Ben Hebbert

Berlioz, Paganini and the biggest viola you’ll ever see!!

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There’s a good deal of evidence to suppose that this is the “incomparable” Barak Norman praised by Berlioz when Henry Hill performed the London premiere of Harold in Italy in 1848, and in turn that the performance was a response to Paganini’s “Gran viola” upon which he performed towards the end of his final visit to London in 1834. 

The thing was made around 1710 and I don’t have the slightest idea why - but for lunatics amongst you, I am planning to have some drawings available later in the year... it’s got 18 3/4 inches of pure mojo!

A bit more on the project here, where going fully orchestral on this at the end of the month https://hebbertsviolins.wordpress.com/2018/01/06/a-grand-experiment-childe-haroldes-tenore-and-a-170th-anniversary-concert/

Counting down to the silly coments :) 

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Ben, I'm really grateful to have had the chance to see and try that instrument last time I came by to see you in London. It's quite remarkable! I did mention to you my skepticism about your Paganini link and Harold business, as the whole Harold commission was a sort of ploy to get some money to poor Berlioz when he wasn't earning much by well meaning friends, and the Paganini connection was a bit of a sham, in order to disguise the source of the money. Regarding the "Gran Viola," wasn't that just Paganini enthusiastic over finding his Strad viola? In any case, it's a wonderful instrument and a great piece of music, so carry on! 

I mentioned my early 20th century Letellier "violon au sons graves" with its deep ribs and viol-like tapered ends and I'd been meaning to send you some photos. The instrument was meant to be strung an octave below the violin, (I got mine with its original case, strings and brochure) and there seems to be a tradition in the French litterature that tenors were strung that way, although English sources seem to dispute this. Here's a quick side view next to a "normal" viola:

20141126_071327.jpg

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Michael 

It's not as straightforward a story as one would like. 

LONDON: 

We know that when Paganini was in Italy in 1832 he commissioned a maker named Francesco Borghi to make a five stringed 'gran viola', the same instrument that he brought to London in 1833 and that was impounded in customs until 1 April 1834. Meanwhile he acquires his Strad in 1832 from George Corsby in London, so there seems to be quite a period of experimentation and going between the two instruments. 

On 28th April he had completed and performed the Sonata per il gran viola. Paul Silverthorne has made a compelling case in his new edition of the work that Paganini had abandoned the fifth string by then. This according to the Times was the first time Paganini ever gave a public performance on the viola. 

END OF THE LONDON CHAPTER. 

THE PARIS CHAPTER 

As a result of acquiring the Strad, he calls for Berlioz to write Harold in Italy with the Strad in mind. 

When Chretien Urhan premiers it, it is with the Strad. It is presumably still with the Strad at the performance that Paganini finally attends. 

Paganini dies in 1840. The end. 

BACK TO LONDON

We presume that the London music society have no real interest in what happens in Paris, and it's up to Henry Hill to figure out what to do. We have Berlioz's description of "incomparable" which I've justified, and Haweis's other description. Whatever the earlier history was, there is no question that Berlioz was deeply moved by the capacity of Hill's interpretation both as a musician and in terms of his choice of instrument. Without question there were special elements of this performance that separate it from Urhan's reputation as it's first soloist. 

It is sensible to imagine that the English would have looked back 14 years to their encounter with Paganini and his experiments with a 'gran viola'. If this thing that fits the bill was available at the time, there would have been good incentive for Hill to play it as an appropriate reflection of Paganini's own ideas as understood by the English. We have to remember that Harold in Italy was already heavily mythologised as a Paganiniesque creation even if he never performed it. 

 

In 1848 Paganini had been dead for eight years, so whatever the politics were of his lifetime, I think we can look at this event as a retrospective, with all the rose-tinted hindsight to be expected.. so I think we can accept a margin between the reality of the moment and the mythology that arose immediately after Paganini's death. 

With this all in mind, it's an experiment with a hypothesis that is well worth exploring, and I hope that we are expressing an ethically sound position where near-certainty does not equate to total certainty, since things cannot be proven outright despite reasonable levels of probability. The level of musical success will be the most interesting part of the whole thing. 

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Bravo Ben, for your research and documentation! I never meant to suggest it was a simple thing, but I do remember reading that Paganini did not seek out Berlioz to write "Harold" for him. There was a society of subscribers who sought out Paganini to "front" for them as they wished to make a paid commission for Berlioz, and Paganini was rather lukewarm about the whole thing from the beginning. I'd have to do some digging to get to the primary sources, and I'm afraid I don't have the time to do that this month, but I'll let you know if I have a chance to do the research.

I don't mean for a moment, though, to take away from the exceptional nature of this instrument. I concur that it is stupendous, and it has a bottomless bass quality to the sound! On the otherhand, I wouldn't want to play "Harold" on it, because despite the breaks in the ribs, it is a handful to use the upper positions! Then again, Paul Silverthorne was using the humongous Amati when I was playing in the LSO, so there are surely some brave souls out there that would take on that challenge!

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Paul’s 1620 is a bit of a dwarf by comparison to this :) I don’t believe for a second this was a viola played regularly, in fact a huge amount of the project balanced on whether it is possible to play or not. It certainly needs its own technique ... and we’ve been surprised at how easy it becomes. 

I didn’t read your post as diminishing... at the same time though, I am very mindful of what we don’t know... so this is very firmly an experiment and not a statement of historical fact. 

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The bevel on the back reminds me of an instrument (violin) I saw once by one Marty Kasprzyk. This looks more likely to cause tendonitis though...

Cheers,

Scoiattola

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6 hours ago, Michael_Molnar said:

A veritable chin cello.

