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25 Classical Violas

Derek Law

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Luis Claudio Manfio has an idea that there should be a book dedicated to violas with 25 good classical violas. Below I have generated a draft list.

I first generated the list of 12 luthiers first - only luthiers in the Po River Valley (Genoa/Bologna and up) + Stainer with 3 or more violas listed on Tarisio's Cozio database are included - all born 1660 or before except I also included G.B. Guadagnini (born 1711). So the luthiers list are: 1) Andrea Amati; 2) Pellegrino Di Zanetto; 3) Gasparo da Salo; 4) Girolamo (Brothers) Amati; 5) Giovanni Paolo Maggini; 6) Jacob Stainer;; 7) Andrea Guarneri; 8) Giovanni (Brothers) Grancino; 9) Giovanni Tononi; 10) Antonio Stradivari; 11) Matteo Goffriller; 12) Giovanni Battista Guadagnini.

4 steps follow: include the most "famous" viola of each of the 12 makers ("famous" as in referenced by most sources in the Cozio database); include the most famous uncut contralto viola for each of these 12; try to fill out the range of viola sizes from 15" through 19" at 1/4" intervals as much as possible; and lastly include some "discretionary" adds.

The dates below are mostly from Tarisio's database which I feel is a bit shaky, but oh well:

1. Andrea Amati "Charles IX" c.1564 Cremona at Ashmolean; LOB 469.2mm (~18.5")

2. Pellegrino Di Zanetto 1580 (?) Brescia at Chi Mei; LOB 468mm (~18.5")

3. Gasparo "Nathan Gordon" 1580 Brescia with NY Philharmonic; LOB 436mm (~17"1/4)

4. Gasparo "Kievman" c.1580 Brescia ; LOB 392mm (~15"1/2)

5. Maggini "Joyce" 1600 Brescia at Fondazione Pro Canale-Milano; LOB 426mm (~16"3/4)

6. Maggini "Dumas Tenor" 1600 Brescia; LOB 424.5mm (~16"3/4)

7. Maggini 1600 Brescia with Austria National Bank; LOB 413mm (~16"1/4)

8. Gasparo c.1609 Brescia at Ashmolean; LOB 443.8mm (~17.5")

9. Girolamo (Brothers) Amati "Stauffer" 1615 Cremona at Museo del Violino Cremona; LOB 411mm (~16"1/4)

10. Girolamo (Brothers) Amati "Wittgenstein" 1620 Cremona; LOB 430mm (~17")

11. Girolamo (Brothers) Amati c.1620 Cremona at Royal Academy of Music London; LOB 449.5mm (~17"3/4)

12. Andrea Guaneri 1664 Cremona at National Music Museum South Dakota; LOB 482mm (~19")

13. Jacob Stainer "Baron Knoop" 1670 Absam; LOB 424mm (~16"3/4)

14. Andrea Guarneri "Conte Vitale" 1676 Cremona; LOB 419mm (~16"1/2)

15. Jacob Stainer "Hammerle" 1678 Absam in the Herbert Axelrod collection (?); LOB 398mm (~15"3/4) -- note: I am not sure if this is uncut; I want to only include uncut models

16. Antonio Stradivari "Tuscan-Medici Tenor" 1690 Cremona at Istituto Cherubini Florence; LOB 478mm (~18"3/4)

17. Antonio Stradivari "Tuscan-Medici Contralto" 1690 Cremona at Library of Congress; LOB 412.2mm (~16"1/4)

18. Giovanni & Francesco Grancino 1692 Milan; LOB 420mm (~16"1/2)

19. Andrea Guarneri "Primrose, Lord Harrington" 1697 Cremona; LOB 413mm (~16"1/4)

20. Giovanni Tonini c.1699 Bologna; LOB 417mm (~16"1/2)

21. Giovanni Grancino "Max Aronoff" 1707 Milan; LOB 429mm (~17")

22. Matteo Goffriller "Funkhauser" 1710 Venice with Dextra Musica; LOB 406.7mm (~16")

23. Antonio Stradivari "Gibson, Saint Senoch" 1734 Cremona; LOB 411.5mm (~16"1/4)

24. Giovanni Battista Guadagnini "La Parmigiana" 1765 Parma; LOB 381mm (~15")

25. Giovanni Battista Guadagnini "Villa" 1781 Turin with Dextra Musica; LOB 402mm (~15"3/4)  


Right now there are no ~15"1/4 no ~18" violas; and from second half of the 18th century C.F. Landolfi, P.G. Mantegazza and L. Storioni are missing.


