The ‘Primrose’ Guarneri viola: an ideal model

Why the Guarneri 'contralto' viola model has been a favourite of players and makers for over 300 years

By Jason Price June 22, 2012

l32420topThere are roughly half a dozen surviving Guarneri violas and the ‘Primrose’, dated 1697, the year before Andrea died, is the last. Although the original label is of Andrea, the workmanship in its details and its broader concepts is the work of his son, Giuseppe Guarneri ‘filius Andrea’. It is made on the smaller ‘contralto’ model, which was ultimately to replace the larger, more unwieldy ‘tenore’ violas favoured by makers such as Andrea Amati, Gasparo Bertolotti ‘da Salò’ and Giovanni Maggini.

During the 17th century, the music that was being written to include the viola had begun to require instruments that could carry more of the melodic line. And as the viola part received more notes to play in higher positions over the fingerboard, comfort and size became critical factors and musicians needed smaller instruments that would allow them to play with greater ease in the higher registers. The ‘contralto’ model was the perfect solution: its tuning was the same as the ‘tenore’, but the string length and body length were shorter, the ribs shallower, the bouts narrower, and the resulting instrument was far easier to play.

The ‘contralto’ model had existed even in the days of the Brothers Amati and Maggini, but it is Andrea Guarneri who is often credited with perfecting its design. With its shorter back length (41.3 cm compared to the giant 47 cm of some ‘tenores’), the Guarneri ‘contralto’  model has been a favourite of players and makers for over three centuries.

The back of this great viola is made from a rather humble tree: one piece of slab-cut maple with wings in all four bouts and a small cluster of knots in the upper centre bout. The top is in two matched pieces of spruce with rather wide grain at the bouts. The edgework of the top and back is careful but not fussy and lies somewhere between what one expects of Andrea – longer corners, a finer edge – and what one sees in more mature violins by Giuseppe ‘filius Andrea’ – shorter corners, broader edges and less depth in the channelling. The arching of both back and top is rounded in the centre and slightly hollowed just inside the corners. On the top the hollowing above the sound holes is exaggerated and slightly ‘pinched’ as one sees in later ‘filius Andrea’ violins.

Two large maple locating pins are set just inside the purfling of the back. The internal centre pin appears to be of the same stock. The sound holes show the unmistakable hand of Giuseppe ‘filius Andrea’: they are upright, narrow and straight without being stiff. The upper and lower holes are round and the wings are slightly pinched.

The head is superbly carved and sculpturally elegant. The pegbox is robust and sturdy almost to the point of being massive, yet the volute reduces elegantly to a fine and almost diminutive eye. Compass points are visible along the central ridge of the back and at the heel of the pegbox. As with most Cremonese violas, the ‘Primrose’ has a stepped pegbox at the transition from the neck to allow a wider interior to the pegbox and to give more reinforcement and proportional symmetry to the longer and larger head. The step has been reduced in the ‘Primrose’ by way of a clever neck-graft to allow more comfort to the player in the first positions.

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The label of the ‘Primrose’ is original and in excellent condition apart from the last digit of the date, which has faded with time. This has made the precise dating of the viola the subject of some debate. The Hills and Wurlitzer refer to the date of the viola in their correspondence and certificates as 1694, but the Hill Guarneri book (published after the Hills’ initial correspondence regarding this viola) dates it as 1697. Robert Bein agreed, and gave the date as 1697 in his monograph on the viola published in 1983. Under ultraviolet light the last two digits of the label do indeed appear to be 9-7, which makes sense given the obvious hand of Giuseppe and the fact that Andrea died a year later, in 1698.

The varnish of this viola is rich in both colour and texture and covers the instrument generously on top, back, ribs and head.

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