Controversial acceptance of the variability of size has given the viola the potential to enjoy a somewhat broader tonal focus. The viola is the only member of the modern violin group whose variability of basic dimension is the norm, a situation that has often led to disagreement amongst both players and makers, and not least the mistaken suggestion that the viola is too small to fully express its intended register.
The ‘viola’ was originally an integral part of a larger consort of instruments that made up the early violin family in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Two distinct forms, the smaller alto and the larger tenor, both shared a common tuning, although it has been speculated that the largest of these instruments may have been tuned down a fifth to encompass a tenor register. The larger ‘tenor’ instruments seem to have had only a brief existence at the end of the 16th century, eventually their role superseded, as the rapidly developing bass of the group, which as a consequence of improvements in string manufacture, eventually gave rise to the violoncello during the mid 17th century. This, together with the emergence of an advanced shifting technique, resulted in the violoncello with its longer string length which being better suited to express this register.
However, the concept of an instrument of two different proportions intended to express the same contralto register, is an inheritance that has, ironically, been preserved by virtue of the violas neglect during intervening centuries, and is one that has proved too enduring to ignore. Add to this a player’s natural dimensional capabilities blended with particular personal preference, then controversy soon follows; 'what is the ideal size of viola?', continues to be a popular topic among both players and makers.
Devotees of the smaller instrument often talk of an acute tonal focus, whilst players preferring a larger model relish the delights of the violas natural tenor qualities. In reality each size has its own particular ‘voice’, only the model and the maker’s ability will determine the resulting quality of any instrument. A good tonal focus may easily be achieved in the larger models, whilst each different size of viola will have its own tonal spectrum and timbre. Ultimately, this should be seen as an important contribution to the broader tonal landscape expressed by an instrument that is unique in using different instrument sizes expressing the same register.
Current preferences seem to re enforce older divisions, players preferring either the 16 – 16¼ inch, or the 16¾ - 17 inch models. Ironically, call for instruments of a middling size has appeared limited, perhaps players preferring either to extend themselves to a larger model, or to play comfortably on the smaller size of instrument. But this is now changing, with the 16½ inch increasingly finding its way into my order book. Of course, this perceived preference for either a smaller or larger size may also be the result of trends among makers who do not feel confident in establishing their own patterns, and have as a consequence found difficulty in finding suitably sized older examples to copy, thereby further limiting the choice available. A player, who is perhaps best suited to a particular size instrument, has often been faced with the decision of either going above this size or below it, depending upon availability, and also the variability, between different models.
Agricola, tuning scales, 1529
Even at this early time the alto and tenor share the same tuning, distinctive timbres given by difference in instrument size. Agricola was very clear about this ‘for I tell you truly that the alto and the tenor are always the same ...[tuning]’
The potential of this often misunderstood, sometimes maligned instrument, began to be realized during the course of the last century, perhaps now during this current period we are beginning to witness the ‘Renaissance of the Viola’.