History of the Viola

No matter if you are already playing the viola or you have an interest in learning how to play this beautiful instrument, you might be curious as to how the instrument was developed and how it might have changed over time.

Learning about the instrument that you are playing can help to give you some added insight into the process that it went through to become the beautiful sounding instrument that it is today.

Every instrument will have its own history in terms of when they were first invented, who invented them, and how they were able to change over time in order to improve.

Most instruments will look quite different today than they did when they first came around, and these changes are due to the improvements and adjustments that have been added over time to improve the overall design.

In this article, we are going to tell you all about the history of the viola so that you can find out about its own unique story.

What is the Viola Today?

For those who don’t already know, the viola is a string instrument that can be bowed, plucked, or played with a variety of other different techniques.

You will find that it is a little bit bigger than the violin, and it also has a lower and deeper sound. It is known as the middle voice of the violin family, and it is somewhere between the violin and the cello.

Though it might not be as well known as these two instruments, it certainly has a beautiful sound. You will typically find that it is used as a supportive instrument.

Who Invented the Viola?

It is difficult to know who the original inventor of the viola was, but we do know that there were two people that were responsible for producing some of the first violas that resemble the modern versions that we see today.

These two people were Gaspare da Salo and Andrea Amati, and they were both born and lived in the first half of the 16th century.

They became two very well-known people due to their creations, and Amati became familiar with the King of France, who commissioned over 30 violas for his own musicians to play in the 1570s.

Examples of the instruments that they created have been preserved so that we can enjoy their beauty to this day.

When Was the First Viola Created?

The first time that we can actually see the viola throughout history is in a fresco painting that features one. You can find this painting in the Santuario di Saronno’s dome near Milan, and this painting actually features more than one period instrument that belongs to the violin family.

This painting can be dated back to the 1530s, and we can see from this work that the instruments are roughly shaped like the modern instruments that we see today with four strings and f-holes.

If you were to look at this painting yourself, you would find that the instrument that most resembles the viola is the one that has highlighted gold accents around the ribs.

Different Types of Violins

The Viola in the 16th Century

When these instruments became popular in the 16th century, they could be made in a variety of different sizes, but the tuning for each of the instruments would remain the same. The alto and tenor versions had the same tuning as the modern viola, which is: C3, G3, D4, A4.

Larger instruments with different tuning were made, though the original instruments did remain in use. The different sized instruments that were created were designed to have different pitches.

The string ensembles at the time were made up of a soprano and bass instrument, and there would be three violas that would play the middle register.

We know that there would be one viola playing in the tenor and one viola playing in the alto range, but there would also be a third viola that would play an overlap of the two of these.

Now we know that there were three different types of instruments that would be played, we will give you some more information about each. The first type of viola would be the alto viola, which would have the alto tuning, and this would have the type of body that we see today, which would range from 40cm to 42cm long.

The second instrument would be the tenor viola, which would have a shorter neck, and would be around 42cm to 45cm in length. Finally, there were the ‘genuine’ tenor instruments that were tuned to F.

One of the most distinctive features of the orchestra at this point in time would be the overlapping of the middle register, and this led to readjustments being made in the 17th century, which we will explain below.

The Viola in the 17th Century

With the ever-growing popularity of the viola, changes had to be made to the instrument to ensure that it wouldn’t be left behind in history.

Complex compositions required powerful instruments that reached great volumes, and this is the point in time where softer and mellower sounds were created using these instruments.

Ensembles were also required to change, and the alto viola became the most commonly used instrument. The tenor viola became more obscure. And the violoncello was able to perform both the bass and tenor range. The alto viola became much clearer and full-sounding, but it was not particularly agile.

Further Developments to the Viola

As live music progressed into concert halls with bigger audiences, more changes had to be made to the viola. Francois Tourte made changes to the bow strength, and some of the most valuable changes to the viola came around in the 19th century.

Some of these changes included:

  • Heavier strings with increased tension, allowing a greater projection of sound
  • A lengthened neck that was tilted at an angle in relation to the body
  • A fortified body, bass bar, and bridge for improved strength
  • A smaller body that became more manageable without compromising the sound

Eventually, the viola would be completed, with no further changes needing to be made.

They were able to come up with the perfect combination of dark timber and simpler playability, which definitely took some time.

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