Daniel Orsen delves into the history of the Viola Alta - an instrument championed by Hermann Ritter and Richard Wagner that aimed to optimise the acoustics and physicality of the viola

C-2636 late 19th century viola of Ritter proportion

Photo: Carriage House Violins

An anonymous viola made during the late 19th-century measuring 46 cm, likely inspired by Hermann Ritter’s Viola Alta design

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In the 19th-century there were no daring and valiant violists such as we are accustomed to today, only tall violinists and bad violinists who were exiled to the viola section. There were scarcely any violas either, as attested to by Berlioz in his 1844 Treatise on Instrumentation:

’It needs to be mentioned that most violas in today’s French orchestras aren’t built with the necessary quality standards in mind. They don’t have the size, and neither, artistically speaking, the sound quality of a real viola. They are most often violins, equipped with viola strings. The music directors should forbid use of these bastardised instruments, whose tone robs one of the most interesting orchestral parts of its colour and power, especially in the lower registers.’

Enter Hermann Ritter - composer, musicologist, and defender of the viola.

Ritter started out life as a violinist, notably studying with Joseph Joachim in Berlin, and quickly became the city music director in Heidelberg.The job did not live up to his expectations, so Ritter enrolled at Heidelberg University to study the history of philosophy and musicology, eventually dedicating himself entirely to musicology. According to Carl Smith, the late champion of Hermann Ritter and the Viola Alta:

’During [Ritter’s] studies he made a living as a teacher, playing the alto viola for joy every now and then. This was the time when he decided to intensively study the viola, with the goal to make it sound ‘tonally’ equal to the violin and violoncello. He asked himself: ”Why is this instrument, given its naturally suitable register for musical expression, not being frequently used as an independent ‘player’ in music?” He found the cause to be part of the instrument’s construction. Looking for an answer, he studied the history of the evolution of string instruments with sources, as well as the process of violin making.’

The reason Ritter thought the viola did not sound tonally equal to the violin or cello will be familiar to most string players. The viola is tuned a fifth lower than the violin; the corresponding size ratio for that intervallic difference is 3:2. Since violins are about 36cm (14 inches) long, violas should be 54 cm (21 inches) long. But a 54cm viola is too big to play like a violin, and too small to play like a cello, so violas are usually between 40-43cm (16 to 17 inches) long and played like a violin. This acoustical/design problem is responsible for the beguiling timbre of the viola and a long history of experimentation in viola design. Ritter was one such experimenter, but not a particularly creative one. After all of his research into the history of instrument building he simply designed a model for a bigger viola; 48cm (19 inches), 4:3 of the standard violin size, and had it constructed by luthier Karl Adam Hörlein.

In February 1876, half a year before the premier of the Ring Cycle, Ritter presented his Viola Alta to Richard Wagner, playing ’Lied an den Abendstern’ from Tannhäuser. Wagner was impressed, exclaiming, ’Das richtige Altinstrument!’ [The proper alto instrument!]. Ritter was immediately hired as the first solo violist of the Bayreuth Festspiel Orchestra and the hands of the viola section were filled with Viola Altas. It seems only right that the premiere of the Ring, which had a bigger opera house, a bigger orchestra pit, a bigger orchestra, a Wagner tuba, a Wagner bell, a Stierhorn (an actual Steer Horn), Anvils, a Bass Trumpet, a Contrabass Trombone, and six harps, also had bigger violas.

The Viola Alta’s first official appearance in an orchestral score was Wagner’s Parsifal, under an alternative name, Altgeige (part of a plucky PR campaign by Ritter to rebrand the violin ’Soprangeige’ and the viola ’Altgeige,’ as a means of raising the viola to equal status with the violin). A significant body of solo music was written or transcribed specifically for the Viola Alta by members of Wagner’s circle and the composers who followed in his wake. An inexhaustive list includes 21 original compositions and 59 transcriptions by Ritter himself, two sonatas by Felix Draesecke, Hans Sitt’s Fantastiestücke (dedicated to Ritter), and Liszt’s Romance Oubliée (also dedicated to Ritter).

What of the Viola Alta’s legacy? The Viola Alta forced instrument makers, players, conductors, and composers to take the viola seriously. The tone quality of the Bayreuth viola section would have set a new standard for what violas could and should sound like, and the entire musical world was paying attention because of the spectacle of the Ring Cycle. For players, wielding a 48cm instrument also required specialisation - no longer could weak violinists fill in the viola section as needed. For composers, Wagner’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Viola Alta inspired them to write solo music for the Viola Alta/viola at a faster rate than had been done previously.

Whither the Viola Alta? Ritter saw his dream of a rising standard of viola playing come true, but this was, ironically, the downfall of the Viola Alta. A 48 cm viola was simply too big, even for the tallest of persons, to attain the heightened standards of technical excellence in orchestral and chamber music, or to handle the demanding solo parts now being written for the viola. Thus, construction of Viola Altas fizzled out in the 1920s. Many Viola Altas have been cut down to be smaller and more playable, and most luthiers today prefer the term ’Ritter Model Viola’. So the Viola Alta has not so much gone extinct as been subsumed and assimilated into ’violas.’ Ritter’s knight-errant quest for the perfect alto instrument may not have ended in a lasting triumph, but in played an important role in establishing the standards of viola construction and performance we enjoy today.

See the Viola Alta in action here: Daniel Orsen and Pierre-Nicolas Columbat perform Liszt’s Romance Oubliée.

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