Tuesday, September 11, 2018

BIG Violas and Lionel Tertis




Lionel Tertis

image from www.english-heritage.org.uk courtesy of Margaret and Robert Lyons


By Andy Fein, Luthier, Fein Violins
and Ivana Truong

Lionel Tertis was a giant of the viola world. He brought the viola and viola playing into the 20th century as a viola soloist and commissioner of new viola solo compositions. A true giant of the viola world. But he was not a giant of a man. More like an average sized guy. But he loved the big, deep, bass-like sound that big violas produce. Throughout his career, he played a 17'' Carlo Antonio Testore viola from 1735, as well as a 17 3/4'' Gasparo da Salo viola. He met his match in Paris in 1920 when he discovered a huge Montagnana viola that was made in 1717. The Montagnana viola was 17 1/8" ( 434mm). To play a viola that large comfortably and without injury from long term use, I'd insist that the player be well over 6'! Preferably, over 6'4". Alas, Tertis was 5'6'', not anywhere near that tall. What to do, what to do?



image from discogs

image from discogs

Lionel Tertis originally began learning music on the piano, switching to the violin at 12 years old. He left home at 13 years old and worked as an itinerant pianist, saving up and paying for his musical education through gigs. He entered the Trinity College of Music in London, and later enrolled in the Royal Academy of Music. As a 19 year old at the Academy, he was asked to join a student quartet and encouraged to take up the viola, since there were no violists in the school. He did, and instantly committed himself to the "love and tyrant of my life – the viola". 


image from Discogs
Tertis, from that point on, worked tirelessly to bring violas into the spotlight. At age 24, he became the Academy of Music's first viola professor while performing as a soloist. Tertis was also an avid proponent of expanding the viola repertoire, saying "strive to enlarge the library of solo viola music, by fair means or foul. Cajole your composer friends to write for it, raid the repertory of the violin, cello or any other instrument, and arrange and transcribe works from their literature suitable for your viola".  And he certainly followed his own advice. Tertis himself transcribed many pieces, including works by Brahms, Schubert, and Schumann,(full list here). As he grew in fame, he commissioned pieces for solo viola, and he did his fair share of cajoling his composer friends. Benjamin Dale's 'Suite in D Minor' for Viola and Piano, York Bowen's 'Sonata for Viola No.1 in C Minor', William Walton's Viola Concerto, as well as many other pieces are owed to Tertis.

The original manuscript of Tertis' Viola arrangement of Delius' 2nd Violin Sonata
Lionel Tertis' manuscript for the transcription of Delius' 2nd Violin Sonata

image from Jerwood Library



Berlin Philharmonic performs William Walton's Viola Concerto with Amihai Grosz
'Romance' From Benjamin Dales 'Suite in D Minor'


First Movement from York Bowen's 'Sonata in C Minor'

When Tertis' rheumatism forced him into early retirement (at age 60- possibly exacerbated by playing BIG violas?) , he continued his work for the viola by developing his own model. He began working with the luthier Arthur Richardson to develop the 'T.R.' model, which eventually became known as the Tertis model. This viola was designed to give the sound of a larger viola without the unmanageable size. A Tertis model Viola has narrower upper bouts, wider lower bouts, and taller ribs. This maximizes the volume of air of the body, creating the sound the Tertis was so fond of, while allowing the musician to easily access the higher register by reaching around the narrower upper bouts. Arthur Richardson produced over 200 violas, many of which were Tertis models. Though he worked mainly with Richardson, Tertis also worked with the luthiers Lovett Gill and George H. Smith. By the mid 1900s, 600 Tertis models had been made in 17 countries. We still use a Tertis model, modifying it to smaller violas in the 16 1/2", 16" and 15 1/2" body lengths. The Tertis model has the advantage of a manageable string length and body size without losing the deep warm sound of the G and C strings. 

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Our 16'' Patrizio Viola, built on the Tertis Model. As you can see, it has wider lower bouts
Lionel Tertis fought for the viola throughout his life and he certainly made a mark. His work gave the viola its own place as a soloist and encouraged viola makers to start experimenting.

Most of the very big violas (17" and over) come from an early era of the stringed instrument world, prior to the 1700s. The violas are described as "tenor violas" and were used mainly to play music primarily on their G and C strings. Below are some great tenor violas in the colection of the national Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.

Additional photos of violas from the National Music Museum:

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A Viola made by Peregrino di Zanetto in Brescia, circa 1564, the earliest viola Alfred Hill has ever seen

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Andrea Amati viola, circa 1560, that may relate to King Philip II of Spain

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Pietro Giovanni viola made in Milan, 1781

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Gasparo da Salo viola from Brescia, made before 1609
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Viola by Jacob Stainer, circa 1695

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A tenor viola by Andrea Guarneri in 1664, one of three Cremonese instruments to survive in original condition. It has the original scroll, pegs, tailpiece, etc.


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Nicola Bergonzi viola from 1781, almost in original condition
more photos available at the National Music Museum Website


Are you a violist or interested in becoming one? Take a look at our quality violas!

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