The Stradivari Viola D’Amore, pt 3
I started building the instrument in 2001, but because of the restoration demands of the workshop it was not finished until 2008. The wood for the instrument came from three sources. For the belly I chose a very old piece of Baltic spruce that came from England. It was once part of a cupboard shelf in an eighteenth century house. I chose it because of its age and for its perfect grain.
The bird’s-eye maple for the back and ribs came from a fifty year old board from the USA, donated by the composer Carol Barnett, whose father had collected it many years ago. The neck was carved in apple wood because it is strong enough to take the pressure of the peg arrangement in the three wall peg box of the viola d’amore without cracking between the closely spaced holes of the central wall. The first step in the whole process was making the mould and working out the exact procedure that the Stradivari workshop had used for the assembly of these instruments. To aid in the making process I remade a tool called a platen, which is an apparatus separate but integral to the mould. This is used to both facilitate the construction of the instrument and aid the correct inclination of the neck and its alignment. With a corner-less form the waist of the instrument has to be pulled tight to the mould with the aid of a gut string that passes through a hole in the center of each rib face. The viola d’amore ribs were constructed on the mould and then placed on the platen once the neck was nailed in place, as was the practice in the 1700’s. Once the neck was aligned the back was glued in place and fixed there with the aid of two small fruitwood pins. In this system once the back is glued in place it fixes everything rigid according to plan. Previous to the back being glued in place the sound bars were attached to it together with the post plate. Since the viola was made in the USA I chose a barring scheme used by Joachim Tielke. This scheme uses an oval spruce post plate whose grain is in line with the grain of the back of the instrument. It has stiffening tabs that radiate out from it making it more stable in the North American climate than the transverse design usually used by viol makers. This ordinary form post plate tends to block the summer and winter movement of the back, which leads to instability, distortion and cracking.
The construction was fairly easy and the only problem was deciding on the plate thicknesses and their graduations. In the end I chose the early Stradivari scheme where the center of the belly has a marginally thicker strip running the uninterrupted length of the belly between the ff holes. The fingerboard was made from ebony veneered maple and the tailpiece from ebony veneered apple wood.
I also decided at this point since the neck was wide enough for six strings that I would reassign the strings so that six playing strings would run over the fingerboard and four sympathetic would run under the fingerboard. Finally I analyzed the bridge model that was part of the original set of Stradivari papers and realized that it too was designed using a proportional scheme that uses the intersection of a nine division base line with a seven division vertical line. (See illustration.) I hand-turned the pegs, using an original Italian model in rosewood with bone rings and pips.
The instrument was displayed in Cremona in 2008 for the exhibition “E furono liutai in Cremona. Dal Rinascimento al Romanticismo. It was enthusiastically received by the Cremonese makers who were fascinated by the possibilities inherent in the design.
The sound of the instrument was very successful. Its playing characteristics are a full, rich, reedy tone, with the underlying Stradivari sizzle that makes his instruments so characteristic.