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The Chord Viola

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Article by Gabriel Passov, Roman Denissov

Why a chord viola? The interest of musicians and composers in the possibility of playing chords on bowed instruments has not vanished since these instruments were integrated into the European musical culture.

In modern bowed instruments the degree of curvature of the top edge of the bridge and bow design provide the possibility of playing on separate strings and on two adjacent strings (double stops).
The application of a "German" bow for the execution of three and four-string chords is known from music history. The great Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), himself possessing this technique, meant its use (not arpeggio) in his compositions for solo violin (http://www.baroquemusic.org/barvlnbo.html).

Curved bowHere the possibility of performing the chords is provided with a bow design utilizing a bow stick with sagging strings. The control of hair tension is carried out by the thumb. Such bow allows playing on one string, and even on four, but limits possibilities of performance to slow compositions only. Besides, the bow control - done by the thumb, while simultaneously keeping the highly arched bow in a steady position, poses great difficulties; therefore such technique hasn't remained.

Albert Schweitzer and the curved bowIt is interesting that in the 1930s a group of enthusiasts who gathered around the Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer tried to revive the use of the "German" bow in performances of Bach’s compositions for solo violin. However, their initiative wasn’t supported by the musical community and by the '50s it came to nothing.

Paganini and his bow

The g
reat Niccolo Paganini, according to some contemporaries, performed on his violin playing three and four-string chords. Unfortunately, the only thing we know is that the bridge of his violin was flatter than others of his time. (I.Yampolsky. Niccolo Paganini, Life and creativity. Moscow. Publishing house "Music" 1968 p. 263). We can see on the Karl Begasa’s lithograph showing performing Niccolo Paganini using a bow, approximately three times higher than the bows widely used at Tourte’s bow
time (Tourte, 1790).


Thus, Paganini’s technique meant simultaneous modification of the bow and the bridge. Nevertheless, it seems to us that these modifications were insufficient to play three and four-string chords. Most likely, his bow in addition contained a device for fast easing and tensioning of the hair. 

It is worth mentioning the gypsy three-stringed viola, bracsa, which was used in the southeast part of Europe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viola). This accompaniment bowed instrument is a normal viola on which the c string is removed and the top edge of the bridge has a straight flat configuration, i.e. all three strings lie on one line. The a1 (440 Hz) string is replaced with an a (220 Hz) string. Such alteration provides the opportunity to play basic chords using the standard fingering and to reduce an ensemble from a quintet to a trio.

After Andrea Amati in the middle of 16th century created the violin design that has remained until our time, further attempts to enrich the musical palette of bowed instruments by using chords concentrated on variations of the bridge top edge profile or of the bow hair tension.

The method suggested here by us has been applied to a viola, thus creating our chord viola. This method is characterised by a mechanism built into the bridge. This mechanism allows for fast switching between the usual position of strings to the possibility of playing chords (three strings are on one line). In addition, another mechanism located under the tailpiece maintains the necessary strings tension.

 Chord viola bridge

The usual bridge has a curve-shaped top edge on which the strings а1, d1, g, c are placed, in grooves 1-4. In our chord viola bridge a pin, on which the d1 string rests, passes through groove 2. Thanks to the lever mechanism, the pin, and with it the string, can move up and down and be fixed in two positions: for usual playing (top) and for chord playing (bottom, three strings on one line).

In the photos below, the lever positions correspond to the string positions for solo performance (left) and for chord playing (right).

Chord viola bridge up: normal playing
chord viola solo performance
Chord viola bridge down: chord playing
chord viola chord playing

The time necessary for this switching, including tension compensation, is about 1/2 measure.

An additional fifth groove was made to the right of and below groove 1 to maintain the standard fingering and the possibility to play the basic chords. The  а1 (440 Hz) string was installed in groove 5, and the а (220 Hz) string was installed in groove 1.

Chord viola fingering

The close relative positioning of strings a and
а1 enables to play double notes with an octave interval by a single touch.

Thus, it becomes possible to play solo and the basic three-string chords with the use of standard fingering. It is important to note that no modifications have been made to the body of the instrument and the acoustic qualities
have not been affected. Violin, cello and bass can be subjected to similar modification. 

The given proposal is presented to patenting.

For contact: gabriel.passov@hotmail.com

Musical example with the chord viola:
Tchaikovsky, Neapolitan Dance from ballet Swan lake

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