Yann Besson, luthier Yann Besson, violin and viola maker

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La Lettre du Musicien – #528 – oct. 2019 (by Suzanne Gervais)

La Lettre du Musicien – #528 – oct. 2019 (by Suzanne Gervais)

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Excerpt – translated by Google. (french version available as a PDF file)

The viola, an instrument in search of violin making

Long overlooked by luthiers, the viola has, in recent decades, been the subject of a return to grace. Less standardized than the violin, it stirs the creativity of manufacturers.

No one specializes only in the baroque viola since, at the time, the violinists all played the viola and vice versa
François Fernandez, head of the baroque viola master at the Paris Conservatory

There are violas whose size varies from 5, even 7 centimeters, while it is rarely more than a few millimeters for the violin” explains the luthier Yann Besson, installed near Saintes, in Charente Maritime. A variety of models and ranges that can be explained by the relative freedom of manufacturers, and this, for four hundred years, because “the viola remains much less standardized than the violin“.

Proportions, an ongoing challenge

There are indeed light violas, brilliant violas, small violas which tend towards the violin, others more serious and deep, which evoke the cello, or, rarer, tenor violas which are not played other than in first position … If the measurements of the violin were specified by Stradivarius, for the viola freedom remains in order. A vagueness which endures and which will endure, according to the violist Antoine Tamestit: “We have been trying to standardize the measures of the viola for four centuries … and nothing to do! We must find a delicate balance between its size, the sound, the projection of the sound … The viola is a permanent challenge for the luthier. ” So choosing a viola is more delicate – and even more personal? – than to choose a violin. “The first thing the luthier asks you is,” What size do you want? “Says Arnaud Ghillebaert, professor at Oregon State University in the United States.

The alto maker creativity

When we make a viola today, we are of course inspired by famous big models, explains Yann Besson. Gasparo da Salo or Maggini with the school of Brescia, the Cremonian school with the Archinto of Stradivari or the Tale Vitale de Guarneri …, Illustrious models that guide contemporary luthiers, each one remaining free to respect the letter or the spirit. ” Most luthiers “trace”, that is to say that they are inspired by an aesthetic of viola, its proportions, but not in a process of copying. For a creative luthier, the viola is an exciting field of expression – and experimentation. “We have more open cubits than with a violin or a cello, where everything is supposedly perfect and where we must no longer touch the proportions, says luthier Patrick Charton. With the viola, it’s like with the double bass, we are faced with instruments that are not very ergonomic and there are still solutions to be found. ” The luthier designed the A 21: an instrument without ankles, with a leather scroll – less heavy for the left arm – and modified angles (“when you step on the line, the hand meets the table later“). Of the four instruments stamped “21”, the viola works best. The luthiers can also count on the curiosity of the performers: “The violists welcome creation in violin making, much more than violinists, who swear by the school of Cremona“, confides Yann Besson. With the creation of a veritable viola school in the second half of the 20th century, the violin making of this instrument developed considerably. “As there are not enough old violas, the demand for contemporary instruments is very strong. The quality of the offer has greatly improved” says Patrick Charton.

Old violas, a rare commodity

If the contemporary violas easily convince the performers, it is because the old models do not run through the stores. Unlike the overabundance of violins from the 18th and 19th centuries, there are very few period violas on the market, and there are few luthiers who offer instruments made before 1950. “Violas from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in good condition are very expensive … and do not necessarily sound good, “says Yann Besson. If the viola acquires its letters of nobility thanks to the composers of today *, it struggles to emerge from the shadows in early music. Again, the comparison with the flowering of baroque violins is incommensurate: “There are quite a few baroque violas on the market. Probably because this instrument is not taught like the violin or the baroque cello“, deplores Antoine Tamestit.

At the Paris Conservatory, François Fernandez is in charge of the master of viola baroque, which opened in 1998: “Honestly, nobody specializes only in viola baroque since, at the time, the violinists all played the viola and vice versa.

Baroque viola, an eternal compromise

Can the baroque viola’s discretion be explained by the fact that at first glance, viola and early music are not associated? Wrongly! One of Bach’s sons, Johann Christian, says his father enjoyed playing it: he had the feeling of being in the center of harmony. Mozart also systematically played the viola part in chamber music … For the violin maker Claire Ryder, the reason is different: “Music written for viola during the Baroque period is less complex than that of violin. was therefore often a violinist who stuck to it. ” It was not until Bach and the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto that the viola acquired a solo role.

A baroque viola will thus have a very short handle. “In Lully’s orchestra, the viola is used to play the inner voices, it’s rare to leave the first position. However, few baroque violas made on copy have kept their sleeves at the original size, explains François Fernandez: 21st century musicians will rather ask for a baroque viola with modern proportions.

If you want to buy a baroque viola, do not hesitate to call on modern luthiers and bow makers. Claire Ryder makes them. “The difference between a modern viola and a baroque viola is the same as between a modern violin and a baroque violin. “For Yann Besson, the question of baroque violas – and old instruments in general – is more delicate:” The market for old instruments is, for me, a gray area, because there is not a single model of viola or baroque violin. There are dozens and dozens of baroque violins. One can only conceive of instruments which approach the montage of the baroque period in a certain country at a certain date. ” The “baroque” dimension of an instrument would therefore be more a matter of technique and interpretation.