Your Source for Information about the New Violin Family and the Octavivo Organization

. . . Of Historical Interest . . .

In this section we present what we believe to be the most comprehensive collection of information on historical and modern attemps at creating new violin families or restoring old ones.


  • Historical
  • Other
    New Families
  • Léo Sir's
  • New Violin
  • Dr. Carleen


Chapter One:

Individual Efforts and Instruments

In this chapter, we'll write about the reasons a vibrant and diverse 17th-century family of stringed instruments shriveled down to just a handful that have survived into the present time. We'll also give an overview of the efforts made by some individuals since then to restore various individual instruments, mostly in the middle voices. In Chapter Two, the focus will be more on individuals or groups who attempted to restore or recreate entire new violin families.

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Woodcut of early stringed instrumentsThere has been ample opportunity throughout the history of bowed string instruments to create ensembles similar to the modern New Violin Family octet. Indeed, the practice of building instruments in families is centuries old. We can start by looking at Michael Praetorius' epic work, Syntagma Musicum, published at Wolfenbeuttel in 1619, to get an idea of the state of the violin family at that time (see woodcut, right). Incidentally, many musicologists referred to Renaissance violins as the "new" violin family to distinguish them from the "old" family of viols!

Note the definitely non-violin shapes of numbers 1 and 2, which Praetorius calls "small 'pocket' violins, one octave higher". Number 3, the "Discant violin, a fourth higher", is obviously in a transitional state since its outline is more elaborate than the violin outline and reminiscent of the viola d'amore. Number 4, the "proper or 'correct' discant violin" is near to our modern violin, while the instrument labeled 5, "Tenor-violin," scales out to about the size of the tenor viola. Number 6 is probably a small cello with an added string tuned to a high E. Praetorius indicates that it was intended to be played on the shoulder ("da Bracio"[sic])! Due to its size, this type of instrument was played guitar-like, hanging from a strap around the player's neck.

The difference in size of the instruments shown by Praetorius indicates that quite a wide range of octaves was possible, even given the technical limitations of string making in that day. Since Syntagma Musicum was published in 1619, and the earliest violins date from the 1520s or 1530s, we can assume that the violin was then about 100 years old. Praetorius noted that the violin "family" had become so well-known and attained such widespread use that he did not think it was necessary to describe them! Because the woodcut from Syntagma Musicum includes a measurement reference in Brunswick inches, we can tell the sizes of the instruments quite closely. Most of them fall very nearly at the optimal size for their musical compass, and several turn out to be almost exactly the size of their counterparts in the "New Violin Family" developed by Carleen Hutchins and the Catgut Acoustical Society over 325 years later.

Although considered members of the same family, a close look at the woodcut will show that many of the instruments are dissimilar in shape and even in the number of strings, and that the development of the violin family was still in progress. Nevertheless, we see available counterparts to the treble, soprano, mezzo, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass violins of the late 20th century. Although we do not have records of an ensemble that regularly used all the available instruments for the widest possible range, the potential certainly existed. Praetorious deals with the contabasses of his time on a separate page, as we will, too, since they are not violins but more properly members of the viol family.

The String Quintet.

Stradivari's tenor viola "Medicea"The standard string ensemble up through roughly the middle of the 17th century was a quintet consisting of a small-pattern violin, a large (or grand-pattern) violin, a small contralto viola, a large tenor viola, and a bass (a large cello). Cellos also came in many different sizes, some of them varying considerably. Mersenne, writing 20 years after Praetorius, said that in France the string quintet consisted of one violin, three violas of differing sizes all tuned alike, and a bass violin. Absent is the true tenor voice-- an instrument an octave below the violin with all violin dimensions doubled. Quintet violins were tuned alike and read the same clef, which was true of the violas as well. We are not sure if the smallest violin was ever the "descant violin a fourth higher" as described by Praetorius, but the possibility of this seems to have been higher in France than in Italy.

A tenor viola "Medicea" by Antonio Stradivari is shown to the left, above. It has a body length of about 18.5" (480 mm). Only a few tenors beside this example survive into the present unaltered. These include a 482 mm model by Andrea Guarneri in the National Music Museum (USA), a 470 mm model by Andrea Amati at the Ashmolean Museum, and a beautifully preserved example by Jacob Stainer in the National Music Museum (USA). The rest have been lost or cut down in size. The Medicea tenor has survived more than three centuries in remarkably fine condition: it looks almost as it did when it left the Stradivari workshop in 1690. Its excellent condition is likely because the tenor viola was already obsolete when this instrument was delivered. Consequently, it was probably not played much before going into storage.

Many composers of the day wrote in open score, which means a given part was notated in the clef designating the equivalent vocal range without indicating which instrument was to play it. Thus, an instrument tuned as an alto could be called a tenor if it were used to play the tenor part and possessed the range of notes called for in the score. In fact, any instrument that possessed the desired range could play the part, which has led to some confusion about what these instruments were actually called, how they were tuned, and in which clef they were normally written.

Changes in Musical Style.

In the latter half of the 17th century, as the Renaisssance turned into the Baroque era, a great change in musical style swept across all of Europe. While the causes underlying this change are too many to discuss at length here, in general the dense and complex style of polyphonic writing with its relatively narrow range for individual instruments was giving way to a more open style that achieved its characteristic sound by eliminating many of the inner voices and replacing them with a single continuo instrument, usually a lute, an organ, a cembalo, or a harpsichord. Instruments were being improved to the point where many had ranges much greater than any human voice could match, and some overlapping instrumental voices became redundant. Instruments that were weak, lacked range, had tonal deficiencies, or were difficult to play were discarded.

