Carleen Maley Hutchins
The Violin Octet

In 1957 Henry Brant, an American composer noted for unusual instrumental combinations and spacially-separated groups, asked Hutchins about building an ensemble of violins described as " graduated-size instruments, one at approximately each half-octave from the tuning of the double bass to an octave above the violin."[FN 53] (Brant's original intention was to use the conventional violin with the other seven instruments, but it was later decided to add a mezzo violin in place of the conventional instrument.[FN 54]) Brant was not asking Hutchins simply to fill in the violin family, but to project the power and tonal characteristics of the violin itself into other ranges, avoiding the compromises in tonal quality caused by the construction of the conventional viola and lack of a true tenor voice in the violin family.[FN 55]

The initial meeting took place with Brant and cellist Sterling Hunkins. They brought with them a one-eighth-sized violin tuned an octave higher than a viola and a small cello strung as a tenor violin tuned an octave below a conventional violin, but were not satisfied with either. Within thirty minutes they had convinced Hutchins to embark on a project that brought together 100 persons over the next decade.[FN 56] The first documentary evidence of their collaboration is found in the Hutchins family log, where a notation from August 21, 1958 indicates that Brant, his wife, and Sterling Hunkins were in Montclair for a discussion,[FN 57] and the earliest extant correspondence between Hutchins and Brant is from the fall of 1958 when Hutchins was applying for her first Guggenheim Fellowship.[FN 58]

In the spirit of the collaborative research she was doing in the late 1950s, Hutchins shared the idea with her fellow researchers. At this point they were working with the ...effect of moving violin and viola resonances up and down scale,"[FN 59] the principal problem with building violins in different sizes. Saunders showed little interest at first, and seems to have misunderstood the project's intention. In a letter from September 3, 1958 he notes that he had never heard of Henry Brant, and also comments on what he considered to be the inferior acoustical qualities of the viol family.[FN 60] In early letters to Brant, Hutchins does comment on their need to study historical instruments for acoustical properties, but it was never their intention to redesign the viol family.[FN 61] Fryxell, whose own work was not related to these matters, showed little interest, but Hopping was interested, and Schelleng soon became a major figure in the project. Hutchins demonstrated her early enthusiasm and plans in a letter to Brant on October 27, 1958, showing her willingness to set aside her normal activities:[FN 62]

My suggestion is that instead of setting up the six instruments I try to make each year, that I plan to make as many of your series as possible. if we could do three of these in a year we would be lucky--with what it will take to do the research, create new designs, and make new patterns.

Soon thereafter Hutchins began work on the first alto violin, a cut-down quarter-sized cello. The relative success of this instrument sparked the interest of Saunders and Schelleng. Schelleng took an active role, and Saunders served as an advisor.

The group's discoveries about violin acoustics were incorporated into the design of the instruments. Hutchins has identified the following previous research as crucial in building the violin octet:[FN 63]

  1. location of the main body and main cavity resonances of several hundred conventional violins, violas and cellos tested by Saunders and others,
  2. the desirable relation between main resonances of free top and back plates of a given instrument, developed from 400 tests on 35 violins and violas during their construction,
  3. knowledge of how to change frequencies of main body and cavity resonances within certain limits (learned not only from many experiments of altering plate thicknesses, relative plate tunings and enclosed air volume, but also from construction of experimental instruments with varying body lengths, plate archings and rib heights) and of resultant resonance placements and effects on tone quality in the finished instruments,
  4. observation that the main body resonance of a completed violin or viola is approximately seven semitones above the average of the main free-plate resonance, or tap- tone (now called Mode #5) in the back and top free plates of a given instrument.

The mathematical scaling of the instruments was calculated by Schelleng after Hutchins had built some of the instruments and proved their practicality.[FN 64] The new instruments needed to conform as closely as possible to the optimum resonances of the main body of the violin and the air inside the box, rather than the same traits of the viola and cello, which are quite different Hutchins and Saunders had discovered that for the violin these resonances should each be within one-half step of the unstopped middle strings of the instrument. After the first alto and soprano violins were in playing condition, Schelleng developed a scaling theory for the violin family that included the traditional four instruments of the violin family and the eight new members of the octet. This scaling was apparently at an advanced stage by the middle of the summer of 1961; in a letter to Hutchins on July 15, 1961, Saunders mentioned that he liked Schelleng's scaling. Saunders had assisted in the scaling, trying to calculate the rib heights and air modes, but these measurements were later proven incorrect and Hutchins worked the measurements out through many experiments.[FN 65] Another important factor in the construction of the octet was the use of Hutchins's methods of plate tuning.

