Where are all the old violas?

August 6, 2016 at 10:01 PM · As a new violin-to-viola transfer, I found myself in need of an instrument. In my month-long search for a 16-16.5 inch viola (which is nearing it's end!) I noticed something interesting. Most of the instruments offered to me seemed to be made in the past 20-30 years. Recalling my violin search many years ago, I remember trying instruments from a whole range of periods, 1800's to the present. However, out of the 30 or so violas I have tried, only two or three of them were made before 1980 (no, my viola price range is not significantly below my violin price range--quite easily the opposite)

The purpose of this thread is by no means to create yet another debate on new vs. old instruments (although the two finalists of my search are one new and one old...) but simply to wonder: why are there so many old violins, but so few old violas? Is it just simply a result of fewer instruments made, and therefore fewer survivors of time, or are there some nefarious anti-viola forces afoot? ;)

Replies (45)

August 6, 2016 at 10:12 PM · Maybe they were used as firewood?

August 6, 2016 at 10:15 PM · Wall decoration after the player retired, no longer able to play viola either...

August 6, 2016 at 10:49 PM · Well, there are 10 surviving Strad violas and about 500 violins, so that should give you an idea of the ratio of violas to violins.

August 7, 2016 at 12:35 AM · Kevin, the basses were used as firewood, the violas as kindling..

Cheers Carlo

August 7, 2016 at 01:28 AM · Burn baby, burn!

...I mean, uh... I dunno, maybe they grow up to be cellos?

August 7, 2016 at 03:57 AM · Violists take their violas with them to the grave.

They have always enjoyed the deep sound of the Viola....6 feet deep.

August 7, 2016 at 04:26 AM · Darwinism at work.

August 7, 2016 at 07:19 AM · A friend of mine plays a viola 'on long loan' from another friend, a Dutch lady whose father used to play and who had kept the instrument. So maybe they are kept as heirlooms?

August 7, 2016 at 09:03 AM · There are more people playing the violin than playing the viola : supply and demand. Not all instruments make it into old age and the fewer numbers of young violas mean even fewer numbers of old violas.

August 7, 2016 at 05:21 PM · There actually are stradivarius violas existing

August 7, 2016 at 07:41 PM · There are only ten working Strad "contralto" violas (ca. 16.25") left and only two "tenor" violas (19.25"!) with the same tuning. The Amatis and Gasparo da salo made more "tenors" but most have been cruelly cut down for playability, in the 18th & 19th centuries. Cellos got smaller for the same reason. The two distinct sizes corresponded to separate viola parts ("haute-contre" & "taille", or 1st & 2nd tenor in French Baroque vocal music). The smaller violas blend well in a classical string quartet, but the Romantic composers often complained bitterly about the very poor quality of both violist and their violas.

Professional viola sections improved immensely during the 20th century and this has had the happy result of stimulating creativity and originality amongst luthiers.

August 7, 2016 at 10:39 PM · @Seraphim, I had actually considered that. This might sound fatalistic, but I didn't go overboard buying my viola out of concern for my heirs. The money actually came from an inheritance so I admit it was hugely on my mind.

@Adrian, by reading the books by and on Arnold Steinhart/Guarneri Quartet, I found out that his violin is actually a cut down viola and Michael Tree's viola was also cut down.

August 8, 2016 at 06:43 AM · IN fact I had an old viola once - it was possibly around 1750. Had a good sound - but I sold it and bought a violin instead. It was 16.5 inches but I prefer violas around 15 inches, that play more like violins.

August 8, 2016 at 10:30 AM · They weren't that popular until the invention of the string quartet. I think that's from Stowell

August 8, 2016 at 10:57 AM · Some old violas are too small or too big, and dealers will not want them on their stocks. Many makers will prefer making violins and celli that are easier to sell too.

Even the viola production of old masters is relatevely small, Stradivari made less than 20 violas, del Gesù made no one.

August 8, 2016 at 11:42 AM · I knew Robin Stowell all those years ago. Played chamber musak with him in fact.

It is harder to sell a viola. (A bit like trying to sell your mother-in-law ...)

August 8, 2016 at 12:37 PM · Manfio seems to do OK selling violas!!

August 8, 2016 at 11:17 PM · I have not personally seen (live) or played any of Manfio's violas, but from comments, and from videos I have seen (and heard), they are spectacular.