This process was so pervasive that it practically left the string family with just two members, the violin (now the only soprano instrument) and the cello, the traditional bass of the family. Trio sonatas,which do not call for violas at all, and later trios for piano, violin, and cello became the rage. Popular demand for middle-voice instruments dropped alarmingly. A quick look at the output of the Stradivari shop will suffice to make the point, bearing in mind that Stradivari (1646 - 1737) is a contemporary of J. S. Bach. Of the total output of the Stradivari shop, about 680 violins remain. There are somewhere between 65 and 70 surviving cellos, but only about 14 contralto violas, and one or two tenors. David Tecchler (1666 - 1748), an Austrian violin maker in Italy whose career spans over 50 years, made only three violas. Some makers, such as Guarnieri del Gesu, made no violas at all, presumably due to a lack of demand.

The compostional style moved away from themes stated in the middle voices to melodies almost always placed in the highest voice. As this style gained in popularity, we see the loss of very high-voice instruments such as the soprano and piccolo violin, and middle-voice instruments such as the tenor viola and tenor violin. And almost immediately we see the first of many efforts to return at least some of these instruments to popular use, beginning within the lifetime of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Individual Instruments: Bach's Viola Pomposa.

Bach's deep-ribbed viola pomposaIt should come as no surprise that if anyone would endeavor to save the tenor viola, it would be Bach, who was well-versed in five-part string writing and who played the viola himself. He loved its sound, and he much enjoyed sitting in the violist's chair in the middle of the orchestra where he could best hear the harmonies all around him. Forkel, writing in the late 18th century, was the first to promote the connection between Bach and the viola pomposa, although other researchers say that evidence of Bach's involvement is scant. There is no doubt, however, that the instrument was developed in Bach's lifetime and used most visibly in Leipzig, the city where he worked.

Bender cites a credible report that in 1724, shortly after Bach became the Kapellmeister of the St. Thomas Kirche in Leipzig, he commissioned the Leipzig Court violin maker, Johann Christian Hoffmann, to build his design for a viola pomposa. This instrument appears to have been lost, but another like it, constructed by Hoffmann in 1732, survived at least into the early 20th century. The pomposa had five strings tuned CGDAE and a rib height of 38 mm-- quite similar to that of a standard viola. It seems to have been intended for playing on the shoulder, but it was large enough that it would have been tiring to play this way. A viola pomposa from 1741 by the Leipzig Court violin maker Johann Christian Hoffman is shown above, most likely for Johann Sebastian Bach. Slightly more than an inch longer overall than Stradivari's Medicea tenor viola, this instrument might well have been called a tenor according to naming conventions of the day.

Some academics believe that the viola pomposa is a confused connection with the five-string violoncello piccolo, which is quite possibly the same instrument in the same tuning but with an extremely deep rib height of 80 mm as shown in the illustration, above left. At least one such model was constructed by Hoffmann in the 1730s and called for as the "piccolo" cello in a number of Bach's Leipzig cantatas. Bender says both versions of the pomposa were held by a strap in front of the chest or leaned on the right shoulder in a manner similar to the Italian viola da spalla. But even someone of Bach's stature could not hold back the tide of a much simpler style that was even championed by two of his own sons, and by the end of the 18th century, the viola pomposa and the violoncello piccolo were seen and heard no more.

The J. B. Vuillaume Contralto:

Vuillaume's wide contralto (viola)Half a century later, the great French violin maker, J. B. Vuillaume (1798-1875), presented his improved middle voice, which he called, simply enough, the contralto. Vuillaume made over 3,000 instruments during his productive life, including a small soprano violin circa 1850 and three giant basses called Octobasse that were 3.5 meters in height and required either a two-man crew or a player who could bow with one hand, operate a series of levers with the other, and depress a set of pedals with his foot-- all at once! Of interest here, however, is that Vuillaume is the first luthier we know of to incorporate scientific findings into his work, which occurred as a result of his association with the French acoustician, Felix Savart.

The contralto viola designed and built by J. B. Vuillaume in 1855 is shown on the left. Despite the considerable skills of its maker and the input of Felix Savart, the greatest acoustician of the time, the conflicting problems of viola size and ergonomic considerations could not be resolved by an instrument played on the shoulder

The contralto viola had an unremarkable body length of about 16 1/4" (about 420 mm), but the bout dimensions were widened by half again in an effort to bring the air resonance of the body cavity a fifth lower into the range needed for a theoretically correct viola. The contralto was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in 1855. Needless to say, the instrument presented severe challenges to the player, and reaching anything above third position was all but impossible. We think only two or three contraltos were constructed, including one that does not have the gamba-like curve seen here at the neck joint. As with many such attempts to increase the air volume while keeping everything else more or less the same, the tonal results were disappointing. The contralto's role in musical life was brief: an example can be seen at the Musee de la Musique in Paris.