A development that facilitated the group's work was the discovery of string instrument experiments by Fred L. Dautrich of Torrington, Connecticut, brought to Hutchins's attention by Louise Rood.[FN 66] In the 1920s and 1930s Dautrich built three instruments to fill in the gaps in the violin family. All were played between the legs like a cello. His vilonia, the alto instrument, was tuned like a viola. The tenor instrument, the vilon, was tuned like the tenor violin of the Baroque: G, d, a, and e'. The vilono was a small bass instrument tuned an octave below the vilon, serving as the baritone or large cello. Hutchins located Dautrich's son and his wife in Litchfield, Connecticut, and purchased the instruments. The Dautrichs remained interested in the project, and were among the charter members of the Catgut Acoustical Society. Hutchins and Schelleng were able to use the instruments as the first octet's alto, tenor, and baritone, but alterations were required to improve acoustical response. Hutchins learned that the Kaplan String Company had made strings for Dautrich's instruments, and she began to work with them, but their strings were all gut and the new instruments needed steel strings, so she turned to the Super Sensitive Company.[FN 67] The discovery of Dautrich's instruments was Hutchins's first indication that their effort had historical antecedents but, as will be shown, it has since become clear that the octet is not an historical anomaly.

Another important element in the development of the octet was playing tests by string players. Brant brought into the project cellist Sterling Hunkins and bassist Julius Levine. Hunkins assisted with the alto, tenor, and baritone violins in such matters as tone quality, string length, and body size. He insisted that the alto must be playable with viola fingerings and the tenor and baritone with cello fingerings to make the instruments approachable for string players. Levine, along with other bass players, assisted in the development of the contrabass and small bass violins, again contributing in such practical matters as string length. Other musicians among the many who played instrument tests were violinists Broadus Erle, William Kroll, Sonya Monosoff, and Helen Rice, violists David Mankovitz and Louise Rood, cellist India Zerbe, and bassists Ronald Naspo and David Walter.[FN 68] The violin octet was thus a collaboration between scientists, many amateur string players, and professional musicians.

Five members of the new violin ensemble--the soprano, mezzo, alto, tenor, and baritone-- were tested for the first time in October, 1961 at Helen Rice's home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. This was followed by a presentation in January of 1962 at Helen Rice's Manhattan studio for representatives of the Guggenheim Foundation, whose grants to Hutchins in 1959 and 1961 supported the work.[FN 69] Henry Brant and Patsy Rogers, his student, provided compositions and arrangements and a number of players tried the instruments. The noted violist Lillian Fuchs commented on the alto: "The big viola is very exciting, but frightening, for it takes the viola out from under one's chin." Cellist George Finckel, brought to the project by Brant, found the baritone his "first chance to talk back to a grand piano in a Brahms sonata."[FN 70]

Correspondence from Brant to Hutchins reveals his role in the project and reactions to progress. In a letter from November 26, 1961 Brant described to Hutchins some playing tests done the previous day in Vermont. He assembled four instruments into a quartet: a conventional violin, the alto, tenor, and baritone. His comments:[FN 71]

The results, in ensemble work, exceeded all expectations. Naturalness of total resonance, equality of sonority throughout, consistent richness, clarity and brilliance - all are quite astounding.

This is the true string quartet at last, no mistake about it. Substitute an ordinary violoncello for any one of the parts and it is clearly heard as a foreign body! It stands out strangely and appears nasal and tense by comparison with the others.

Our previous tests did not do justice to the vertical viola; it is a fine instrument and its superior qualities show even with the present stringing. To my ears it outclasses the horizontal viola in every respect.

Brant goes on to offer suggestions on the construction of the members of the octet below the baritone, one of the more difficult aspects of the project and the last instruments of the octet to be completed. He believes that the instruments should be built to violin proportions rather than the cello's, the choice later made by the builders. In a letter to Hutchins from January 28, 1962, Brant mentioned an enormous Abraham Prescott bass which the group had found that did not prove to be large enough for their needs,[FN 72] and went on to mention pieces he was writing that used the instruments. He suggested that in the first public concert with the eight members of the octet no standard string repertoire should be used, no comparison with traditional instruments should be made, players should have adequate opportunity to practice the instruments, and there should be plenty of rehearsals. The music that Brant suggested included Renaissance and Baroque consort music by composers like Byrd and Purcell, Bach's six-voice fugue from the Musical Offering, works for strings by Ruggles and Ives, and new works by Brant and an unnamed composer.[FN 73] Brant's role in the musical development of the octet was seminal, but the physical development of the instruments was done almost exclusively by Hutchins and her collaborators.

The first use of all eight instruments took place in 1965 at the Riverdale School in New York City in a concert played by Yale music students. Another concert on May 20, 1965 at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA, part of Max Polikoff's "Music in Our Time" programs, captured the most attention. It was for this concert that Henry Brant composed his Consort for True Violins.[FN 74] In the panel discussion following the concert many questions were addressed to Hutchins and concerned the octet. The next day in The New York Times Howard Klein offered the following description of the instruments:[FN 75]

The basses produced wonderful rumblings, and the sonorities of the higher violins were good in the high registers. The resonance of the middle range was weak. The high instruments, when playing their lowest notes, sounded tinny and nasal, so there is work to be done. But a major step toward renovating the string family for the first time in 200 years has been taken--and bravo!

