Three years ago 3DVarius, a French firm from Toulouse, introduced the first electric viola created with 3D printing. Lightweight, made in a single piece and only needing 24 hours to be printed, this viola maintains all the features of a classical instrument (strings, bridge, neck...) enhanced by sound sensors. It’s the result of a huge ambition: to get as close as possible to the spirit of the instruments of Stradivari. However, between the model imagined by Antonio Stradivari and the unique design of these electric violas – that are almost 500 years apart – this instrument has undergone many transformations. How was the viola at the time of its creation? How much has its making process evolved? What are the latest innovations in the musical instrument field? Come with us on the amazing journey of the viola in the history of stringed instrument making.

Laurent Bernadac presents the 3DVarius
© Thomas Tetu -

The story begins in the North of Italy, around 1550. The first violin sees the light of day in Cremona, then the heart of the Italian stringed instrument making industry. Soon, its maker, the famed Andrea Amati, expands into the production of alto, tenor and bass versions of the violin.

At the time of its creation, the viola had a shorter and wider neck compared to today. This thick neck suited the way the instrument was played at the time, because usually only very basic scores were played, whose notes were concentrated on the first two positions (at the top of the neck). Violists performed without chin rest, which allowed them more freedom of movement at shoulder level. However, changes in playing technique and repertoire, as well as the transition from chamber music venues to large concert halls, created the need for sturdier and more powerful instruments. For this reason, explains Strasbourg luthier Guillaume Kessler, “the majority of antique violas started in Baroque shape and have since been modified to adapt to the demands of their times.”

It is easy to understand, then, that the development of the instrument originated in the demands of composers: innovations in composition led to the reworking of the manufacture. Many musicians collaborated with professional instrument makers, such as Corelli with Stradivari. Since the latter very rarely travelled outside of Cremona, Corelli regularly visited the master’s workshop, as did Vivaldi and Tartini. Their exchanges resulted in the lengthening and thinning of the neck, so much so that the high point of Stradivari’s research corresponds to that of Corelli’s writing, as clearly shown in his Sonata, Op.5, written in 1700. Little by little, the mainstream viola used as a dance accompaniment becomes, in the Romantic period, a solo instrument able to perform amazing technical feats.

Original viola shape, experimented on by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume around 1855
© Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels

But how is the process of crafting a viola different from the one of the other bowed instruments? Part of the answer is given by Kessler: “Compared to the violin or the cello, the viola is the member of the bowed string instruments family that best lends itself to experimentation. Because of this, many models have been made in absurd, almost preposterous shapes, but also in much simpler styles. The approach to the viola is much more open minded and because of this, artisans have always given free rein to their imagination. This is why it’s possible to speak about a continual development, without however affecting the original prototype in Cremona in the 18th century.” Even though ludicrous designs and more classic shapes have coexisted, the majority of the instruments in actual use belong to the latter category.

Meanwhile, the works of Romantic composers tend to explore the high notes and aim for higher sound power – as shown in the virtuosic Sonata per la Gran Viola e Orchestra, composed by Paganini in 1834 (performed by David Aaron Carpenter in the clip below). Because of this, stringed instrument makers replaced the gut strings of the Baroque instruments with metal strings, causing ever higher tension on the neck. The neck itself gets longer and thinner, to make playing easier and better manage the high register. The chin rest appears, facilitating the increasing virtuosity of the musician. Finally, French bow maker François Tourte creates the definitive version of the bow. The stick becomes longer, lighter and concave, allowing a more precise entry and a balanced, gentle, flexible and continuous sonority. The “Stradivari of the bow” – as string instrument maker Etienne Vatelot liked to call him – added a nut-and-bolt mechanism that allowed to tense the hair moving the screw back and forth. A perfectly tense horsehair offers a homogeneous, continuous sound and permits more control of subtle effects.

Today, finding authentic Baroque instruments is very difficult, because most of them have been “modernised” in the 19th century. With the artisanal job of instrument maker having been mechanised due to the advent of mass production, the modern viola became the new norm. Thais is because the instrument makers have standardised the ancient instruments a posteriori so that they would fit the new standards of precision.

Paradoxically, new Baroque violas are made today to respond to the demand from orchestras and students. When asked about this, Julien, senior student in Baroque viola at the Conservatory of Nice, tells us: “The rarity of antique instruments means that their prices are almost inaccessible. We have only two solutions: either we ‘Baroque-ise’ our classical viola, without knowing how it will sound once the changes have been made, or we get a new Baroque viola made from scratch.”

Today, viola makers experiment in all directions, from ancient designs to the most modern acoustics. Aside from the 3D revolution described at the beginning of this article, makers have also taken an electric turn, with electric amplification of bowed strings introduced around 1920 by American jazz player Stuff Smith, a long time before it became popular in the 1990s. If the sound quality has sometimes been lacking, the quality of today’s microphones is better and the problems encountered by Larsen (the unpleasant high-pitched whistles caused by the physical phenomenon of sound feedback) now belong mostly to the past. Regardless, this issue has been for a long time considered a catalyst for innovation: “I am a viola player and finding an electric instrument offering a convincing sound while allowing for amplification and electronic modification fitting the criteria of the other electric instruments on the market was for me a necessity“ says sound engineer and viola player Aurélien Bertrand, the inventor of the Zef, the first electric viola with a vibrating soundbox.

A prototype of Zef developed by Bodo Vosshenrich and Aurélien Bertrand
© Bodo Vosshenrich

Another invention: the addition of a fifth string to the viola. Seeing the scope of their instrument increasing, viola players can now embrace the possibility of playing both the violin and the viola! Actually, if it is easy for them to find again the fullness of the low notes that they know well, it is just as easy to explore the brilliant heights of a new E string.

3D printing, artificial intelligence, augmented reality… Today we don’t know which direction stringed instruments’ making will follow in the future. One thing is certain: the viola has been and always will be fertile ground for experimentation.

Translated from French by Laura Volpi.