Alfred Stelzner's Violotta:

Stelzner's violottaWhile many of the individuals mentioned in this section were primarily concerned with improving the weak alto voice, there were a few who worked on other related instruments. One such was the German violinist, mathematician, and physicist, Dr. Alfred Stelzner (1852-1906), who designed the violotta, an instrument tuned an octave below the violin to fill in the vacant space for the tenor voice in the string quartet. Stelzner's doctoral studies released his passion for acoustics, and he thought instruments designed with more elliptical curves would prove to be tonally superior. He also felt that a different shape of the f-hole eyes would be more conducive to sound transmission. Note the unusual and beautiful carving of the eyes in this example. Stelzner invented a second instrument, the cellone, that was tuned one octave below the violotta, placing it between the cello and contrabass. He also redesigned the conventional violin, viola, and cello according to his acoustic theories.

Stelzner worked with German luthiers Richard Wiedemann and Augustus Paulus who made the instruments to his specifications. The violotta, while tuned as a tenor, had a viola-size body of only 410 mm. It could be played on the shoulder despite its high arching, 60 mm rib height, and wide bouts. The rather odd choice to specify such a low tuning on a small viola body perhaps continues the mischief inadvertently started by the Italians when they called a large alto instrument a "tenor." Several hundred instruments on Stelzner's designs were produced at a factory in Wiesbaden and later at another in Dresden. Unfortunately, much of the factory's unsold production and documents associated with Stelzner's business were warehoused in Dresden, a city that was utterly destroyed by allied fire-bombing during World War II. James Christiansen was able to document only about twenty Stelzner instruments that have survived into the present.

Some notable musicians, including Joseph Joachim, Max Schillings, Eugène Ysaÿe, Frtiz Kreisler, August Wilhemj, and David Popper were impressed with the violotta, and the composers Krug, Behm, Kaletzsch, Gerspacher, and Draeseke wrote for it. Sadly, just a few works were composed. One could only wish it had been otherwise since German Romantic writing was in full flower and most of these seldom-heard works are quite beautiful. Stelzner suffered some devastating financial reverses and took his own life in 1906 while still a relatively young man. After his death, no one else stepped forward to promote the violotta and the cellone, and their popularity waned.

Hermann Ritter's Viola Alta:

Ritter's viola altaAnother attempt at restoring the tenor viola toward the end of the 19th century was made by German violist and music historian Hermann Ritter (1849 - 1926), who had his model built for him the by the violin maker Karl Adam Hoerlein in Wurzburg. Ritter had knowledge of an obscure manuscript on the geometric principles of violin design by Antonio Bagatella, printed in 1782 in Padua, Italy, in which Bagatella claimed to have discovered Stradivari's method for designing his violins. Although Ritter was able to incorporate Bagatella's principles in the design of the viola alta, it does not closely resemble a Stradivari viola. But we should conceed that the resulting instrument is in fact an enlarged violin that must be recognized as an historical predecessor of the New Violin Family alto. Bender says that the viola alta's cello-like tone was a departure from the conventional viola sound, although one that was welcomed by composer Richard Wagner and conductor Hans von Bulow, among others. Wagner, whose search for instruments with new tonal colors is well known, understood that he was hearing something different than just another large viola, for he called Ritter's instrument the "Altgeige." This reference, using the German words for "alto violin," is not surprising considering the nearly optimum size of Ritter's design.

A small number of Ritter's violas were included in a few orchestras where they bolstered the conventional violas in the lowest register. Wagner asked for six for the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, and we know that at one time at least five, played by Ritter's students, were seated. It's too bad that there was no recording technology available that would enable us to hear what those six big altos sounded like playing together in section!

Hermann RitterIn general, however, violists of the day who were asked to take on the Ritter viola viewed the large instrument with dismay, and they could not cope with its size. Ritter added an E string in 1898, following the earlier approach of J. S Bach with the viola pomposa, and shortened the model to 454 mm to make it easier to play. Ritter was not an imposing figure, but he was tall with long arms and apparently quite able to handle the 480 mm (18.9") body length of his original model. Carl Smith, who plays a Ritter alto, said that Ritter compared "playing his alto to riding a horse, as opposed to a donkey. Most donkey riders fell off a horse when they first rode it. Lots of them chose to go back to the donkey." After Ritter's death the viola alta faded away. Michael Balling (1866 - 1925) was a great proponent of the viola alta and played concerts on it all over the world. Today, only a few players continue to use the instrument and hold it on their shoulders, most notably Smith, a native of Binghamton, New York, now living in Graz, Austria, and Masatoshi Hirano of Tokyo, Japan.

Hiller's Viola Nova:

Not much is known about Hiller. We have not been able to even learn his first name. Our scant historical resources tell us that Hiller was a Swabian state building contractor and a musician with unusual characteristics. His wife, Marja, was a fine painter. Hiller, who had no artistic training, could copy anything she painted so exactly no one could tell the difference. Von Albrecht relates that Hiller was a good and enthusiastic cellist, but that he could not read a note of music. However, if he heard the cello part played even once, he would immediately have it memorized and could play it back without error. Hiller also made violins, and the viola nova was his invention. It was first introduced in 1926. We include Hiller here because his large alto was specifically designed to be played on a pin like a cello, although he was neither the first nor the last to arrive at this solution. The contralto violin developed by Léo and Léon Sir in France about twenty years earlier was also played on a pin (more about the Sirs in Chapter Three).

Bender notes that when the maker places such an instrument on a pin, rather than on the shoulder, he merely trades one set of problems for another. Hiller's viola nova of 1926 was a flop because, to paraphrase Bender, the violists could not play it, and the cellists would not play it. However, Von Albrecht, himself a cellist, spoke well of Hiller's invention, saying it did away with the notorious nasal twang of the standard viola. Unfortunately, we have been unable to find a photograph of this instrument or its creator.

