Kathryn Kibbe has been my friend and fellow musician for nearly as long as I have played violin. She and I studied under the same teacher in grade school; we played together in the youth symphony; and we still play chamber music together. This series will be covering the process of making a viola for my friend.
In the spring, she will be auditioning at music schools around the country for her post-graduate studies. Let's hope we can do this in time!
Kathryn's viola is based on the 1672 “Mahler” viola made by Antonio Stradivari. The “Mahler” was made in the earliest period of Stradivari's career, before he had developed his highly individual style. During this period Stradivari made instruments that resembled those made by Nicolo Amati and his proteges. There is no evidence that Stradivari was associated with the Amati workshop, but his designs imitated the predominant school—the purfling thin and dark, the corners long and lithe, and the f-hole design undeniably Amatese.
Stradivari put a lot of effort into making his violins look Amatese, even going so far as to write “Alumnus Nicolai Amati” (Student of Nicolo Amati) on some labels. But despite their ostensibly traditional Amati appearance, his instruments are, from the earliest known examples, fundamentally novel in design. The placement of the f-holes of an Amati is based on a circle drawn from the centerline of the violin; for a Stradivarius it is based on marks made from the outline of the instrument. This means that f-holes of an Amati are symmetric to the center while Stradivarius' are symmetric to the outline. The difference is only a few millimeters, but it's the sort of difference that drastically changes the appearance of an instrument.
Stradivari also, and more significantly, seems to have had an entirely different method of designing the outline of his instruments than did those who learned from Amati. The outline of an Amati is a simple one, based on four circles with vesica pisces drawn within their borders. Stradivari's instruments do not fit comfortably into this simple and highly geometric design philosophy. In fact I haven't yet seen a convincing geometric, trigonometric, symplectic, or riemannian explanation of Stradivari's outlines. To me, a Stradivarius is an instrument of intuition. The outline can't be explained by simple mathematics. A Stradivarius is simultaneously axiomatic and enigmatic. The qualities of a Strad are some of the easiest to detect, but if you try to quantify a Stradivarius, you will miss the mark.
An instrument's outline is the foundation on which the whole of the instrument is built. And it is Stradivari's unique shapes that create the core of sound—a sound that has become legendary.
Stradivari's willingness to deviate from the status quo was fairly disastrous for violists. He had a penchant for thin and skinny. After the “Mahler” the next surviving viola was made in 1690, and it seems as if Stradivari removed around one centimeter from the middle of the instrument. The lengths of the two instruments are as near as makes no difference, but the width had decreased. Thenceforward, Stradivari made violas exclusively with these reduced dimensions. It is a widely held belief that violas made by Antonio Stradivari simply do not sound good because of this.
This is why the “Mahler” is such a special instrument. It has the genius design elements of Stradivari, while retaining proportions more suitable to a viola—proportions nearly equal to those used by Andrea Guarneri, the most respected maker of violas in the Amati tradition.
To my knowledge, the “Mahler” is the only Stradivarius viola with these proportions, and it is not widely used as a model. I am excited to explore this unknown territory!