 2017, 4:47 PM · It's a matter of personal preference. Some people like violas to sound like a deep violin with a C string (that's me, I don't like the G, D and A strings to be overly deep). Some people look for a middle-of-the-groud sound, and others prefer a more cello-like sound.
May 31, 2017, 6:41 PM · There's an instrument called "Alto violin", that is basically a 21" violin with viola tuning. It's held between the knees, like a cello. I personally consider that both violas and altos sound really nice. They could be used for different kind of roles; the viola could play more melancolic pieces, and the alto could play more heroic or bright works.
May 31, 2017, 9:07 PM · I used to tune my daughter'so 1/8 cello on my shoulder like a violin.
June 1, 2017, 3:42 AM · The small cello would sound like a small cello, and not like a viola.

Yo Yo Ma recorded Bartok's viola concerto on a vertical viola, but he is a soloist, he can do what he wants.

If you want to make a career as a violist, you will have to play an orthodox viola, the vertical viola will not be accepted in an orchestra, I think, it would blend well with the other violas.

Edited: June 1, 2017, 3:57 PM · A 21" viola is just too cumbersome! (Although, if I remember correctly, violist extraordinaire, tiny little Lillian Fuchs, who was less than 5' tall, played a 20" viola and made the beast obey her every whim! and beautifully!!!!!) The difference between a viola and a cello of the same belly size is that the ribs are far deeper in the cello, making a far deeper (more resonant) sound. The question you pose has been nagging at luthiers ever since the viola came into existence.
June 1, 2017, 5:13 PM · @Joel: Fuchs' viola was a 15 5/8', but she was about 5'0". :)

At 5'4", I can deal with 17', so it is more about hand flexibility than height, unless you play a completely enormous monster where your arms can't reach unless you are tall (although, I could just reach the intervals on a 18.9', but the weight required of the right hand was too much for my smaller arms). :D

Edited: June 1, 2017, 7:57 PM · If Memory serves, Yoyo Ma played the Bartok on an upright alto and said it was definitely not cello technique. I don't know of him playing it since.
I believe that many of the Chicago Symphony violists play 17" plus ( not the principals though I may well be mistaken.)
I tried the 1/2 size cello and did not like it at all. Btw I'm 5'6" and had beastly intonation problems with a 16 3/4". R Strauss was brutal and double stops below 5th were VERY limited for my physique.
Keep in mind that a 15-15.5" are right in line with Hutchins' plate tuned mezzo which has 3 strings in common with the viola.
I find my 15.5" EHRoth to be more lively than most other violas in the sections I play in. Many of my colleagues are very taken with its playability and sound.
On another point, in the golden age of development, there were small and large violas. Each could serve different roles in the consort.
June 2, 2017, 1:15 AM · If your arm is stretched out to its full length to play a large viola then you are stymied. The elbow must be bent, as it always is on the violin, or tension and other problems are made apparent. You need a viola tailored to your arm length and body size, not the other way around.
June 2, 2017, 5:24 AM · Getting round a giant viola can be fun, but one can't stop and rest or stretch in the middle of a 3-hour rehearsal, let alone a concert (nor a 5- hour Wagner opera unless physiotherapists were available in the intervals...)

George, I wondered the same thing, although I was thinking more in terms of a 1/16 cello! Perhaps it could be played Da Spalla fashion? I notice that Carleen Hutchins' Alto, Tenor, and Baritone violins have noticeably shallower ribs than one might expect, as does the Mezzo which replaces the standard violin. This must avoid having too great an interval between the air-cavity resonance and the main plate resonance: this is a problem with the genuine Tertis Model violas: booming bass with stringy treble.
Also can one find a 1/8 or 1/16 cello of sufficient quality to judge the result?

June 2, 2017, 8:25 AM · You would have to be at least 10 feet tall to stand any chance of playing an 18 inch viola. M Monroe would probably have fancied you though ...
Edited: June 2, 2017, 8:51 AM · The maker of one of my violins, the late Henry Meisner, made himself an 18 inch viola that he played to get a big and deep sound. Since it was for himself alone he didn't even bother to add purfling. I only saw it once, when we played in the support orchestra for Blomstedt's conducting master class - before he became music director of the San Francisco Symphony.
June 2, 2017, 3:15 PM · @Peter: No, you are fine on a 19' if about 6'6", so a 21' would fit basketball players perfectly fine. :)

Incidentally, I think the ideal viola would actually be about 23', since a violin that probably supports the G string would be 15.5'.

15.5x1.5=22.75' as fully playable viola with no loss of C string quality in any way (standard model).

June 2, 2017, 9:16 PM · Vertical viola is a fun idea, but it's so unpopular.
June 3, 2017, 10:13 AM · As violists often hold their violas lower on the chest than violinists, why not use the Da Spalla technique, with a guitar-type strap, but still keeping the scroll low to allow nearly "normal" bowing? The tail button would be near the right shoulder (hence the name). One could open the left hand and the fingers would come in perpendicular to the neck like a guitarist.
June 3, 2017, 12:39 PM · The theory that a bigger viola would produce a deeper sound isn't necessarily true. An instrument with a greater surface area produces more output than a similar small instrument, but the perception of tonal depth is also greatly influenced by the air in the body of the instrument.

Using mathematical or musical dimensions to scale an instrument up in size doesn't always produce the desired result because the resonances of the wood and of the body don't scale proportionally.

I think the old masters got it pretty close to correct with the old (and confusingly named) tenor violas that were about 18 1/2" long. Anything larger begins to take on a more cello-like quality

June 3, 2017, 2:33 PM · It's easy to enlargen the air cavity (high ribs and arching, wide bouts, moderate f-holes) and bring that resonance down from Bb on the G-string to F on th C-string, as in the Tertis model violas, but the main wood resonance, F-F# on the D-string is difficult to lower by the same amount without a body over 20" long: hence the New Octet Alto Violin.
In fact, to keep these resonances in proportion, the Alto Violin (like its companions) have shallower ribs than expected, in both Carleen Hutchins' as well as Robert Spear's octet instruments.
June 3, 2017, 2:43 PM · Yes, but as a result of lower ribs, they still do not support the G string, they simply have darker tones in general. :)
Edited: June 18, 2017, 2:16 PM · That's not what I hear in the demos. As far as I can see, all the New Octet instruments have lower ribs but larger plates than their traditional counterparts. Their lowest strings are fabulous, and they are well balanced across their ranges.

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