Eugen Sprenger's alto and tenor:

The Frankfurt violin maker Eugen Sprenger had a couple of innovations to contribute in the early years of the 20th century. Some were more successful than others. His first effort was along traditional lines followed by others before him of lowering the pitch of the air tone by widening the bouts and increasing the viola rib height to 60 mm while keeping a standard body length. Sprenger's viola, created in 1930, turned out fairly well; reports speak of its dark tone and strength. Paul Hindemith played on a Sprenger viola and wrote pieces that called for it. Like many such attempts, Sprenger's viola had its moment in the sun before most musicians returned to conventional Italian-style altos.

A bit earlier, in 1926, Sprenger built his first violoncello tenore. It was a true octave violin, with all violin dimensions doubled. At about 720 mm in body length, the tenore was uncomfortably close in size to a standard B-form cello, although tuned a fifth higher. Sprenger's name for his instrument didn't stick because it was obvious that the instrument was not a small cello, but rather a large violin. Owing to its scaled dimensions, it arrived on the musical scene already in a highly perfected form. The main obstacle for the tenor violin is that there seems to be very little music written specifically for its tuning range, even though its singing voice makes it a natural solo instrument. Most seem to forget that because of its octave tuning, every piece of violin literature is playable on the tenor.

Lionel Tertis' Viola:

Lionel Tertis was especially fond of the sound of the bigger violas, and he was in many ways responsible for the emergence of the viola as a solo instrument in its own right in the 20th century. His favorite viola was his 1737 Montagnana over 17" in length, which he learned to play despite his relatively small stature. He understood that many other violists also appreciated the sound of the bigger viola but could not physically manage the size, so he designed his own model at 16.75" (about 425 mm). Most of Tertis' work on his viola model occurred after his first retirement in 1937 in a sometimes volatile relationship with luthier Arthur Richardson, who made over 100 violas on his design. Unlike many others who attempted to create improved violas as a commercial project, Tertis did not seek financial reward from his invention. The Tertis model had its time and found its proponents, and several other luthiers are known to have made them. Some are still in use today. In general, though, Tertis' viola is now considered to be too wide, too long, and with ribs too high for extended periods of comfortable playing.

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Chapter Two:

New Families in the 19th Century


In this chapter, we'll look more closely at the attempts of earlier makers, musicians, and other groups to either recreate or reinstate the violin family entirely or in part and explore some of the reasons why their efforts did not succeed.

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Almost all families of instruments have undergone contractions in the past. We have, for example, trombones and trumpets in different sizes and ranges, but these see limited use in our times. The family of oboe, English horn, and bassoon, with the possible exception of the contrabassoon, are so different from one another that their only common feature might be the use of the double reed. The weak-sounding larger flutes barely hang on. Only among the most modern of instruments, specifically the clarinets and saxophones, does the concept of family retain a solid manifestation. Yet despite the reduction of the violin family to two or three instruments by the early 1800s, the concept of a full family of stringed instruments is one that has never been completely abandoned over the centuries.

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After the decline of the great center of violin making in Cremona in the late 18th century, the development of the violin all but ceased. There was a brief flurry of activity in the earliest years of the 19th century when the demands of pedagogy became strong enough to warrant a wholesale abandonment of Baroque-style setup. The wedged, veneered, and decorated fingerboard, and the use of wrought nails to secure the neck to the body, were discarded in favor of the mortised and glued neck with a plain and solid ebony fingerboard. The neck was angled back to compensate for the loss of the old-style fingerboard wedge, and both neck and fingerboard were lengthened to permit even higher notes to be played by the new violin virtuousi arriving on the musical scene.

The change required that the old scroll be sawed off and grafted to a new neck. This task is now considered a delicate job for only the most skilled of workmen, but the alteration was once so common that it was generally carried out by apprentices. Internally, the bass bar was replaced with a longer and heavier version, ostensibly to better bear the increased downward tension of the steel strings that were coming into use. These alterations occurred over a very narrow period of time and seem almost faddish in haste. So complete were the conversions that it is now rare to find a Baroque violin in its original state.

A perhaps unintended consequence of these alterations was that the acoustic changes were better on instruments with lower and flatter archings than on the older models with higher archings. In fact, it is not until this point in time that the instruments of Stardivari and Guarneri, now so esteemed by all string players, began to be considered superior to the earlier works of the Amati family and Jacob Stainer. The Stradivari violin then became considered a perfected instrument that could no longer be improved in any way. This is the violin that has come down to us in the early 21st century. It has remained essentially unchanged for several hundred years while improvements to most other musical instruments have come in a continuous stream.

Flickerings of the Past.

During the transition from the Baroque through the Stile Gallant to the Classical era that increasingly called for light (and lightly scored) music, it seems we can always sense a certain restlessness among composers struggling to work with an incomplete and imbalanced complement of stringed instruments. Mozart wrote some wonderful string quintets, but he had to use two alto violas because the tenor viola had gone out of style. Beethoven studied composition at a time when quintet writing was still taught as a useful exercise, but if tenors of any variety were still around, he did not call for them. Brahms wrote several marvelous two-viola quintets and two stunning sextets for strings, but the latter were really works for a double string trio of two violins, two alto violas, and two cellos. And of course we must mention the composer Boccherini, a virtuoso cellist and a contemporary of Haydn working in the somewhat musically isolated court of Archbishop Don Luis in Madrid. Although later famous for his hundred string quartets, Boccherini composed even more quintets for strings--, 125 in all-- that often called for a second cello instead of the tenor viola. The only complete Stradivari quintet in the world is kept today at the royal palace in Madrid, and it consists of two violins, one alto viola, and two cellos.

