Eric Coates' viola


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By his own account, the British viola player Eric Coates possessed a rather unusual instrument. While a student of Tertis, he describes trading up to a new viola thus:

'Then, quite unexpectedly, I was given the opportunity of purchasing an instrument from a brother viola player. A telegram was immediately despatched to my father, making an urgent request for the necessary money, and a cheque arrived by the next post. And so my little Testore went to defray the cost of my new acquisition, a viola of such strange build that when I took it in to Arthur Beare of Wardour Street to have it put in shape he was quite incoherent for some moments. When Tertis saw it for the first time he almost laughed, and on the occasion of its appearance in the Zimmerman ensemble class, proceedings were held up for quite ten minutes while it was handed round for inspection. Beare simply would not take it seriously and gave his opinion that there could not be another like it in the world, for the reason that its maker would most certainly have died of heart failure when he realised the full horror of the finished article; Tertis, at first, could not take it seriously either, and although he altered his opinion slightly when he played on it, he always regarded it with a certain measure of doubt; Zimmerman looked upon it as a complete freak and could not understand why an instrument whose structure was so unorthodox could possess such a lovely quality of tone. I remember his taking it in hands, scrutinising it from its scroll to its tailpiece, turning it over and over again, plucking the strings, and then handing it back to me with the words: "Vell, my deer Meester Coates, it is most peculiar, but it is vonderful."

And so it was. Extraordinary in build - tremendously deep from back to front, with little patches let in here and there to its back and belly as if, at one time or other, it had received unkind treatment from unappreciative hands, and F holes of such proportions that it went round the profession in later years that I made use of their abnormal size to push my sandwiches inside the body of the instrument when time did not permit of a proper meal. Everywhere I went they laughed – "But it is all wrong!" "It is so fat!" "It is just like a boat!" – and then someone spread the rumour that I was contemplating a Mediterranean cruise in my viola. Probably from a collector’s point of view it was valueless, but what did I care for those who put their instruments under glass cases merely for the satisfaction of gloating over them and telling their friends about the fabulous sums they had paid to acquire such-and-such a make from so-and-so! "And do you know, they tell me that it is believed Paganini once played on it!" How much better for some violinist to be playing on it now! Well, my much despised and nameless viola could hold its own with any of the famous makers and in some cases beat them.

And so all the viola players who smiled, and jibed, and ridiculed, were silenced; but I always had the feeling at the back of my mind that, although my beloved instrument sounded so lovely, the fact that it looked so odd made them regard both it and me with suspicion.'

I’m interested to know whether anyone on Maestronet has any idea what became of this instrument. And whether it is being played today, and if so by whom?! From his description, it sounds like once seen, never forgotten!

Thanks,

Ed.

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