The history of the viola relates to the development of the other instruments within the violin family. These were first made in northern Italy between 1530 and 1550. These regions include cities such as Milan, Brescia, Cremona, and Venice. The work of illustrious manufacturers such as Andrea and Nicola Amati, Gasparo da Salò, Andrea Guarnieri, and Antonio Stradivari relates to those cities at the time.
The viola is the mid-range instrument of the family. Many call it the “Big Fiddle”. Its place in the violin family is somewhat similar to the alto voice of a usual SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) set in a voice choir since it’s range is just below the soprano range. As a matter of fact, the French word for the viola is “l’alto”. We may assume the alto, tenor and bass versions of the violin family emerged soon after the original soprano instrument.
The viola’s distinctive sound
The sound produced by this instrument can be described as dark, stately, reedy, warm, and distinctive. This can be mostly attributed to its tuning. The strings tune to a fifth lower than the violin. That is, C3 for the fourth string, G3 on the third, D4 for the second, and A4 for the first. This means that the frequencies of the two instruments are in a ratio of 2:3.
If we would apply this ratio to the actual size of the instruments, the viola’s body would need to be 12 cm longer, around 54 cm. The normal size is around 42 cm long. In other words, the viola is small in proportion to its tuning, and this is the reason for its distinctive timbre. Additionally, the natural resonance of the body in relation to the tuning is on different places on the two instruments. On the violin, the natural resonance is about six halftones above the lowest note, on the viola, it’s eleven halftones.
Moving the bow over the string or plucking it with the right hand produces sound. Pressing down the string with the fingertips of the left hand on the fingerboard shortens the vibrating portion of the string. This raises the pitch.
To enhance performance quality, manufacturers use specific wood to build a viola. They choose spruce wood for the top part and maple for the back. The materials used to make the neck and the fingerboard are usually from ebony or maple. Much like a violin, the viola parts include the following components: scroll, tuning pegs, bolt, strings, neck, fingerboard, and body.