Founding a Family of Fiddles
Traits of family members

Any family has its resemblances and its differences. So it is with our violins. They make a family (figure 7) with basic traits in common. But they also have their own personalities.

Fig. 7 - THE WHOLE FAMILY poses for pictures with performers trying them out.

treble soprano mezzo

Treble (G-D-A-E). The main problem with our treble has been to get the frequencies of body and cavity resonances high enough and still keep the mensure long enough for a player to finger consecutive semitones without having to slide his fingers around. We projected a theoretical body length of 10.5 in. (26.7 cm) and a string length of 10 in. (25.4 cm), but to have the proper cavity resonance in this size body, the ribs would be only 3 mm high-a potentially dangerous structural condition! Besides we knew of no string material that could be tuned to E 1320 at a length of 25.4 cm without breaking. At one point we thought we might have to resort to a three-stringed instrument in this range as was indicated by Michael Praetorius in 1619. [Ref 16]

The cavity-resonance problem was solved by making six appropriately sized holes in the ribs to raise its frequency to the desired D 587. A string material of requisite tensile strength to reach the high E 1320 was finally found in carbon rocket wire, made by National Standard Company. This proved suitable not only for the high E string but for a number of others on the new instruments. As a temporary measure the ribs were made of soft aluminum to prevent the holes from unduly weakening the structure. Redesign should eliminate the nasal quality found on the lower strings and improve the upper ones. Despite this nasal quality many musicians are pleased with the degree in which the upper strings surpass the normal violin in the same high range.

Plans are to redesign this instrument in several different ways in an effort to discover the best method of achieving desired tone quality throughout its entire range.

Soprano (C-G-D-A). The soprano was designed to have as large a plate area as possible, with resulting shallow ribs and fairly large f holes to raise the cavity resonance to the desired G 392. The overall tone has been judged good and is most satisfactory on the three upper strings. The instrument needs redesign, however, for a better quality on the lower strings. The mensure is as long as possible for playing convenience. J. S. Bach wrote for an instrument in this tuning, which Sir George Grove describes in Grove's dictionary: [Ref 17] "The violino piccolo is a small violin, with strings of a length suitable to be tuned a fourth above the ordinary violin. It existed in its own right for playing notes in a high compass... It survives as the 'threequarter violin' for children. Tuned like a violin, it sounds wretched, but in its proper pitch it has a pure tone color of its own, for which the high positions on the ordinary violin gave no substitute."

Mezzo (G-D-A-E). The present mezzo with a body length of 16 in. (40.5 cm) was added to the new violin family when musicians found that even an excellent concert violin did not have the power of the other members of the group. According to scaling theory [Ref 18] this instrument, which is 1.14 times as long as the violin, has somewhat more power than necessary to match that of the others. So a second instrument has been developed that is 1.07 times as long as the violin. It has violin placement of resonances yet is adjusted to have conventional violin mensure for the player. [Ref 19] It has more power than the normal violin and seems most satisfactory. In fact several musicians have indicated that it may be the violin of the future.

alto tenor baritone

Alto (vertical viola) (C-G-D-A). The greatest difficulty with the alto is that it puts the trained viola player at a distinct disadvantage by taking the viola from under his chin and setting it on a peg, cello fashion on the floor. Even with an unusual body length of 20 in., its mensure has been adjusted to that of a normal 17.5-in. (44.5-cm) viola, and some violists with large enough physique have been able to play it under the chin. Cello teachers have been impressed by its usefulness in starting young children on an instrument that they can handle readily as well as one they can continue to follow for a career. The greatest advantage is the increase in power and overall tone quality. [Ref 20] Leopold Stokowski said when he heard this instrument in concert, "That is the sound I have always wanted from the violas in my orchestra. No viola has ever sounded like that before. It fills the whole hall."

Tenor (G-D-A-E). The body length of the tenor was redeveloped from the Dautrich vilon which had a length ratio of 1.72 to the violin. The present tenor has a ratio of 1.82 with other factors adjusted accordingly, and the strings as long as possible for convenience in cello fingering. Many musicians have been impressed with its potential in ensemble as well as solo work. They are amazed to find that it is not a small cello, musically, but a large octave violin.

The main problem for this instrument is that there is little or no music for it as yet. Early polyphonic music, where the tenor's counterpart in the viol family had a voice, has been rearranged for either cello or viola. It has no part in classical string or orchestral literature, and only a few contemporary compositions include it, Grove [Ref 17] has this to say: "The gradual suppression of the tenor instrument in the 18th century was a disaster; neither the lower register of the viola nor the upper register of the violoncello can give its effect. It is as though all vocal part music were sung without any tenors, whose pasts were distributed between the basses and contraltos! It is essential for 17th century concerted music for violins and also for some works by Handel and Bach and even later part-writing. In Purcell's Fantasy on One Note the true tenor holds the sustained C... The need for a real tenor voice in the 19th century is evidenced by the many abortive attempts to create a substitute."

Baritone (C-G-D-A). The body resonance of our baritone is nearly three semitones lower than projected, and this departure probably accounts for the somewhat bass-like quality on the low C 65.4 string. Its strings are 0.75 in. (1.8 cm) longer than those of the average cello. One concert cellist said after playing it for half an hour, "You have solved all the problems of the cello at once. But I would like a conventional cello string length." Thus a redesign of this instrument is desirable by shortening the body length a little. This redesign would raise the frequency of the body resonance and at the same time make possible a shorter string.

small bass contrabass

Small bass (A-D-G-C). Our first newly constructed instrument in the bass range is shaped like a bass viol with sloping shoulders, but has both top and back plates arched and other features comparable to violin construction. This form was adopted partly to discover the effect of the sloping shoulders of the viol and partly because a set of half-finished bass plates was available. The next small bass is being made on violin shape with other features as nearly like the first one as possible. Bass players have found the present instrument has a most desirable singing quality and extreme playing ease. They particularly like the bass-viol shape. It has proved most satisfactory in both concert and recording sessions.

Contrabass (E-A-D-G). Our contrabass [Ref 21] is 7 ft (2lO cm) high overall; yet it has been possible to get the string length well within conventional bass mensure at 43 in. (110 cm) so that a player of moderate height has no trouble playing it except when he reaches into the higher positions near the bridge. For sheer size and weight it is hard to hold through a 10-hr recording session as one bassist did. When it was first strung up, the player felt that only part of its potential was being realized. The one constructional feature that had not gone according to plan was rib thickness. Ribs were 3 mm thick, whereas violin making indicated they needed to be only 2 mm thick. So the big fiddle was opened; the lining stripes cut out, and the ribs planed down on the inside to an even 2 mm all over-a job that took 10 days. But when the contrabass was put together and strung up, its ease of playing and depth of tone delighted all who played or heard it. Henry Brant commented, "I have waited all my life to hear such sounds from a bass."

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