Baroque Viola?

August 19, 2017, 1:34 PM · We have a fair amount of discussion on baroque violins, and how they differ from modern ones. As a violist, I am curious about baroque violas. What were they like, and what was the bow like? Were they simply like baroque violins and bows only larger, or, ....? Any insight is welcome.

Replies (28)

Edited: August 19, 2017, 1:58 PM · They were huge! Around 18", and often refered to as "tenors" rather than "altos". Some of Maggini, Gasparo da Salo, and Andrea Amati's tenors have survived, many having been cut shorter to make them more playable.

Chez Stradivari, only two of his Viola Tenore survive, but there are about ten Viola Contralto in circulation (out of around twenty he built).

Orchestral music, especially in France, often had two viola parts, (corresponding in vocal music to two tenor parts: Haute-Contre and Taille) for the two sizes of viola.

Apart from this, the construction and setup corresponds to that of the baroque violin. But a plain gut C must have sounded like a cow with a sore throat..

August 19, 2017, 2:00 PM · Here is a video of members of the Freiburger Baroque Orchestra playing Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 6 for 2 violas. In my view this concerto is as good a reason as any for learning the viola!

Edited: August 19, 2017, 2:23 PM · there were roughly two categories, alto like a modern viola in size and tenor being quite larger (like 18" etc), It seems the tenors were intended to be tuned lower. A lot of tenors were cut down to regular alto sizes over time. Not an expert on this but I believe the historical baroque viola differed in much the same way the historical baroque violin differed from modern.
August 19, 2017, 2:23 PM · I understood that the Tenors were tuned the same as the Altos.
The 19th and 20th century attempts to introduce an instrument one octave lower than the violin are often refered to as "tenor violins".
August 19, 2017, 2:26 PM · You'd have to consult an expert, that was what I thought, that tenors were tuned lower, some of them were much larger like 20" I think too, the strings would break at viola tuning??
August 19, 2017, 6:17 PM · There's both a tenor and an alto violin in the new violin octet family, tuned a 4th apart.
August 19, 2017, 6:23 PM · We're talking about the historical baroque era.
August 19, 2017, 7:44 PM · Thanks. This has been helpful. I guess the follow-up question is, if I wanted to buy an alto baroque viola (e.g., a modern copy), who sells them. Also, can you get baroque viola bows (modern copies) for that sort of instrument. What do violists who play in period instrument groups do?
August 19, 2017, 8:56 PM · Antique baroque or transition violas are rare and hard to find, you might consider Jay Haide instruments, I'm not sure they make a baroque viola, but they definitely make baroque violins, and I would not be surprised if the made violas too, about $3000, maybe a bit more, I would guess.
August 19, 2017, 9:00 PM · I checked Jay Haide's website and there is no mention of a baroque viola, only violin.
August 19, 2017, 9:56 PM · Hi Tom,
Corilon has a "Baroque Viola" on offer. I have no idea if the authenticity is reliable.
Edited: August 19, 2017, 10:16 PM · corilion is fairly reliable on attributions, their prices are not below market value by much, though, but a baroque viola is hard to come by. Circle of Josef Klotz doesn't mean anything other than anon maker working in Mittenwald where Josef Klotz worked IMHO
August 19, 2017, 10:13 PM · I was very curious about the Baroque viola so I purchased one similar to this one on eBay, in fact the same model. The finger board is shorter and the tail piece is made of maple and a fine tuner will not fit into the tail piece. This viola sound fine with gut strings, sweet and gentle very nice to listen to. But there is not enough depth and timbre due to the smaller body so I sold it. Here is the link,

Edited: August 19, 2017, 10:41 PM · That is not an instrument for a professional player!! And is not really baroque, either, I'm pretty sure the neck is not nailed on and at the right angle etc. the fingerboard doesn't appear wedged, and the tailgut does not go through the top of the tailpiece, etc.
Edited: August 20, 2017, 8:13 AM · So, if I decided to join a period instrument group as a violist (and G-d have mercy on that group), what would I do to get a proper viola and bow? Or would I just use my modern viola with gut strings?
August 20, 2017, 8:55 AM · Tom, if you string your regular viola with gut I think you'd certainly need a baroque bow to play baroque music in at least an approximation to the style of, and then you'd be 95% of the way there. Whether the remaining 5%, whatever that is, is going to be noticeable under normal playing conditions is a matter for debate (got to keep this thread going!). Depending on how you get on, and your enthusiasm, you may well decide at a later stage to invest in the real thing, but by then most of the initial hard graft in the baroque field should be behind you.

As for playing SR-less and/or CR-less, that is a matter for the individual player IMO, especially because the viola is that much bigger and heavier than the violin.

August 20, 2017, 9:37 AM · Trevor - where would I get a baroque viola vow? Or would using a baroque violin bow work? Thx.
Edited: August 20, 2017, 10:36 AM · I would argue with the 95% figure, I think gut strings on a modern and baroque bow would get you about 75% of the way there, not 95%.

There's still the issue of the shorter neck, wedged fingerboard, flatter arched bridge (often lower as well) not to mention the lighter dimension bass bar, that's a lot of factors that have a major influence on playing, not 5%.

August 20, 2017, 10:19 AM · I'd look into viol bows.
August 20, 2017, 10:41 AM · A modern viola can be built to use gut strings. The bass bar is made a light smaller, something like 2 mm lower and the FFs can be cut in a Amati style.
The neck can be designed like a modern viola so there's no need to learn how to play with a baroque neck.
One viola like this was made these days by Marcos Schmitz, a young brazilian luthier. It was tested in the OSESP orchestra, by the violist Peter Pas, and was considered excelent.
In this acustic test was used Passione strings.
Edited: August 20, 2017, 5:39 PM · Lyndon, in my view, 95% of percentages and statistics unsupported by numerical data should never be taken literally ;)
August 20, 2017, 10:53 AM · Tom, if you're the other side of the Atlantic to me then I regret I wouldn't be able to advise you in your quest for a baroque viola bow. All I can suggest initially is our old friend Mr Google.
August 20, 2017, 12:01 PM · Thx, Trevor. I am, indeed, on the other side of the pond.
Edited: August 20, 2017, 12:41 PM · Andre that's not the kind of viola we're talking about, we're talking about original baroque style viola with unwound solid gut strings, smaller bass bar, wedged fingerboard etc, you're talking about a modern viola with wound gut/synthetic strings.
August 20, 2017, 1:25 PM · Hi Lyndon,
There are others ways to play a viola in a baroque way. One of them is build an instrument in order to sound like a baroqe one but can be play like a modern one.
Gut strings in a viola are normally plain in A and D. I prefer G and C to be wound, gut or not. C string unwounded is a lot thicker.
August 20, 2017, 1:29 PM · I disagree.
August 20, 2017, 2:03 PM · you're not a baroque violist unless you're playing on a baroque viola with baroque type bow, otherwise you're just a modern violist playing baroque music.
September 3, 2017, 4:50 PM · I think there might be a difference in whether you are 90% "there" in tone and playability vs. the appearance of your instrument. You can deflect attention from the appearance of your viola by wearing period costume.

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