August 9, 2016 at 12:58 AM · My theory is that the viola market was relatively small until perhaps 30-40 years ago, when lots of US orchestras started to have financial problems. Then it became fashionable for violinists to buy a decent viola so that they could "learn the clef" and thereby pick up more gigs. They needed good instruments to make up for the lack of experience generating tone and managing articulation on what is actually a significantly different beast (at least I have found it so). There are enough violinists that this surge in viola playing among violinists could have decimated the used market.

August 11, 2016 at 01:48 PM · It's also a nightmare for a dealer; try five old violas, and they will have quite different dimensions, and very different tonal qualities, far more so than five violins.

August 11, 2016 at 02:27 PM · As always, Paul is onto something.

August 11, 2016 at 10:34 PM · Also, the general time frame that violinists were starting to buy violas was somewhat before we were getting a lot of good instruments from China. Nowadays $5000 buys a pretty serviceable Chinese viola.

August 12, 2016 at 12:52 AM · Makers specialized in violas are a rather new thing, and violists are taking advantage of that.

The number of pro violists using modern or contemporary instruments is very big.

Tabea Zimmermann plays a modern viola, and she could get many many old ones if whe wanted to do so.

August 14, 2016 at 06:05 AM · That I'm not so sure about. The reality is there are not so many old top-level violas around. Soloists also have to be able to afford them. Being famous as a classical musician does not give you the income to afford a 20 million dollar Strad.

Cheers Carlo

August 14, 2016 at 05:44 PM · One possibility is that there has been a change in the sound that players have come to expect from violas. Is that unreasonable?

Living makers can adapt to that ... dead ones can't.

August 14, 2016 at 06:11 PM · @Paul, that seems plausable. Thinking about it, the oldest viola I considered (1923 Italian) had a very alto, violin-y sound, while the newer instruments seemed to have a deeper, cello-like sound. That being said, I did briefly try a 1741 Testore (not as a serious consideration) that seemed very balanced (although it did seem to me that it was in pieces for one point of its life, and had many repairs, maybe even more than one would expect for a 300-year old instrument)

@Luis, I did try one of your instruments, and liked it quite a bit! Visually stunning as well.

August 14, 2016 at 06:14 PM · It seems that violas are subjected to some "fashion" waves, and we makers are strongly affected by them.

So we had small violas (perhaps too small) in the 19th century and a good part of the 20th century , and in this period many violas that were considered "oversized" were reduced in size, sometimes drastically.

Then we had a period of too big violas. And the Tertis model, that I think is still a strong influence for many makers.

In 1940 the Wurlitzer Co. published a catalog of "Rare Violas". The first instrument in this catalog is a Gasparo da Salo, 17 1/2 inches, the price is not furnished. The second one is an Andrea Guarneri (16 3/8), for $5,000.00. There are Guadagnini's violas, one for $4.800,00 and other (14 5/8) for $6.000,00. I imagine that in today's market it would be difficult to find a Guadagnini viola that is more expensive than a much rare Andrea Guarneri viola.

August 14, 2016 at 11:09 PM · I was wondering whether violists today wanted something a lot "bigger and bolder" in terms of sound, not necessarily size, compared to yesteryear. Is the variable-size thing holding the viola back? Does it make the instrument harder to teach? Harder to learn? Or is the "fixed size" of the modern violin actually more of a problem?

August 15, 2016 at 01:43 AM · Your mom's an old Viola.

March 5, 2017 at 04:09 AM · I stumbled across this string while searching for current used viola info on current values. I own a 17.5 inch instrument built by Coit R. Hoechst in Pgh, PA 1936. It was my dad's, and I took it to Duquesne U many ages ago as a music ed major (bad path, ended up in the Navy for 27 years...). My dad played it in a quartet with Dr. Hoechst in the 50's/60's, and I seem to remember the old gent as having been a busy maker, altho I can only find one other Hoechst viola for sale. Anyone here know anything about these instruments? Once it's been played consistently for about 6 mos it returns to its original very deep voice with little of the nasal aspect of some others I've heard (I might be prejudiced about that...). I'd appreciate knowing any additional info about this instrument, thanks! v/r Don Squibb

March 7, 2017 at 01:18 AM · Don, what I can say is that a 17.5 viola is a quite big one, and so quite hard to sell today. 17 is already very difficult to sell.

March 8, 2017 at 01:10 AM · Indeed...I suppose I'm fortunate not to have been fighting with the thing as a performer for the past 40 years so my shoulders/arms are unaffected by it (other things yes, but not that). I'm not interested in selling (family heirloom etc), just curious if anyone else had run across instruments from this maker and could provide a value estimate. So value now is driven in part by usability; anything this big won't find much of a market. Approaching a second retirement in about 6 years, and coming to terms with this instrument will surely keep me busy...thank you for your response.