The musicians who played the concert included: Max Pollikoff, treble violin; Ernestine Briemeister, soprano violin; Lilla Kalman, mezzo violin; Sterling Hunkins, alto violin; Peter Rosenfeld, tenor violin; Joseph Tekula, baritone violin; David Walter, bass violin; and Stuart Sankey, contrabass violin.[FN 76] Another concert in Saunders's memory played by Yale students and others took place at Harvard University on June 3, 1966. In 1979 the octet appeared on a Musical Heritage Society recording in music by Frank Lewin.[FN 77]

The first octet consisted of adapted and reworked instruments, except for the treble violin and large bass. Hutchins then built the whole set from scratch, adapting the playing demands for each instrument to the design, a cumbersome process that took two years and demanded considerable redesign of the instruments.[FN 78] Figure 1 illustrates the violin octet in terms of relative size and ranges.[FN 79] Although the instruments are most effectively described by relating them to the conventional violin family, it is important to note that these are new instruments. String players can pick them up and play them, but it takes hours to become intimate with their potential as instruments. Conventional string instruments relate to the octet in the following ways: the violin has the same tuning as the mezzo, the viola the same tuning as the alto, the cello the same tuning as the baritone, and the double bass the same tuning as the contrabass violin. The treble is tuned an octave higher than the violin, the soprano an octave higher than the viola. The tenor is an octave below the violin. The two basses are tuned in fourths, with the small bass tuned to the top three strings of the conventional bass and a top c string. The treble, soprano, and mezzo are played under the chin. The alto, with a body length of 20 inches, can be played under the chin, but it is fitted with an endpin and usually played between the knees. The tenor and baritone are held like cellos, and both basses are played like a conventional string bass.

(Used with permission of the Catgut Acoustical Society, Inc.)

Violin Octet Members

Changes to Brant's original conception have included the addition of a mezzo violin and alterations in the four lowest instruments. When it was discovered that a Stradivarius violin was overpowered by the new instruments, a mezzo violin with the same tuning as a conventional violin and larger dimensions was built.[FN 80] In the late 1970s it was discovered that an error had been made in the design of the four lower instruments, as the resonance mode of the main air cavity had been misidentified. This resulted in the construction of bass instruments with shallower ribs; player tests on which bass instruments are preferred have been inconclusive.[FN 81]

The following years for Hutchins were largely filled with lectures and demonstrations of the octet. Since 1965 she has given over 200 lectures on the octet throughout the world, and various octets have travelled over 60,000 miles in conjunction with these lectures. and in separate residencies.[FN 82] As of 1989 Hutchins had built, or supervised the construction of, 94 octet instruments.[FN 83] (She has received help, especially with the construction of the bass instruments by makers like Hammond Ashley, Donald Blatter, and William Carboni.[FN 84]) Three octets are in permanent collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Musik Museet in Stockholm, and the Historical Musical Instruments Collection at the University of Edinburgh.[FN 85] The most popular octet instruments have proven to be the mezzo which is used by some conventional violinists, the alto, played in orchestras and string quartets, and the tenor, the finest solo instrument of the group.[FN 86]

A number of prominent musicians have investigated the possibilities of the octet instruments. Hutchins has shown her instruments to many of the finest string players of our time and received valuable feedback, but comment will be confined to four musicians who have pursued the alto violin. William Berman, a violist who taught at Oberlin Conservatory, has played the alto violin as a viola for over twenty years in orchestral and solo capacities. His student, Randall Vemer, used an alto for ten years as principal violist in the Portland, OR Symphony. Finally the hand stretches on the instrument became too large for him, and he is now playing one of Hutchins's conventional violas. As mentioned at the opening of this article, Yo-Yo Ma has recently played Bartok's Viola Concerto on alto violins in concerts with the Toronto, Rotterdam, and Baltimore symphonies, the latter also recorded by Sony Classics.

Among the persons present at the concert on May 20, 1965 was Leopold Stokowski, who was most impressed with the alto violin. Howard Klein attributed the following statement to him: "We need to revise all of the orchestral instruments. The strings have needed this treatment for a long time."[FN 87] This was not, however, the first time that Stokowski had encountered the "vertical viola." He had written Hutchins three years before, on June 19, 1962:[FN 88]

I have heard that you make vertical violas. If this is true, could I receive from you information particularly the length of the body? I have always felt that the violas we use in the orchestra are too small for their depth of tone. Another advantage of vertical viola would be that the players could use thumb position just as cellists do.

