Loar’s Viola’s Voice


Loar's August Diehl viola was brought into public performance after 62 years of silence. This time, the music was delivered by Patrick Tobin, the Principal Violist for the Mt. Hood Pops Orchestra of Gresham, Oregon

On October 2, 2004, Loar’s August Diehl viola was brought into public performance after 62 years of silence. This time, the music was delivered by Patrick Tobin, the Principal Violist for the Mt. Hood Pops Orchestra of Gresham, Oregon, and the purpose was for a very special wedding; my marriage to Rosemary Wagner.

I asked Patrick to describe his experience:

This was my second “hands-on” encounter with the Loar-Diehl viola. I hyphenate the name because of Loar’s modifications that made an already exceptional instrument absolutely unique! I have been researching Tenor violas (the common variety is an Alto) and past attempts to improve on bowed string instruments as documented in various historical accounts and more recently, by US patents. The average viola has a characteristically less-than-full tone because the body size is too small for the wavelengths it is expected to generate. The old master makers produced a Tenor instrument that was up to three inches longer in the body. These instruments fell into disuse (or worse, most were literally cut down in size) as composers began using four-part harmony and the Cello took over the Tenor part. Those that remain are either in museums or locked away in private collections. Being 6′ 4″ with a longer-than-average reach, a larger instrument is my best option. I was searching the Internet for a combination of “Virzi and Viola” and found myself reading Roger’s account of Loar’s life and his personal viola. My quest gathered urgency after finding that such an instrument did exist, and I made a pilgrimage to audition the Loar-Diehl. (I had been playing, over the summer, another “patent” viola made in 1933 by the Parramon shop in Barcelona, Spain. This instrument must be played “Gamba” style between the knees.) The first thing I did was to try Loar’s instrument upright as Loar had used it. The room resounded with a throaty Tenor sound that had more than a hint of Cello tone! In fact Loar used a Cello bow when he played it. A friend who plays an Amati copy describes it as an “organ pipe sound.” After hearing some Bach and the powerful tone of this instrument in their home, Roger and his fiancé, Rosemary came into the room and asked me to play for their wedding!

The more I played and experienced the instrument, the more of Loar’s presence I felt in terms of the improvements he’d made. I knew of the custom Virzi Tone Producer. While tuning the viola I discovered cleverly disguised machine pegs. We deduced that to adjust the friction, a tool was needed to hold the shank while the peg was turned counterclockwise. At the Siminoff wedding, I was warming up in a small room and was told that I could be heard outside in the winery grounds! This viola has wall-piercing power. In the open with full sunlight, I noticed another patent modification. Loar had a resonant soundpost installed — invented by Axel Borg. This device is intended to enhance the bass response, taking over where the Virzi leaves off. (Borg was an uncle of Sibelius, the composer). Before the ceremony, I was able to play through all the Bach suites and try different bows I had brought along. The Loar-Diehl responded favorably and differently to each bow and I settled on a Baroque bow for the Bach.

I hesitate to describe the sound of a bowed instrument because it can depend to such a high degree on the bow and on the player. A string player’s bow technique and control of the point of contact with the string is crucial to the resulting sound. An experienced player can and must quickly determine an instrument’s potential through this point. A poor instrument resists early on, but the Loar-Diehl viola feels deep and wide with none of the usual limitations throughout its range. I could sense much more reserve than I was able to explore with my accustomed bowing skill and it invited me to improve and expand. When I think of tone, it is synonymous with expressive potential.

This instrument is by far the most responsive and inspiring instrument I’ve ever played. It can easily be mistaken for a Cello on the lower strings and is amazingly navigable in upper positions. Most Tenors are difficult to manage in the higher range even with my long reach. In my research into finding (or building if necessary a better viola), my first impulse is to find a scrap of wood and start whittling with each new concept. Loar was a violist in search of a better sound as well but his approach was to find the best instrument already available and make it better. Now, I can clear out all the unfinished scraps and get to playing. August Diehl (1852-1922) is listed in one of the encyclopedias of violin makers and noted as a “creative artist whose renown is growing.” I think the same can be said of Lloyd Loar (1886-1943).

Patrick Tobin, Nov 15, 2004

Our deepest thanks to Patrick for his contribution to both our wedding and to this web site.

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