March 8, 2017 at 05:27 AM · IDK, old gardening equipment is hard to come by these days since most people frequent the shiny, new things:

Ask your neighbors if they have any old shovels lying around; good luck with your search!!


March 8, 2017 at 09:05 AM · My feeling is the viola market is ahead of the violin market in that viola players are not that obsessed with going broke and finding an pedigreed old instrument. Also because it is generally not a soloist's instrument and there is not the need to advertize yourself as playing on a Strad.

And indeed there are a couple of famous viola soloists who proudly play a 20th C instrument, such as Tabea Zimmermann. There are quite a bunch of exquisite viola builders these days.

March 8, 2017 at 11:19 AM · Yes Herman, you are right about that.

March 8, 2017 at 11:58 AM · Oh, you know, there have been a lot of winters since 1700. That should give you a clue where all the violas are...

Sorry, I couldn't resist, hahaha.

May 2, 2017 at 07:35 PM · That is so hilarious! I've got a great one for you: Why do Violin players tell Viola jokes? Because they are mean and insecure!

Isn't that so funny! Seriously. This is supposed to be an adult forum and you behave like kids in Middle School.

The original poster has a serious and relevant question. I found this posting because I am searching for information about Violas in preparation to buy one for my seventh grade daughter who is quite good at playing the viola and at least 4 other instruments.

She told me the Violin joke. I hope you get the point that Viola jokes are not funny. They do real harm to young musicians who want to support you in the ensemble.

May 2, 2017 at 08:00 PM · Bill, I looked back through the thread and I find viola jokes to be only a small part of the discussion. The best way to respond to a viola joke is "Ha ha! That's a good one!" And if viola jokes are the worst that your daughter is hearing in school, you should feel relieved.

If your daughter is not yet fully grown (which seems probable for a seventh grader) then you will want to be careful about the size of the viola you get. I play a 16" viola and I would not want to play a bigger one, and I'm 6 feet tall. Setup (chin rest, shoulder rest) etc. will be significant concerns to avoid stress on the body which is a bigger threat with the viola because of its larger size, relative to the violin. You should go to a good shop (like Potter's in Bethesda, or the comparable shop where you live) and talk about the size issue with a sales rep. And talk with her private teacher (the one who gives her lessons outside of school) too. Renting could be your best option for quite some time.

May 2, 2017 at 11:37 PM · Bill, does your daughter use a full-size violin? If so, I think a 15-15.5 viola is the best choice if she's still growing, unless she's a largish female who could easily manage a 16". Does she take viola lessons?

May 3, 2017 at 01:11 AM · Where ARE all the old violas? I have a Stainer model violin (from grandfather's attic) and I love it, but there is no comparable viola around that I can find?!?!?

May 3, 2017 at 01:52 AM · There are many interesting theories about new vs. old instruments. To me, the most fascinating, and perhaps the most promising is the 'evolutionary theory' that old instruments tend to sound better because the better sounding instruments survive the test of the ages.

For my own part, I believe that instruments mainly just are, and that the differences between makers, and even within different instruments by the same maker are as significant as 'old vs. new' variations.

As for old Violas, I think that until recently, it was more common to start out on a Violin, so there wasn't the plethora of 'beginner Violas' compared to the millions of Violins imported each year 100 years ago.

The Viola has a fascinating history, and there is much confusion about the instrument, including the conception that the modern viola is 'the wrong size'. http://www.harmanviolins.com/the-standard-viola.html

My experience is that anything under 16" is likely to sound muffled unless you are prepared to throw down some serious bucks. Workshop Violas can sound good when properly constructed, but tend to be heavy. Find a light one, that's been hot-rodded, and you'll do all right for a price less than a years worth of lessons.

The Violin is also a wonderful instrument, in fact it contends with the Electric Guitar, and Saxaphone as 'The American Instrument'. http://www.oconnormethod.com/A_Reemerging_American_Classical_Music.pdf

Ridiculing other's interests because they aren't your own is indefensible, and detracts from the credibility of the forum.

May 4, 2017 at 09:49 PM · The oldest may be in Twelfth Night

May 5, 2017 at 04:58 AM · That's the lady named Viola. This must be a joke.

May 5, 2017 at 12:34 PM · Your reply shows that the joke was a failure. I'm not giving you full marks for tact!

Would I have done any better with "long time passing"? Probably not.

May 6, 2017 at 11:42 PM · You are getting mad instead of looking at the real issue at hand!!

But I found my current 16.5" out in the shed with some rusted gardening equipment.

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