This dramatically beautiful viola is by the great J B Vuilluame made in Paris in 1847 and is opus #1773. It bears the handwritten number 47 on the interior ( the upper back) surrounded by an ornament. It is a Strad inspired instrument that is a quite rare example both because of its perfect condition … but also its small size at 396 mm ( just over 15 1/2″).
It is owned and played by a man who studied with the great William Primrose as a young, ambitious player. He eventually dedicated himself to becoming a world class chemist… but still plays this inspiring instrument daily….at an unimaginably early hour for a nightowl like me!
Vuilluame is clearly the greatest maker of the 19th century outside of Italy. He has the most intimate knowledge and collection of instruments of the great masters of Cremona….and he puts it to great use. This lovely viola captures Strad’s powerful, ruggedly beautiful turns of the scroll….and the delicate grace of the F hole. The viola bears an original “wear” pattern on the back … beautifully executed by someone who has seen the natural effects of time and use on instruments that are played as well as cherished.
Everything about this fine instrument and player speaks of deep time….he has owned /played/cherished it for 50 years…and I see it yearly to keep it at its finest…. in addition to all the things I will (carefully!) do ….this year I will cut a new bridge for it…. the last one lasted 50 years! …. so I am thinking thoughts about deep time while I cut this bridge…..
Very few things in my world are more beautiful than an Amati scroll…Crisp, living organic forms that are subtly transformed by centuries of wear…..sometimes I spend as much time admiring as working….
Andres Sanchez came to me about a year ago as he was readying himself to audition for Curtis. He wanted his cello to sound as good as possible…a big,round sound…..bold/warm/rich….i.e. what every cellist wants…it all! It is a nice cello….but wasn’t particularly distinguished…I took the cello apart …changing the bass bar / raising the neck angle / new bridge & post…and anything else I could do to get the most and best out of his cello.
Well he was accepted to Curtis….and I certainly don’t want to say that his cellos sound had too much effect on that decision ….but the point I would like to stress is that many instruments are sounding OK ….but with the right drive and a little sense of daring …..things could be happening on a whole other level. It seems to me that life is way to short and players work way too hard to not be getting all the magic they can out of their instrument.
In this visit he brought me the cello with the usual lower bridge due to winter weather… along with the wear and tear of a worn,rutted fingerboard due to countless hours of practice and open seams due to dry winter weather, touch up etc. ( with photos of the bridge in progress.
Andres also mentioned the idea of making the new bridge on the high side to get even more power ….( I’ve never met a serious cellist that thought more power wasn’t a great idea!). By cutting the bridge high you get more tension down on the top and hence more power – (along with a little more effort needed to play)…and of course the reaction was WOW!…..I think that one word sums up mission statement. I also appreciate his determination to pursue better and the willingness to take a chance – which is the soul of the artistic life.
It is remarkable that Vuilluame’s instruments attain such a consistently high level given the number of different skilled hands are at work in his shop. The attention to detail in his work is both subtly exact and thoroughly artistic. This photo of the delicate bass f hole of a viola that passed through my hands shows this admirably. The way it flairs from the 2 soundholes and hits its widest at the notches before perfectly tapering toward the other soundhole is done with total command. I also love the sculptural fluting of the outer edge of the f hole (lower,bottom edge in photo) Notice that the top flairs up from the purfling to the edge of the f hole to highlight the living,organic shape of the arching. Also to be enjoyed is a small taste of his handsome varnish….
This is an image looking into the corpus of a cello through the endpin hole. The scale of the cello helps us see what is essentially the same story with all string instruments. That is the relationship betwwen the bridge and the bass bar and the soundpost. The bridge is bearing down on the delicate spruce top with the immense strain of the up-to-pitch string tension. This force is concentrated at the 2 feet of the bridge….without support the top would collapse. One could make the top thicker but that would be a poor tonal solution because the spruce top needs to be thin enough to stretch as it resonates… The key is in how you support the load. Although the arching does provide some support it is the bass bar and the soundpost that are the real structure within…..but the true genius of the design is that they also act as conduits to spread the resonance throughout the entire instrument and bringing all areas of the body alive.