There were some other large chamber works for strings written in this time, most notably Mendelssohn's delightful (and youthful) Octet, but if one looks at this piece and others like it, right up to the Prelude and Scherzo for string octet written in 1925 by Dmitri Shostakovich, it becomes obvious that the composers were not writing for an octet of different instruments, but rather for a double string quartet. The idea of restoring the lost middle voices, or of expanding the range of the family with completely new instruments, was something that most composers did not pursue with any fervor, although we suspect that if the lost instruments were at hand and good musicians were available to play them, we would have seen the composers writing for them as the Romantic era developed.

Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach (1685 - 1750) seems to have been particularly active in his attempts to retain some of the instrumental voices that were being pushed out during the last decades of his life. He might have had a hand in creating both the viola pomposa, a large 5-string viola, and the violoncello piccolo, a variation of the same instrument with deeper ribs and a more cello-like sound. He also wrote important parts for an instrument he called the violino piccolo that was about the size of our modern soprano violin and tuned variously a third or fourth higher than the standard violin. Bach's efforts might almost be seen as a rear guard action against the inevitable assault of events, but even a composer of his stature could not prevent the attrition of the string family. See more on this aspect of Bach in Chapter One.

J. B. Vuillaume.

The noted French violin maker, J. B. Vuillaume (1798-1875), presented his improved middle voice, which he called the contralto, to produce the sound of the big tenor viola from a smaller body. He constructed a few of these, but they were so difficult to play that he soon gave up on the design. He made three giant three-string basses called Octobasse that were 3.5 meters in height (see photo, right), and at least one small soprano-like violin that we know of. In this we probably do not see a strong effort to reestablish an expanded violin family, but more the influence of the great French acoustician, Felix Savart, who worked with Vuillaume for a time in the early 19th century. There seems to have been no effort made to promote the instruments as a cohesive family or have compositions especially written for them as a group.

Alfred Stelzner.

The German violinist, mathematician, and physicist, Dr. Alfred Stelzner (1852-1906), designed the violotta, an instrument tuned an octave below the violin. Stelzner intended it to fill in the vacant space for the tenor voice in the string quartet. Stelzner developed a second instrument, the cellone, that was tuned one octave below the violotta, a kind of chamber bass in the range between the cello and contrabass. He also modified the conventional violin, viola, and cello according to his acoustic theories, in effect creating a family of five new or redesigned instruments-- the violin, viola, violotta, cello, and cellone.

Some notable musicians, including Joseph Joachim, Max Schillings, Eugène Ysaÿe, Fritz Kreisler, August Wilhemj, and David Popper were impressed with the violotta, and the composers Krug, Behm, Kaletzsch, Gerspacher, and Draeseke wrote for it. Not many works were composed that included the cellone, as far as we know, but a few were written that called for all five of Stelzner's designs. Things might have gone differently given a strong and sustained promotional effort by Stelzner, but he died at a relatively early age and whatever momentum had been gained was lost.

Eugen Sprenger.

In the early part of the 20th century, Eugen Sprenger in Germany made another effort to reconstitute the string family. In 1926, Sprenger built his first violoncello tenore. It was a true octave violin, with all violin dimensions doubled. At about 720 mm in body length, his tenore was uncomfortably close in size to a standard B-form cello but tuned a fifth higher (the B-form cellos were 750 mm, or about an inch longer than the tenore). Sprenger's reference to the cello in the name he picked for this instrument didn't stick because it was obvious that the instrument was not a small cello, but rather a large violin. Sprenger's large viola, created in 1930, also turned out well; reports speak favorably of its dark tone and strength. Paul Hindemith played on a Sprenger viola and wrote pieces that called for it. But once again, in the absence of some sort of organization or group formed to promote these new instruments, they attracted little interest and in time were forgotten.

August Diehl and Lloyd Loar.

August Diehl (1852-1922) created a tenor viola that was the personal instrument of Lloyd Loar (1886 - 1943), an active performer, inventor, and acoustical engineer at the Gibson Guitar Company in the 1920s. Diehl came from a family of violin makers that included his father, Friedrich, his grandfather, Nicolaus, and his uncle, Jacob. August worked with his father in Darmstadt until he was about 23, and then he moved to Hamburg to take over Jacob's shop. Although he lived in Germany his entire life, Diehl won gold medals for his violins at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

We do not know how this large viola came into Loar's possession, but it might possibly have been through his friendship with the violin makers Joseph and John Virzi of New York, importers of fine German bowed instruments. Loar, a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, also had a strong background in math and acoustics. He was responsible for introducing plate tap-tuning to Gibson’s guitar and mandolin lines. Loar’s 18-7/8 inch (480 mm) tenor viola was made in 1878 and was originally intended to be played on the shoulder. Although not formally trained as an instrument maker, Loar is known to have made mandolins as part of his research work. He made several modifications to his Diehl viola, and the one that gets the instrument noted here was the installation of a cello-style endpin for vertical playing. We have not been able to find an earlier alto fitted this way, making this possibly the first "vertical viola."

