Violas with Narrow Upper Bouts and High Ribs

December 22, 2017, 1:45 PM · Hi everyone, I'm just curious, but are there violas with narrow upper bouts and high ribs? Theoretically, I think it might be the best fit in a way for both playability and sound. What do you think?

Replies (21)

Edited: December 22, 2017, 5:09 PM · There are also asymmetric violas with the right upper bout narrower than the left - also easier to play advanced lit. The 15-15.5" violas I have seen seem to be thinner also seem to have higher ribs than my 16". Certainly easier to play for people with shorter arms and smaller hands.
December 22, 2017, 4:13 PM · From listening to many examples I have the impression that such shapes can lead to a boomy base with a reedy treble.
December 22, 2017, 4:46 PM · I think this description is more or less the idea behind the Tertis viola, isn't it?
December 22, 2017, 4:48 PM · It is, I think. I forgot all about it. We don't want a reedy upper register, but it can be a good way to add depth to a small viola plus the wide left bout.
December 22, 2017, 5:02 PM · I mean there is probably a way to combat the reediness, but not owning or having played a Tertis there is very little I can say from first hand experience.

This is a complete guess - but I wonder if the reedy upper register is in part due to Tertis's insistence on steel strings?

December 22, 2017, 5:03 PM · Look up Robert Spears’ ergo viola. Also, rib height is misunderstood by many. It really does not make that much of a difference compared to things like plate tuning and choice of fittings and rests.
December 22, 2017, 5:43 PM · Good point, Edward. I was thinking that rib height can increase depth of sound to an extent, but plate tuning and other factors contribute as well. I used to think that exceptionally deep sounding violins had exceptionally high ribs, but I learned that I was wrong by comparing the rib heights of two exceptionally deep sounding violins and noticing a difference in rib height, as well as two violins with different levels of depth with the same rib height.
December 23, 2017, 2:44 AM · The Tertis model is mainly identified by being more pear-shaped than the standard on account of having a wider lower bout and a flatter tail end. I've tried a few including one by Tertis's original maker Arthur Richardson which I thought sounded rather hollow, but it would be dangerous to generalise. Since the standard viola of up to 17" is technically too small for its pitch range (as compared with the violin and cello) many makers have attempted to find their own ideal compromise between depth and brilliance of sound and playability, but you really can't fit a quart into a pint pot.
December 23, 2017, 3:50 AM · Bernard Sabatier (Paris) makes two original models.

The best known is the 3-cornered assymetrical model, which sound especially good in the fractional sizes: the treble side is reduced, an the bass side much widened ad lengthened; but the balance of upeer and lower bouts is conserved, on both sides.

The other model, which I bought, is inspired by the Lyra-Viola of Gasparo da Salo (1561) in the Ashmolean Museuum, Oxford: 2 corners, the lower bouts swelling either side of the button, and wide middle and upper bouts; the shoulders are wide, but very rounded, and the arching is high. Semi-ergonomic?

Neither model sounds "reedy" and both have a warm tone.
My 15.75" "deux-coins" has a deep, powerful, plummy contralto sound, rather than the more baritone texture of the very long violas. The string length is only 14", as in many 15"violas: this suits my stubby fingers and ageing tendons.

He has also tried replacing maple with poplar wood, to slow down the wood resonances in the smaller models, with success.

I supect that the "reedy" sound of many pear-shaped violas comes from the imbalance of upper and lower bouts.

December 23, 2017, 12:23 PM · The violas Andrew talks about, with wide left upper bout and narrow right upper bout, sounds like a good idea, plus wide lower bouts, standard middle bouts and high ribs. Is it easy to get into the higher positions on Sabatier's violas? Is there lots of body to get around?
December 23, 2017, 2:27 PM · The assymetrical ones are easy, the "Lyra" models less so, but the tone is worth the trouble of finding ways of creeping up the fingerboard!
December 23, 2017, 3:10 PM · High ribs in the neck root can make the instrument uncomfortable in high positions. It may feel not good under the chin too.
For my viola model, I use 34mm in the neck root and 37 in the end pin.
December 23, 2017, 4:38 PM · SABATIER VIOLAS:

I tried a Sabatier once at a chamber music workshop. I expected some great sound, which I did not hear. But it is easier to get around!

Does the sound spectrum of a viola scale as does a violin's?
If so would one expect the higher overtones to be a fifth lower than a violin?
Would that put them in the "nasal" region?
Does the maker have to graduate a viola's plates differently to avoid this?
How would Sabatier have to do it on his unsymmetrical violas?

December 24, 2017, 3:20 AM · The assymetrical ones are best for the fractional sizes. The Lyra model is amazing for ca.16" violas.

Yes, to avoid nasality I think the plates can be thinner than those of a violin, but with higher arching for strength?

December 24, 2017, 6:11 AM · I beleive that the one person I know who bought an asymmetrical viola just got rid of it. Can’t remember the exact reasoning. Want to say it’s name started with a p.
December 24, 2017, 10:50 AM · Everyone has different preferences for comfort levels.
December 25, 2017, 10:23 AM · I have a Tertis model by Arthur Richardson at home.

The upper bouts of the model are actually much wider than usual. In fact, all three bouts are unusually wide, and the ribs are very tall.

I can give dimensions later if anyone is interested.

December 25, 2017, 10:32 AM · What do you think of the sound? It must be hard to play up high, right?
December 25, 2017, 2:15 PM · I don't play it much. Almost every dimension is unusually large, except string length. It is indeed hard for me to play up high. I have a friend who's about 6'6" and he finds it comfortable.
Edited: December 27, 2017, 2:25 AM · I read that that Richardson's Tertis-Model violas have a string length of 37mm, suitable for many of us, but Tertis later wanted 38.5cm (with a longer neck) and steel strings, which somewhat reduced their popularity.
December 26, 2017, 4:28 AM · Andrew, in suggesting thinner plates to avoid nasality, my logic was faulty! Lowering the wood resonances may well bring a "projecting" formant (e.g. +/- 2kHz) down into the nasal region (e.g. +/- 1.5kHz).

From my own amateur explorations, and the very scientific ones of C.M.Hutchins etc, the wood resonances below 1kHz are roughly a minor or major third below those of a violin, and depend mostly on the length of the body. Higher "timbral" formants seem to depend on smaller areas of the plates, and are almost impossible to predict. For violas Ms Hutchins favoured the wide-bodied Brescian models, and my symmetrical Sabatier viola supports this preference over the narrower "Strad" models.

There are 2 YouTubes videos of the same player, in the same conditions trying 2 Jay Haide violas: the "Strad" model sounds much more nasal than the corresponding "Maggini" model.

Ms Hutchins really upset Tertis, by pointing out that he had lowered the air-cavity resonance right down to F on the C-string but that the main wood resonance was still at F on the D string, due to the body length of "only" 16.75". Perhaps this would explain my earlier remark about a boomy bass with a detatched reedy treble.

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