Alto violin

Alto violin
Carleen M Hutchins, Montclair, USA, 1974
Gifted in 1987
Musical Instrument Collection: MIMEd 2794

This is the fourth-smallest instrument of a set of eight that were designed with the help and support of the Catgut Acoustical Society of America. It is tuned to the same notes as the viola but has a larger body than most violas. This is why it is set up with a chinrest for those with long enough arms to play it like a viola as well as a spike to enable smaller players to hold it like a cello.

The aim of the Society was to produce a family of stringed instruments that all have the same tone quality as the violin. The viola, cello and double bass are not exact scalings of the violin – their bodies are relatively smaller than would be needed to get precisely the same resonances, so they each sound a bit different. It was felt that a more homogenous string section, created by having instruments where the resonances of the bodies were at exactly the same points relative to the pitches of the strings on each instrument, would be beneficial. Octets were made and travelled the world to promote this idea.

The set now in Edinburgh was brought to Britain in 1974 for the International Congress on Acoustics. From 1976 to 1979, it was based at the Royal College of Music in London and was used in the musical and scientific research programme funded by the Leverhulme Trust, from where it moved to University College, Cardiff, until 1986. It arrived in Edinburgh in 1987 with Peter Fellgett and has since featured in various research and composition projects.

Peter Fellgett (1922-2008) was a physicist and Professor of Cybernetics and Instrument Physics at the University of Reading. Having studied at Cambridge, he worked at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh before moving to Reading. His work, and the discipline of Cybernetics, relates to scientific instruments. Scientific instruments are conceptualised and constructed in order to make something observable or measurable. Once this has been achieved, people tend to think less about the instrument itself but only about its output. However, neglecting to consider the impact of the instrument on the output potentially becomes problematic further down the line.

We do not know why Professor Fellgett obtained and then donated the octet instruments to the University but perhaps he saw some similarities between scientific and musical instruments: both are made for a specific purpose, but can be repurposed and adapted to fulfil different ends and to achieve different effects. The instrument itself remains central to the experiment.

Listen to this instrument:

Story by Dr Jenny Nex, Curator, Musical Instrument Collection