Unlike some of the other examples presented in this chapter, Loar's association with big violas seems to have been entirely personal. He worked mostly on improving plucked, fretted, and electric instruments and made no effort to promote or popularize his exceptional tenor viola. Loar died unexpectedly in the summer of 1943 and his Diehl viola went into storage for 62 years. Eventually it came into the possession of Roger Siminoff, a friend of Loar's widow. It was played again by Patrick Tobin at Siminoff's wedding on October 2, 2004, as shown in the photo above, right.

Ramón Parramón Castany.

One last endeavor deserves our consideration, that of Parramón of Barcelona, Spain. Ramón Parramón Castany was born in Montesquiu, Barcelona in 1880. Principally a cellist and businessman, he opened his Barcelona workshop in 1908. Luthier Jacinto Pinto, who was trained by Laberte and Magnié in Mirecourt, France, was employed by Parramón beginning in 1920. After 1921, all the firm's instruments were made by Pinto, including Parramon's patented tenor viola. Despite the name, this instrument was more akin to the large alto violins of Hutchins and others, and it was tuned the same as a viola and read alto clef. In the picture, left, Parramón is shown playing one of his instruments. Since the instruments are on the large side, the cellist's left and right-hand techniques are well suited for playing.

The first of Parramón's tenors was built in February 1932. Eventually, tenors were available in three quality grades and two models that varied slightly in body length from 20 to 21 inches (508 - 533 mm). The ribs were between 3 and 4 inches tall (76 - 101.6 mm) resulting in an instrument sized like a 1/4 child’s cello but lighter in construction. Parramón shop records indicate that 55 of these instruments were made between 1932 and 1935. Other details are incomplete due to the destruction that occurred with the Spanish civil war.

Jordi Pinto, Jacinto's son, indicates that one instrument (#55) was returned after being destroyed in shipment. Two tenors are still in the Parramón shop on display along with the surviving original molds (one other is lost). Two more are located in a violin shop in Tacoma, Washington and are not currently for sale. One made especially for the great Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals, resides in the Villa Casals museum in El Vendrell on the Spanish coast, and another is held in the Madrid National Library. This accounting leaves possibly 48 deep-ribbed tenor violas in circulation (or more likely in closets and attics). Ramón Parramón died in 1955, and Jacinto Pinto died a year later. Apparently the production of these tenor violas ceased with the outbreak of World War II and was never resumed, despite the support of famed players like Casals.

Other Efforts at the End of the Turn of the 19th Century.

We should also point out that Leon Sir, writing in the Parisian publication Le Violoncelle in the fall of 1924, gives us a tantalizing hint that several others had addressed the problems of the imbalanced string quartet. Leon and Leo Sir were active in introducing a new family of violins at the turn of the century, which we will cover more thoroughly in the next chapter. Auguste Tolbecque fils (1830 - 1919) was interested in introducing a tenor to the quartet, and before him the luthiers Louis (Ludovicus) Guersan and Auguste Bernardel pere also worked on tenors. Prof. Lowell Creitz, who has made a long study of the subject, reported that he had found several hundred instruments in Europe from all eras that likely had been strung as tenors. While there are many gaps in the historical record, it seems probable that efforts to restore the string family had never completely been abandoned at any time, and that there might well be other interesting stories that are so far unknown to us.

Chapter Three:

Léo Sir (1881 - 1915) and the Dixtuor

The 20th century witnessed three extraordinary efforts to not only replace or restore missing voices in the string family, but to design and develop entire new families. These efforts spanned one hundred years and more, but the first we know about took place in France with the concerted effort of Léo Sir; his father, Léon Sir, and a small group of "disciples," to rebalance the string instrument family. Léon Sir (1855 - 1927) began his career in violin making as a self-taught amateur, and in 1893 he established his atelier in the southern French city of Marmande, just inland from Bordeaux. Léo Sir was born in Bordeaux on August 18, 1881. He received his initial training from his father and later from Charles Brugère. We do not know if his teacher was the famed Charles Brugère who lived and worked in Paris, or Brugère's older contemporary and less well-known cousin of the same name.

Conception of the Project.

The impetus for the Sir's project is not known, but certainly a great dissatisfaction with the resources of the day figured strongly. The Sirs called the then-existing instrumentation of the string family "bizarre and illogical," the violin makers who failed to address the problem were labeled "passive" and "lethargic," and the composers who did not demand a restored balance were said to be "paralyzed by Dame Routine." Léo Sir was himself a fine violinist who was confounded by the lack of a tenor instrument between the standard viola and cello, and as far as we can tell, his first work was on instruments in this range. The Sirs were both innovators and entrepreneurs, and Léo Sir mentioned that the establishment of a new violin family would have been both "interesting and profitable."

The Sirs approached their undertaking with undisguised passion and zeal, but their grandly-scaled effort and remarkable re-thinking of the violin family is nearly unknown today. They based their models on the idea of human voices and vocal qualities, and by trial and error they arrived at the preferred size and corpus volume to produce the timbre and power they desired. Léon Sir said that the models were designed to represent each of the voices of women and men, because as Léo Sir wrote in a letter published in Le Violoncelle magazine, "the beauty of an ensemble comes especially from the diversity of timbres, rather than from the extent of the range." In the completed suite of instruments, to be discussed a bit further on, we can see how this philosophy echoed in many ways the practices of the earlier Italian violin makers in the days when musical tastes called for violins, violas, and even cellos in pairs of differing sizes and timbres.