Please suggest what classical violas you would swap into the list and  what you would swap out!

For me, I am tempted to swap in a C.F. Landolfi 1758 Milan with LOB 388mm and swap out G. Tononi's. 



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Good list. I have been wanting to write (or rather get someone actually qualified to write) this book for 30 years, but will never be able to travel around the world convincing people to let me study their instruments. So get moving, Derek! There are so many books, posters, monographs, etc. on violins, and info about great violas seems so thin on the ground. Perhaps a comprehensive book could be group-funded by obsessed viola fanatics. Get Roger Hargrave to helm it, with contributions from various other experts! Hey, I'm dreaming.

It would be great if the book included not only full size photos (again, dreaming) and graduation charts, but CT arching shots and some internal photos. And why limit to an arbitrary number like 25?!

It would be useful to include some noteworthy instruments by other names, e.g. Schotten's Linerol; http://www-personal.umich.edu/~yzhch/mm/stationery/images/viola/



Lawrence Power's viola would be nice to include (Antonio Brensi), and the ex-Tree and/or Bruno Giurana Busan(s). The 16-1/8" Camillus Camilli of Roberto Diaz should really be in there. And perhaps a Mariani, for Brescian historical completeism? I don't know who made it, but the principal of Philly has an old Tyrolean viola that would be interesting, and Steven Ansell, principal of BSO, has a magnificent viola if memory serves. I don't know what that one is, either: steven_ansell-345x290.jpg

Returning to famous-name makers, cut-down Da Salos like Amihai Grosz's and the "Edwards" in the R.A.M. collection; no reason to be puritanical. They are great sounding, great playing instruments. Also the Hill-modified GB Guadangnini the "Cummings", Milan, 1757, which is a bit bigger than the ones you name, and apparently works very well indeed, at least according to David Rattray and Sean Bishop. And how about in addition to museum pieces, more instruments that are actually played by major players, like the Amatis of Kashkashian and Imai; Bashmet's Testore; the Montagnana (or whatever it is) of Tertis. The recently retired principal viola of Dallas has a Gaspar, and James Dunham's magnificent Da Salo has to be in the book. The principal of one of the Korean orchestras, currently on trial for NYPhil, has a lovely Da Salo. The ex-Trampler Amati: <http://www.reuning.com/antonio-and-girolamo-amati-cremona-c-1580-90-canzi-trampler-viola> (And so on). If you want to pick a Storioni, I would suggest Martha Katz's (founding violist of Cleveland Quartet), but there is also one at Reuning for right now for example. The John Graham 18.5" Bros. Amati could be nice to include, although... If the book is to be a resource for makers, rather than just a historical document, and if there are limits to the number of instruments to be included, I would focus on instruments in the 15-7/8 to 16-7/8 range, especially 16-16.5. That's the best range for most people, IMO. 

Tarisio is selling a 16" Mantegazza right now: <


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10 hours ago, chungviolins said:

Who's Manfio?

What is the list for?

Luis is a contemporary viola maker who participates frequently in the conversations here on MN.  Look for his member page and you can see his posts.  With any luck, he will see this thread and jump in.  Same with Dwight Brown, though he is not a maker.  He has a significant collection of violas made by contemporary builders though and is familiar with some of the historic instruments.

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4 hours ago, gowan said:

Why do you include Stradivari?  He is not known as a viola maker and his surviving instruments are not as well regarded as hundreds of his violins.  In the list of makers you did not list the Brothers Amati but you do include two of their instruments.

I included Stradivari because he actually left quite a few violas behind (compared with others born before 1700) - more than Andrea Guarneri left behind for example. I thought for reference for viola luthiers, his Tuscan-Medici ones are interesting because the molds also exist in Cremona. His violas (as I have gathered) sound like violins ... though if violas are truly analogous to "contralto" voice - maybe being closed to violins (soprano) in tonal timbre is alright - both being female voices. And they are still beautiful instruments visually.