The bass bar ( which is glued on the inside of the top on the left in the photo) is made from a piece of spruce with perfectly straight grain ( to improve resonance) that matches the grain width of the top. This bar sits 2mm under the bass bridge foot and spreads the bass vibrations out through the whole spruce top ( while also keeping the top up). It doesn’t sit straight north to south but is glued in at an angle that mimics the taper of the instrument as it narrows from lower bouts to upper bouts.The soft, pliable spruce of the top vibrates widely and is most responsible for the richness of the lower register. There is much that goes into the fitting of the spruce bar exactly to the surface of the curving top – if the bar were glued in and not fitting exactly the delicate top will contorted to fit the bar. Once glued in the bar is carefully shaped – leaving more mass under the bridge are and tapering to the ends. I give much thought to the shape/mass of each bar …..many things are considered…Higher arching neeeds slighter bar …stiffness of the top …neck angle etc…The key is to have all the support that is needed and no extra that would hinder full resonance.
The soundpost is on the right in the image. I start with the cut off end of the bass bar so that the spruce is identical and plane it to an 11mm round dowel ( the bar is also 11mm wide as it is glued in) and matching the grains of the topp as close as possible. Then the post is carefully cut on each end to match the inner curves of the top and back> With a soundpost setter I insert it in the instrument and cut/fit it to bring it out toward the F hole until it fits perfectly on both surfaces (using a dental mirror to see the far side) at a place a little south of the bridge and 2mm inside the bridge foot – the bar is als fit to be 2mm inside the bridge foot.
The post transfers the energy from the treble foot into the hard maple back which delivers the higher, clear upper registers…and of course there is overlap and overtones in between. The post is not glued in….it is cut to snugly fit the topography of top and back….It can fit tightly ( the thin plates will swell to accomodate a tight post) ….tighter tends to wake up and add power….looser tends to reduce excessive brightness etc….
The post effects the sound so dramatically that the French use the term ame ….or the soul to describe it.
Most old instruments eventually need to have the top block replaced. Often (as you can see in this picture) the old block is skimpy and as it wears and ages it doesnt handle the strain of having to remove the neck. In this case I needed to remove the neck because the button ( the semi-circular extension of the back ) had broken and needed to be reinforced.
Once the button is glued I inlaid a doubling patch that you can see protruding under the new top block.
Then when the top is glued on I will carve the mortise for the neck as if making a new insrtument. Now the neck can be reset at the higher ,correct angle and it will endure the immense strain of being up to pitch more securely with a solid new top block and strengthened button.
This fine viola was made by Helmuth Keller as a copy of Gaspar da Salo in the early 1970’s. The Brescian makers are justly famous for their violas and this has all the characteristics one looks for in a great viola. The broad pattern produces great depth while the flattish arching provides ample power and projection.
This viola shows Mr Keller working at his very best….with exquisite wood selection… commanding craftsmanship ….all still in pristine condition.
Mr Keller came to America to work at Moennig’s and Bill spoke fondly of him over the years. I had the pleasure to speak with him a number of times and always enjoyed his energy and intensity.
Interestingly, this viola ( like all his violas of this period.. I believe )is not dated…. I was always told it was because Mr Ormandy did not want his players playing new instruments ….and this was a cute,cunning way around that.
I am proud to be offering this fine viola for sale.
I have also used the fitting with spring experience on a smaller scale. Cracks on old cellos (and sometimes new) have a tendency to sink ….typically due to the enormous string tension down on the thin,soft spruce top. I often fit the spruce cleats like little bass bars pushing up to restore the arching at the area of the crack. It also works to counteract the tendency for the crack to sink over time. These cleats are fit with chalk as a transfer with a slight arch in the center -( the amount of spring varies with each different repair) and the two clamps together with the hot glue can add just the right amount of force to help me make the crack (eventually!) disappear.