As far as we can tell, the Sirs began working on their prototypes late in the 19th century when Léo was still in his teens. We know only by inference that the process was long, arduous, and often discouraging. Misfortunes and setbacks occurred almost at once: a set ready for trial was destroyed in a fire at the railroad station in Moulins on August 11, 1900, and it took the Sirs more than a year to replace it. Even at that relatively early stage, the loss was so devastating that the Sirs abandoned the project in despair and were persuaded to take it up again only after long and eloquent entreaties from composer Eugène Hyard, a great believer in their concept.

Such a project was not for the faint of heart given that the outcome was problematic and that the prejudice against disturbing the existing family of violin, viola, and cello was no less overwhelming in Sir's time than it is today. The Sirs seemed well aware that they could work for years and gain nothing at the end except ridicule and pity. But they persevered, finding then, as we find now, that there is always too much to do.

The Dixtuor.

The effort of Léo Sir produced ten instruments of varying sizes that were called the "dixtuor," or sometimes the "double quintette." Outside of the Sirs themselves, we do not know if other luthiers built these models. The ensemble thus obtained after many trials and errors truly was a remarkable effort. In descending order of size, the instruments were the sursoprano, soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, contralto, tenor, baryton, bass, sous-basse, and contrabass. The instruments were pitched at half-octave intervals; five of the models had C as their lowest string and five had G. All the instruments, including the two basses, were tuned in fifths. All instruments from the contralto and larger were played on endpins. Vannes says that the models were original, showing influences of both Stradivari and Amati, but modified as needed for the requirements of the suite.

The sursoprano was the smallest of the set. Léon Sir wrote that this violin was "established for the mediocre players." Yet, he adds, even the dilettantes did not care for it until it had been reworked three times! It was an interesting violin, however, and its intended tuning, a fourth above the standard violin, puts it in the same catagory as Bach's violino piccolo of the century before and Hutchins' soprano violin of the century following. It is the only member of the dixtuor to extend the range of the conventional stringed instrument family. The sursoprano's strings might have been problematic, for in one of the few surviving pieces written for it, Honegger's Hymn for Ten String Instruments, it is pitched in the key of F.

The soprano was in size and tuning like the standard violin, and in the literature of the day it was identified as a "violon normal." It was paired with the mezzo violin, which was a larger version of the soprano. The mezzo had a body length of around 380 mm, yet it was tuned the same way as the soprano and identified as a "violon nouveau." Both the soprano and the mezzo were written in treble clef. Léon Sir states that the mezzo could be quickly restrung as a small alto playable by violinists.

The alto was similar in size to a conventional alto viola, and so it was listed as a "normal" instrument. It was played on the shoulder, written in the alto clef, and tuned the same as a conventional alto with C as its lowest string. It was paired with the contralto. The contralto was distinctly larger than the alto. Its body length of 535 mm was larger than the tenor violas of the 17th and 18th centuries and larger even than the Hutchins alto violin (508 mm) of the 20th century. Although tuned the same as the alto, it was played vertically on a pin. This instrument was for a time called the "haute-contre" after a rare form of high tenor voice. An instrument called the "haute-contre de violon" appears often in music by early French composers, but in practice it was mostly used as a contralto.

The tenor restored the true tenor voice to the suite of instruments. Although not quite an octave violin with all dimensions doubled, its body length of 644 mm was close enough. It was tuned an octave below the violin, so its lowest note was G. Surviving illustrations show that this tenor was written in alto clef. The tenor and the baryton are the last paired instruments in the set. The baryton was tuned like the tenor, and, at 684 mm in body length, it was not much longer. Evidentally this difference, along with wider bouts and deeper ribs, gave it a distinct sound. Unlike the tenor, parts for the baryton were written in bass clef.

The basse was a cello-sized instrument noted as the "violoncelle normal." Like the cello, its lowest string was tuned to C, and the instrument was written in bass clef.

The sous-basse was a very small bass (body length about 900 mm) between the basse (cello) and the contrabasse. The term sous-basse (sub-bass) comes from a common organ stop of either 16 or 32-foot length, but the stringed sous-basse could only play the upper half of the 16-foot range. It was tuned in fifths two ocatves below the violin and a fourth below the cello. This bass is reminiscent of the earlier "G violon" or the old German "halb bass" (half-bass) but is shaped like the violin. It had very deep ribs. Eugène Hyard wrote of its sound (Instrumentation et orchestration, Paris 1922): "The instrument sounds in the register of the double bass, but it is not the deep and cavernous voice of the true double bass. It is an intermediate voice, clear and pure, slightly coppery in the lower range, and full and round in the middle."

The dixtuor contrabass replaced the contrabass viol in the ensemble in every way except shape. The contrabass was the only member of the set not modeled after the violin family. Here the Sirs clearly acknowledged the need to defer to ergonomic considerations. They built their cornerless contrabass after the viol design and retained the sloping shoulders typical of this instrument.

In such a tightly bunched group of instruments, it was often difficult to establish a well-defined space for each to occupy. The Sirs felt that each instrument individually was satisfactory, but that problems arose when combining them in ensembles. At one point, the alto and contralto were too close in size and tonal color, so the latter instrument was abandoned and a new voice, the haute-contre, put in its place. In consequence, the haute-contre encroached on the baryton, so again the lower instrument had to be increased in size. The problems with the alto and haute-contre were resolved in 1904, and the haute-contre name was dropped in favor of the original designation of contralto. The sursoprano arrived on the scene in 1906 followed by the mezzo in 1908. Along with the mezzo, the final and crowning achievements were the new baryton and the sous-basse, also completed in 1908. This was followed by more sets refining earlier designs, but by 1912 or 1913 the Sirs felt that their work was essentially finished.

