Steffen Nowak, Maker of fine Violins, Violas and Cellos in baroque and modern style

On this page you can find some ideas regarding various Viola designs and models.

I have made many Violas over the years, mostly from 15 3/4'' to 16.5'' (400mm to 420mm). A wide variety of models, combined with the most suitable string length should give most players the right choice. I am happy to explore individual requests from players.

On commissioning a smaller Viola:
Often players don't consider that Viola designs have no fixed or standard ratios of body  and string length (unlike most violins) and will only ask for an instrument  in progressively smaller body lengths.
I believe that the body and string length can be seen initially - within reason - as almost separate entities.

We have learned from the classical makers that the bridge position can be close to the geometrical centre of the front
(Brescian design) and slightly further down ( Cremonese design). This alters the relative string length to body proportion.

Of course there might be a string length more ideal for a certain sonority of sound and 'ideal' tension for the standard strings....but by listening to individual players ideas/ concepts and looking at the physical possibilities of each player I believe that a customised small instrument with a real Viola sound is achievable.

I always ask  players to establish first  the maximum string length they can comfortably play on - without getting strains or tired. This might well be different if you are playing Wagner Operas every night or doing classical string quartet music or perhaps 'just' teaching.

After that consider a comfortable maximum body length of the Viola. This should enable you to maintain agility from the elbow, the wrist and ease of fingering up to high positions. As a player you are probably aware of this anyway.

The chosen string length gives me as a maker the correct length and proportion of the neck length and the stop of the belly (distance from edge of table to inner ff hole nicks) where the bridge stands at. This is  almost always at a ratio of 2:3, the same as in a violin. In a few cases it can be slightly altered but not by more then then a few mm's - as it affects  the left hand position changes  in relation to the neck root.

Considering also the type of sound quality and response you want I will then suggest a suitable model  which to use as a design prototype. This can then be rescaled and perhaps  slightly altered in proportions to achieve the desired stop/bridge position. Together with a suitable choice of tonewoods it is the first important step for a successfully customized Viola.

On making an 'unfashionable' Strad Viola:

There has been a long debate over the suitability of Strads design for the need of a modern Viola player. His unique and in my eyes very harmonious design has been developed in the 1690's, the period where the master also created his long pattern violin. The latter was abolished some 9 years later but the Viola design stood firm until the last surviving model of 1734 - 'The Gibson'.
His output accounts for only 10 to (an optimistic) 18 existing Violas, even the experts aren't sure how many exactly have survived. And can you include an instrument in that count if substantial parts of it have been made by someone else (the term 'composite' is often applied here)?
Strad's output and achievement of classy work and original designs has been documented in many sources, but surely the 1690's have to be credited with him achieving his possibly highest standard as far as pure beauty and craftsmanship is concerned. In the latter years his growing list of clients meant his sons participating to a large extend in his production as well as even other possible co- and outworkers.
The sound of Strad Violas is often criticized for not being 'Viola' like - whatever that might mean. The main reason for it  could just be a lack of comparison. The number of  Strad Violas  heard live today in the concert hall is very small, or on recordings you need to know who played which instrument at the time.
Some comments I encountered from makers are  'too narrow in the waist' - 'ribs too shallow' - 'sounding too much like a violin'.
Just listen to recordings of the Amadeus Quartet with Peter Schidlof playing the 'MacDonald' Stradivarius of 1701 or some of the Lindsay string quartet recordings with Roger Bigley on the RAMs  'Archinto' Viola of 1696 to put your mind to rest.
There has also been a certain fashion amongst makers for models by the Brescians Gasparo and his pupil Maggini (though many of their instruments have been cut down to a more manageable length - so far from an original model anymore) as well as Strads early contemporary Andrea Guarneri.
Nothing wrong with that but for the often cited streamlining or standardizing of violin models towards a Strad and del Gesu model, only now creating a reverse trend in the Viola world by overseeing the wonderful design and tonal concept the Strad Viola model offers.
It obviously doesn't lend itself to a maker who tries to excuse rough work and inept varnishing technique with 'working in the spirit' of del Gesu or da Salo ( and even these poor fellows are far too often  treated unfairly for alleged 'rough' or 'crude' work).

So is a modern Strad Viola holding its own against the favoured models of the other makers?
I certainly think so: a clear, balanced sound with good projection and easy response seem to point in the right direction.

 Do you  have any questions?     e-mail me here

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