Brothers Amati I listed as Girolamo Amati since the ones I included are made after the older brother Antonio passed away.

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Thank you for the explanation behind your choices.  Far be it for me to say that Strad was not a good  viola maker.  It seems, though, that few makers now copy his model.   As for the analogy with singers' voices, a true contralto voice is really lower than a soprano, even though some mezzo's essay some contralto repertoire.  Then, too, there are male sopranos (countertenors?).

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19 minutes ago, gowan said:

Thank you for the explanation behind your choices.  Far be it for me to say that Strad was not a good  viola maker.  It seems, though, that few makers now copy his model.   As for the analogy with singers' voices, a true contralto voice is really lower than a soprano, even though some mezzo's essay some contralto repertoire.  Then, too, there are male sopranos (countertenors?).


I only developed this theory about contralto and soprano voices after listening to this historical clip when Kathleen Ferrier sang duet with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. After listening to this I felt that what I (and maybe many others) want a deep voice for viola not because viola should be contralto voice, but instead because in the string quartet there is no real tenor sound. I realize that in my mind I have always imagined viola should sound like a tenor (think Domingo) than a contralto (like Kathleen Ferrier).



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Ethan - clearly you have been a viola fanatic for much longer than I do! Thanks for the post and maybe if we can come to a concept and find enough interest something eventually gets published (dreams are allowed on forums I hope!).

I am a newbie on the site so my posts take about a day to actually get through.

Just want to respond to two of your points.

A. Why limit to 25? There is really no strong reasons other than Manfio suggested this. I think he has been thinking that 25 instruments already take full books, so it will be the max for it to be practical, Personally I feel that less is better - if it is not an encyclopedia but the best of the best classical models that new viola luthiers should get familiar with at the beginning of their careers, I am thinking maybe 12 is better (if you make one copy viola every month, it still takes a full year to just gone through 12). But recognizing that violas come in so many different sizes, I can live with 25.

B. Why puritanical without cut-downs? I think some of the old instruments sound good just because they are old, something about the age that makes things sound nice and different. If the goal of the list is create great classical models/forms for contemporary makers to copy, it is better to only include instruments designed that way by the best makers themselves. It is somewhat of a "fundamentalist" approach I agree. I do find it a very useful screener to come down to a manageable shorter-list. (By the way, I just got Eric Blot's Brescia book and realize the Pellegrino Di Zanetto viola I included was in fact cut down, so I need to change that later.)

One of the "cut-down" instrument I have been trying to track down information on is Lillian Fuchs' Gasparo - according to Zaslav's book ("The Viola in my Life") Lillian's instrument is 15.5", and that in the same book it references Gasparo's Kievman as the only contralto viola that has not been reduced in size -- implications that her viola is likely a cut down. I have also heard / read that that Gasparo had a major accident when Fuchs was teaching in New York. And the instrument is right now with her grand-daughter the violist Jeanne Mallow. I am fascinated by the instrument because it was the instrument Lillian used to record the Bach Suites, I just thought that instrument sound so well (of course, it is probably more because Fuchs was playing than the instrument itself).

One last thing Ethan, for the instruments you mentioned, I have not heard of Mariani's violas before. On Tarisio's database I found a Ludovico Mariani's 423mm back one, and an Antonio Mariani's 1666 with decorated 439mm back with f-holes quite close together. Which maker are you referring to? Any more info is appreciated!


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I was thinking of Antonio Mariani, who studied with Maggini in Brescia, rather than his son Ludovico. Again, just to recognize that the community of makers in Brescia was bigger than just da Salo and Maggini.

I just thought of someone else who should really be represented, as having used a particularly successful viola model: Giacomo Gennaro.

I respectfully continue to disagree with your rejection of cutdown violas. As a player, I care mostly how instruments work, including size and geometry. Also, I tend to prefer Brescian-style instruments, although not exclusively. Since most of the originals are too large for most people, including me (now, sigh) at 6' 2-1/2" and middle age, the cut-down models are of great interest, if they are found through experience to work very well. I think makers sometimes, occasionally, make a fetish of Cremonese-style aesthetic purity and authenticity. For violas in particular, some of the older, beat-up, odd-looking models can work particularly well, and not just because they are old. By that logic, del Gesu violin copies by Curtin, Szygmuntovich, Hargrave, Bellin, van Baer, etc. would be rubbish until they were 200 years old, which is manifestly not the case.