Promoting the Dixtuor.

In 1905, Léo Sir exhibited a tenor violin at the World Exposition in Liége. There he met a gentleman named Frémond who was much taken with the dixtuor concept and who became a colleague of sorts in the effort to popularize it. Frémond wanted to set up an orchestra with the instruments of the “Nouveau dixtuor à cordes” and organize concerts. Despite the difficulty of obtaining strings, the demands of producing enough instruments to create a symphonic ensemble, and the lack of time and money to train musicians, the effort was still active when the rumblings of the Great War began to reverberate throughout Europe. Léo Sir enlisted in the French army. He was killed at Rennes, France in 1915, which dealt the heaviest blow imaginable to the dixtuor project. The collaboration with Frémond ended, work ceased entirely during the war, and the project languished for several years afterward. Léon Sir wrote in 1924, "Nothing can close the immense gap caused by the premature death of Léo Sir. Left alone, I felt without strength, despite success. The soul of the double quintette was in him, for he represented the future, whereas I, almost 70 years old, represent only old age and death."

But with the passage of time, healing occurred, the sharp pangs of loss dulled, and optimism once again returned to the faithful. Léon Sir, of course, understood the project well. His son had left excellent notes, so under the father the group took up the cause once more with renewed cohesion and fervor. Attention turned to the nightmare of finding appropriate strings, which the group called the most laborious aspect of their double quintette work. The lack of good strings was considered the main reason that the project had not been completed much sooner.

Success of the Dixtuor.

In August of 1921, André Laurent, a cellist, obtained a complete set of the instruments. Under his direction, a new ensemble was set up to promote “Le Nouveau Dixtuor à Cordes”. A surprisingly large number of French composers wrote arrangements or new music for this group. Among them are: A. Febvre-Longueray, Garcia-Badenés, A. Gavet, Maurice Hermite, A. Mariotte, Maugüé, A. Sauvrezis, Louis Villermin, O. Ygouw, and G. Lanchy.

In October, 1920, while residing in Zurich, Arthur Honegger wrote his “Hymne pour dixtuor à cordes”(Hymn for Ten String Instruments) in B minor. This piece is attributed to a commission by Léo Sir that must have been made some years earlier since Léo had been killed in 1915 during the Great War. Honegger stated that the commission was worth 500 Francs, and that he had been paid half in advance. Authors Harry Halbreich and Reinhard Pauly, who wrote Honegger's biography, noted that the piece was "a serious and beautiful work." It seems to have been performed only once on October 17, 1921, at the Concert Art et Action in Paris. It was not published until 1984, and then in a version for conventional instruments: four violins, two violas, two cellos, and two basses. In 1921, Honegger's colleague, Darius Milhaud, composed his 4th symphony for Dixtuor: Overture, Chorale, and Etude. This short work for full string orchestra is part of a series of similar compositions.

Concerts took place in different theaters in Paris (Théatre Mogaor, Salle Touche, Vieux-Colombier, etc). The ensemble was also a part of the music history course at the conservatory. The teacher, Maurice Emmanuel, said, “Vous avez ajouté une nouvelle page à l’histoire de la musique”. (You have added a new page to the history of music.) Eugène Hyard wrote of the dixtuor in his Instrumentation et orchestration (Paris 1922), which Léon Sir believed secured a place for the dixtuor as the basis for "the orchestra of the future."

Another Casualty of Another War.

At this point, the success of the dixtuor seemed assured, but then matters took a bizarre turn. An Italian, Emilien Perotti, is said to have had enormous successes in Germany and Italy with a group of similar new instruments, which he claimed he had developed himself. According to Laurent, Perotti bought the instruments from Sir and passed off the French work as his own. So stood the state of affairs in 1927 when death came for Léon Sir, and at this point we lose track of the dixtuor entirely. We suspect that activities continued with some force for perhaps as many as fifteen years since we see that as late as February 1932, Honegger composed a soloistic work for the small bass of the ensemble, "Prélude pour la Sous-Basse et Piano".

Beyond this there is only speculation, although it is not unlikely that a critical mass had been attained with the new instruments sufficient to keep them as an emerging part of European musical life. But a strange repeat of fate occurred with rise of Nazism in Germany, and by the late 1930s the dark clouds of war again swept over Europe. France was so ravaged by the events of the war that in the absence of strong and charismatic leaders like Léo Sir or André Laurent, it is likely that the dixtuor ultimately withered and died of neglect. There is a set in the Brussels Museum, some of which are pictured throught this text.

. . . . . .


The information about Léo and Léon Sir and the dixtuor is gathered largely from two sources. The first is a translation of a series of letters written by Léon Sir to Le Violoncelle Magazine in 1924 and 1925. The letters contain some of the writings of Léo Sir as well, but my copy is a typescript and does not include any of the plates and figures of the original. The second source is a thesis titled "Looking for the Tenor in the Violin Family" written in the academic year 2000 - 2001 by Liesbeth Engelen and Roman Maniewski-Keiner, then cello students at the Conservatory of Ghent, Belgium. I am grateful to Mr. Joris Wouters of Westerlo, Belgium, for the translation of the thesis from Dutch, and for many of the pictures of the dixtuor that accompany this chapter.

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Waiting For Content.


Waiting For Content.