I finally found her... I found my fiddle!
When the experts look at my new viola there is a common sequence of expression. The first glance is cursory, the second is confused, the third is indignant disbelief, but the final stare is that of a connoisseur's appreciation of rare beauty. My viola is a bit of a unicorn. This is the story of my glorious instrument...
Made by Hieronymus (a.k.a. the 'Brothers' - I'll explain later) Amati in 1619, she has lived a very full life by now! After starting out as a large tenor viola in Cremona, Italy it was dramatically cut down in London about 160 years ago to be a more manageable size for modern playing. Fortunately for me, the adjustment was down to my favorite body size of 16 3/8"! Nearly all big violas of this age have been cut down in one way or another but there is always a design problem that follows. You simply cannot maintain proper proportions because it is impossible to only move one thing without affecting the whole.
Many of the large old violas got cut from the outside in and look awkward like shaved cats. My viola is unique in that it was cut from the inside out. She has tiny scars through the front and back as if she had a tummy tuck. The final effect is like you've stuffed a whole lotta' viola into a tight sexy dress. Ken Warren, the famed Chicago based violin expert marveled and told me "You had better be happy! Miraculously, after all these years, this beautiful viola has somehow kept all of the important original parts- a gorgeous scroll, original f-holes, varnish, sharp corners... and it sounds fantastic!!"
The patriarch of the Amati family, Andrea is credited with the invention of the violin. There were things similar to the violin family but he was the first to codify the form and fundamentals of construction. His two sons followed together in the family business. However, Girolamo (Hieronymus) and Antonio (Antonius) Amati had a fight and parted ways. Girolamo, who still had a stack of labels reading 'Fratelli (Brothers) Amati', kept using the old labels on his own instruments long after the split and even after Antonio passed away!
Girolamo passed on the family business to his son Nicolo who continued to experiment and improve upon the design of the violin. Unfortunately, beginning in the late 1620's most of Cremona was wiped out by waves of famine and the plague. Nicolo Amati was rendered, at one point, quite possibly the only luthier left alive in all of Italy! He was forced to expand beyond his family and reluctantly agreed to take on outside apprentices like Antonio Stradivari and Andrea Guarneri.
I am hard pressed to describe the sound of this magnificent viola so I'm tempted to give you the cheeky answer, 'Just come to one of my concerts and hear it for yourself!' However, I can tell you that though it is rather difficult to describe how it is simultaneously tenor and soprano, growly and smooth, fiery and elegantly tranquil, my biggest problem remains in figuring out how best to use such a broad palette! When I open my viola case, my heart leaps a little. I often sit at home with the case open and just stare at my viola. Like my exquisitely beautiful wife Sonia, she has only gotten more beautiful since I have known her.
Ed Ormond played this viola in the Cleveland Orchestra for about 40 years. He said that with this instrument he learned to love every note as if they were his own children, from the big loud ones to the light fast ones, they are all beautiful. In his last years when he was not well, he needed this viola to be near him and her presence comforted him. That his wife Mimi, daughter Naomi, and their entire family have entrusted me with the future of this instrument is the deepest honor.
As I sit here writing this with my open viola case nearby and my lovely wife reading a book next to me I'm the picture of happiness. But wait, a great instrument like this requires a new bow (Shh, don't tell my wife!) Stay tuned...