Hutchins entered into correspondence with the conductor, who finally found a viola player willing to try to play the viola vertically in the fall of 1965. Hutchins worked with Stokowski until 1969 on a model playable under the chin for all violists. He remained captivated with the sound, but Hutchins was unable to solve the problem of the necessary size of the instrument's body. Hutchins developed a prototype of an alto with the body turned 120 degrees to the right (they called it the "monster") which she showed Stokowski in late 1968, but it proved unworkable. Hutchins wrote him about this experience on January 24, 1969:[FN 89]

It was indeed interesting to watch your reactions to the monster when I brought it to you a while back, and I am sure you have had a good deal of fun observing the response of others to this strange instrument. As you said, musicians are extremely conventional, but the hope is that you might be able to find one who is willing to explore its potential and provide some really constructive criticism.

Stokowski wrote Hutchins back on January 27, 1969, noting that the instrument has a "wonderful depth of tone," but that the heavy left side made it very difficult to hold. The correspondence also reveals that Stokowski was interested in the tenor violin as well.[FN 90]

The octet began its life as part of a twentieth-century composer's search for new sounds, but it also fits into the larger history of the violin family. Non-extant members of the violin family were in common use as late as the Baroque. One immediately recalls the violoncello piccolo and violino piccolo used in works by J.S. Bach, and the tenor violin was found in the court orchestra of Lully. In the Syntagma Musicum of 1619, Michael Praetorius described six members of the violin family, an example of the Renaissance consort mentality.[FN 91] It is clear that musicians of the past were not limited in their choice of instruments, and in the violin octet Hutchins has provided the opportunity for us to investigate other possibilities in our time.

The octet instrument with which I am most familiar is the baritone violin in its second model with shallow ribs. I am a Baroque cellist who finds the instrument comfortable to play. The finger spacing in the low positions is not unlike that of a cello, widening considerably in the extreme upper range. Like other Hutchins instruments that I have played, this baritone is a beautifully balanced and constructed instrument with an even sound in all registers. The pizzicato is especially satisfying. As a Baroque cellist I find it an ideal continuo instrument that speaks well at the softest of dynamics. It is also a sweet solo instrument. In his treatise On Playing the Flute, Quantz calls for cellists to use two instruments: a small one for solos and a larger for ensemble work.[FN 92] I have used the baritone violin as an ensemble instrument, and find it most effective.

The future of the octet, Hutchins admits, is not assured:[FN 93]

Just what the future holds for the octet instruments in our musical culture is a real question...they still need to be explored in depth and played seriously by a group of dedicated musicians who will give them the same treatment that is given to learning any stringed instrument.

Clearly Hutchins and others of the CAS hope that this chance will come in the future in the planned center at Stanford University. Some members of the CAS, however, have thought that research on conventional instruments should take precedence. Schelleng took this position in a 1974 letter to Hutchins:[FN 94]

As you are coming down to Interlaken tomorrow, I am writing this hasty note to recollect a thought I have had concerning projects of the CAS... The CAS has accomplished a great deal; it is impressive. I am, however, thinking of the future.

The new instruments: This development has suggested many valuable lines of thought and is very interesting in itself. From a musical point of view I have never accepted Henry Brant's dictum that all voices should have the same character, like an organ. In fact I believe that we lose rather than gain if we take away the distinguishing features of the different voices in a string quartet. Your belief that the air and principal resonances should be on the two middle strings seems sound to me, though I would not want to make a fetish of it. That is, I would not make the cello harder to play if it had that result. Nevertheless, m spite of these questions, I think in planning the instruments as a group that your method has been good.

Where I have real misgivings is in the weight that the new instruments have become in the field development as a whole. It seems to me that the central problem is in the conventional instruments. The real demand for a good instrument lies there...the musician should be able to buy an almost top-notch instrument without making his father mortgage the farm... I believe this to be the central need now and for a long time in the future, much more so than the popularization of new instruments, because of the giant you have to fight in the proportion of the latter. I refer of course to the musical literature and musical habit I consider the hope to develop a literature for the instruments as too visionary, even quixotic. The interest shown by audiences when the instruments are demonstrated I do not take to be a convincing sign of progress... The general public are the wrong persons to convince. The real person to reach is the lass or lad left wanting, hungry for a high-class instrument at a reasonable price on which to play the standard literature, if possible making a living doing it.

As a major player in the development of the violin octet, Schelleng is an informed commentator. In the years since his death in 1979 the CAS has made a number of contributions to the study of conventional string instruments, and work is currently being done in a number of promising directions. That Schelleng did not share the enthusiasm of Hutchins and others about the future of the octet reflects the conservative nature of musicians and their world, but it should be noted that in the thirty years that the octet has existed that they continue to be played and demonstrated. Their future, although far from certain, will be worth following.

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