JAVS Fall 2023

Eclectic Violist

The Incredible and Fantastic History of the Cursed Viola by Laurent Zakowsky

You are a violist, and you can’t stand it any longer: you are fed up with the dubious jokes that circulate about you: that you are a failed violinist, or that the viola cannot be heard in the orchestra, and so much the better. The rare occasions when you don’t trigger the mockery against you are only when the person you are talking to doesn’t even know what a viola is. You then reply, a little ashamed, that it is a large violin, tuned a fifth lower and giving a deeper sound. The very vocabulary you use hurts you: you must describe your instrument in relation to another. Why shouldn’t it describe itself? You describe it as “below” and insist on the seriousness of the situation. Yet you love your instrument. In fact, you love it for what it is, despite the lack of consideration from which it and you suffer. Enough of this! It is time to restore your respective honors. Let’s start by setting the record straight: contrary to what is usually said, and at the risk of being surprising, the viola is not an instrument of the violin family! If this statement were true, it would suggest that the violin originated in northern Italy at the beginning of the 16th century and that it was created on a larger scale, the viola and the cello. However, in the absence of explicit documents, and even less so of instruments dating from this period, there is no reason to affirm this. In fact, everything suggests the opposite, for the following reason: when this family of instruments appeared, it was first called the family of violas da braccio to distinguish it from the already existing family of violas da gamba the two terms referring to the way the instruments were played, either on the arm or between the legs. Now, let’s just be logical: in Italian, violin is called violino , which means “small viol,” while cello means “large viol.” The two terms are therefore understood in relation to

a median instrument, which is neither small nor large, i.e. the viola proper. This viol is the viola, which in some languages has kept its original name: viola in Italian and English. And in German, we say “ bratsche, ” which refers to the end of the name: viola da braccio . So, it is not the viola that is an offspring of the violin, but the other way round. Violon alto means, in fact, «viol from the beginning, reduced and then enlarged to its original size.» This is as grotesque as if one were to say “large house” to refer simply to a house! So much for that! After this etymological argument, here is a mathematical and practical one. I said that the different names of the instruments refer to the way the instruments are played. But it can also refer to the way it is made— I am not talking about the fact that the instrument needs the arms of the violin maker to be made! I am talking about the way it is calculated. Indeed, until the establishment of the metric system at the end of the 18th century, each country had its own units of measurement: depending on the place, they were calculated in “inches,” “feet,” “arms”…. In Brescia, Lombardy, the supposed birthplace of the violin, I continue to use this instrument as a reference, but you have understood me correctly—the unit of measurement in force is the “Brescian arm,” corresponding to about seventy-two centimeters. It is also important to note that these units are broken down into twelve parts, and not into ten, as in our metric system, which makes it possible to obtain simple fractions directly (1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/6, 1/12). Let’s make an image: you are given a stick of a certain length; it is marked in quarters, thirds, etc. So. if you are asked to draw a line that measures a quarter of the stick,

Journal of the American Viola Society / Vol. 39, No. 2, Fall 2023


Made with FlippingBook Digital Publishing Software