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On cut downs, we probably would not end up agreeing. One of my issues are that most often Brescian cut downs are still too big. 

Based on the Tarisio database (which probably only covers half of what is truly out there?), after cut down Brescian violas with length of backs below 16.5” there are only this handful:

- a Pellegrino one with 413mm LOB

- the Gasparo at Ashmolean converted from lira da braccio with LOB 415mm

- (maybe) Maggini “Lillian Fuchs” LOB 410mm

- the Francesco Bertolotti composite viola at Chi Mei with LOB 415mm

To me these are more instruments more of historical interest than true musician’s instruments. 

If cut downs are “in” probably Brothers Amati works would get a higher representation like Trampler, Kashkashian suggested above but also the Primrose he inherited from his father.


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  • 4 months later...
  • 8 months later...

In my experience, getting access to great classical instruments to measure, photograph, CT Scan, and "bridge-hammer" is rather difficult! The amount of expertise, time, money and connections that would be required to realize our dream viola book would be very considerable.

In two cases of great famous da Salos, when I asked the players if a mutually agreed-upon expert could study and copy their instruments, they each said that there was only one maker they trusted, and no one else, no matter how famous and reputable, (I suggested several esteemed possibilities), would do. That would I suppose be fine if I had only wanted to buy a viola (I did), but I also wanted to try to make those models myself, the way a GDG violin fan can copy the Plowden or whatever.

One of the in-the-know makers did say he would be happy to share data on that viola with me, quote, "why not"? But that was some time ago... perhaps he had second thoughts. :-)

P.S. I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to get the Venetian instrument data CD-ROM that Reunning put out some time ago, as recommended by (IIRC) Not Telling. Is anyone willing to share measurements/thicknesses/arching of the ex-Tree Busan, from that source or anywhere else?

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The Busan is a fantastic instrument, but it is "rectangular", the upper bouts are on the wide side, and that plays havoc with playability. Michael Tree, on the other hand,  at least in the years I used to meet him in NYC was playing a contemporary viola, and not the Busan.  For playing confort, I like the upper bouts with a maximum of  19 centimeters.


Most of the makers specialized in violas are using a personal model, some of them based in a classic maker others highly original, as Hiroshi Iizuka's.


My model is inspired in Andrea Guarneri, I made it a bit wider in the lower and C bouts, reduced the corners, I make the scroll of the violin type, and I reduced it a bit too.


Since violas model can differ a lot (just see how different is a Brescian model when compared to the Cremonese), and experience is vital to the maker, I make an option of focusing in just one viola model, so that I would concentrate on it, making small modifications on each viola. If I made many models, I think I would get lost.


But having 25 great violas in a book, with technical drawings as in the Biddulph's book on Del Gesù is a great idea.

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Sounds like a pretty good idea!

IMO I would structure the book slightly differently. At the beginning of violin making there were two groups of makers in the first generation: those who were musicians and made instruments more or less self trained and those who were professionals who started their career as lute makers. Later we can split it up in schools following different ideas and this would be the place to introduce some instruments of not so well known makers. I miss most some more Venetian makers, I think there are , Montagnana, Deconet, Busan violas around worth mentioning.

Paulo Antonio Testore despite his rather poor workmanship seems to have been pretty successful making good sounding violas. 

i suppose you have consulted the book 'the history of the viola' Vol. 1&2 as well?

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On September 3, 30 Heisei at 3:22 AM, Derek Law said:

Oh now I recall why Manfio suggests 25 instruments - his vision is that a book should be like the one published by Biddulph on Guarneri del Gesu in 1994 and that book has 25 instruments.

For DG you get what you can get and the higher the number the better. But in the end the number of instruments should be designed to the contents. The bigger obstacle I would see is to get it in a format where instruments are pictured actual size. (If this was intended at all). 

One more thought in the selection: I would avoid double entries of the same maker if there is no conceptual difference in both instruments. 

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