Closer to a capybara, IMHO.  :ph34r:  That freaking thing is huge.  I have enough trouble getting my 16" viola settled comfortably, to have any interest in trying to play one with ribs like this.   But I'd bet it produces an alto line with great authority:)

6 hours ago, Ben Hebbert said:

I am very mindful of what we don’t know... so this is very firmly an experiment and not a statement of historical fact. 

Oh, good.  I was wondering if you'd been studying ad copy examples from eBay.  ;):lol:

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On 01/06/2018 at 5:27 PM, Scoiattola said:

The bevel on the back reminds me of an instrument (violin) I saw once by one Marty Kasprzyk. This looks more likely to cause tendonitis though...

Cheers,

Scoiattola

I love the sounds of big violas.  They achieve a low A0 frequency by having a large volume from having large plates and high ribs but they are hard to hold and play.  The high ribs like those on the "Gran Viol" sometimes makes it uncomfortable for some people to hold under the chin.  And the high ribs can also make it difficult to reach around with left hand for playing high position notes. 

I make my violas and violins with back plate tapers to make both the upper and lower ends shallow with a thick middle portion. This creates a  large  volume while having the added benefit of acting like a built in shoulder rest. 

The large scroll on the "Gran Viol" adds a harmful  load on the left arm.   I don't have scrolls on my instruments--that's why you will never see my instruments in the VSA magazine "The Scroll".

 

IMG_2039.jpg

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On 1/6/2018 at 8:05 AM, Ben Hebbert said:

There’s a good deal of evidence to suppose that this is the “incomparable” Barak Norman praised by Berlioz when Henry Hill performed the London premiere of Harold in Italy in 1848, and in turn that the performance was a response to Paganini’s “Gran viola” upon which he performed towards the end of his final visit to London in 1834. 

The thing was made around 1710 and I don’t have the slightest idea why - but for lunatics amongst you, I am planning to have some drawings available later in the year... it’s got 18 3/4 inches of pure mojo!

A bit more on the project here, where going fully orchestral on this at the end of the month https://hebbertsviolins.wordpress.com/2018/01/06/a-grand-experiment-childe-haroldes-tenore-and-a-170th-anniversary-concert/

Counting down to the silly coments :) 

Are you sure they didn't just beat up some poor child and take his cello? :lol: more comments to come

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On 08/01/2018 at 12:29 AM, Marty Kasprzyk said:

I love the sounds of big violas.  They achieve a low A0 frequency by having a large volume from having large plates and high ribs but they are hard to hold and play.  The high ribs like those on the "Gran Viol" sometimes makes it uncomfortable for some people to hold under the chin.  And the high ribs can also make it difficult to reach around with left hand for playing high position notes. 

I make my violas and violins with back plate tapers to make both the upper and lower ends shallow with a thick middle portion. This creates a  large  volume while having the added benefit of acting like a built in shoulder rest. 

The large scroll on the "Gran Viol" adds a harmful  load on the left arm.   I don't have scrolls on my instruments--that's why you will never see my instruments in the VSA magazine "The Scroll".

Marty, 

Its interesting... I've shown this one to quite a few very serious pros, and its one of those things that is universally admired though no one would be daft enough to take it up professionally... 

Irrespective of quality as such, I think it's interesting that this kind of air volume seems in my opinion to provide an air resonance that is fairly much in tune with an ideal vocal 'tenor'. Instinctively it would work fabulously as a vocal accompaniment - almost immediately we've had discussions about it in the context of the Brahms songs with viola accompaniment, and more recently Mark Caudle has pointed out the potential writing for it in theatre airs published around 1700-1710 in London. So to some extent I view it as the "ideal" viola, though too cumbersome in nature to be used as a regular professional piece of kit. Plans are afoot to provide drawings of it, so if anyone's mad enough, be my guest! 

 

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Hi Ben,

I'm hoping there is tiny market nobody else cares about for light violas for players who use large violas and have hand, wrist, arm, shoulder, jaw, neck, or back injuries.  My last fairly big sounding viola weighed 428g with its chin rest and built in shoulder rest and pads.  But it feels quite light because its center of gravity is close to the player.

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Marty, you curmudgeonly old cynic... :) 

We’ve all known as part of the folklore of the viola that the ideal size is “too big to play” and that hasn’t inspired legions of players to try and prove the point. The instrument is a bit of an oddity because patently it would be absurd to play it as a regular gigging instrument subject to the kind of pressures of chamber music or orchestral performance. I think as a specialist instrument it’s profoundly interesting. There are a number of works I can think of it taking a place for  - Brandenburg 6 maybe, Purcell fantasias, maybe, Brahms liede, maybe, goofing around on cello suites and similar... but ... it self-evidently falls into a category of specialist tool at the very most. I can quite confidently state that it’s not going to kick off a revolution.

the real danger in viola playing is the ever so slightly too large ones, because players don’t understand they are causing damage until it creeps up on them and is suddenly too late... 

 

 

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3 hours ago, Ben Hebbert said:

>

>

the real danger in viola playing is the ever so slightly too large ones, because players don’t understand they are causing damage until it creeps up on them and is suddenly too late... 

 

Repetitive stress injuries can be a serious problem.  I cringe every time I see a player lift their left shoulder to help support their violin or viola (especially big violas).  I see this poor technique so often that I’m starting to lose feeling in the left side of my face due to excessive cringing.

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I know and agree completely. I think with the development of Alexander Technique and Feldenkrass, there are more and more opportuniti a for musicians to observe their posture and root out problems. Somewhere along the educational process it is important to raise awareness about posture. Violin makers and dealers can be influential about this, but sometimes we are the last people a musician will listen to. Despite this post I’m a constant advocate of smaller violas, but I find that is the last thing ambitious young pros want to hear. 

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Ben, thanks for this. The sound is extraordinary. And needs to be out there as a possible, whatever physical constraints the instrument imposes.

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