In December, my viola developed several open seams, causing it to buzz loudly. Two hours from any luthier, and deep into the end-of-the-semester crush of performances and juries, one of my good friends generously loaned me her viola.
She mentioned that it was specially made for her by the Dutch-American luthier, Roelof Weertman. In searching online, I wasn’t able to find much information about the maker. In a very brief biography on an auction website, it described Weertman (1895-1991) as an engineer by profession and an amateur luthier throughout his life. What intrigued me about this instrument was a small cache of letters in the case from the maker to herself and her parents, from which I am printing excerpts below. These letters show a man who had studied very carefully the techniques of the master luthiers of the past, and strove to defy conventional assumptions about small violas to custom-craft an instrument that would accommodate my friend’s petite physique and become her desired musical voice.
Not long ago your father wrote that I should keep to the 16 inch size viola, being the same length of instrument that you use. Once before I had written, that in my experience a good instrument can be made in any size, but a good typical viola ranges between 16 1/2 inch and 17 1/4 inch. Below 16 1/5 the timbre is too much violin color and above the 17 1/4 it sounds much like a cello. I tried the 16 5/16 “Tuscan” Strad viola of Boris Kroyt, a magnificent instrument but it lacked the melancholy typical viola tone color. Of course in every day orchestral playing a good argumental point can be made, that convenience must be considered and if an instrument has otherwise good quality it should be chosen over a 17 inch viola of mediocre tone production.
During the maring and completion of 2 violins – one a copy of the “Adam” Strad and one a replica of the “Wieniawski” Del Gesu, I made a 16 1/2 form-reduced from the original 17 1/8 inch Gasparo of Nat.
Then, after your fathers note I made a drawing of a 16 inch viola – also reduced from Nat’s viola – and I am ready to make a form in which to mold the sides. No doubt the Gasparo design will promise a tone that should be quite agreeable, provided that the very fine woods selected and the little knowledge should all cooperate in the venture to make your the best possible instrument.
Have a nice summer, Rudy
Weertman wrote a letter to her parents outlining his progress
July 21 – 1972
[…] You twisted my arm! Actually am making a 16 inch Gasparo da Salo viola. It will take all my experience and meanness to try to get at least some semblance of the VIOLA timbre into such a small instrument. It will not lack in projection or power. The big (17 1/8 inch) viola however has such a melancholy – yet clear – sound, but not muffled of course. Even in that size do I have to work with utmost precaution and precision in order that top and back will vibrate in perfect harmony. The small instrument will respond more quickly, but the overall tone will then be brighter. Should I risk on the graduations and reflexes of top and back in order to get a darker sound, the chances are that the sound will become muffled and inside and gets worse as the viola ages. This being my first “baby” viola I’ll be skating on thin ice and even Hans Brinker can do nothing for me, so wish me heaps of luck; I’ll need it.
The die is cast! Before going to “Kneisel Hall” Blue Hill Maine, I had prepared a mold for the sides of your 16 inch viola – a pattern for the neck – wood for the back and sides and neck.
Had to give a talk about my conception of fiddle building at “Kneisel Hall.” Leslie Parnas made the introduction, to the advanced music students and faculty. I brought my paraphanelia – 2 fiddles – 2 violas – 2 celli. Giorgi Gimpi – Alexander (Sascha) Schneider etc were also on hand. Sascha got quite excited about the fiddles – the wood in the “Strad” was a slab of a most unusual appearance; perhaps my new varnish (Rather the old varnish enriched with fusel oil) had something to do with. Now 2 of Leslie’s pupils want Gofriller celli. Maine is magnificent – so was the artist recital and masterclass. I also fixed some instruments.
Coming home, a parcel of 4 large bottles – containing fusel oil had arrived – a gift from “Italian Swiss Colony” in California. At once I used about a quart of the liquid to reinforce my varnishes and again finish-varnished my latest fiddle. In the meantime I bent my brains double to see a way clear to make a VIOLA even tho only 16 inches long. At “Kneisel Hall” I heard the 17 1/2 inch beautiful Gasparo da Salo viola of Scott Nicrenz, unbelievably beautiful. Once before I had made a Strad viola, but was not happy. Something about the Gasparo design makes it outstanding and the more I thought, the more I feel confident that a 16 inch GASPARO can hold its own, provided I borrow an idea of J. Guarneri del Jesu. Herewith a sample of the maple for the back (upper right hand) and the pegbox. In order to remove the brand new factory look, I have bushed the pegholes with boxwood – the heel of the neck will set on the tong of the back-bordered in ebony. The preliminary varnish brings out the grain of the wood enriched with oil and fusel oil – gum copal and gum gamboge for coloring. I can carry on this color to the finish (giving the instrument a larger appearance) or add dragon blood or propolis to darken the color, but the viola would then seem smaller.
I have found spruce, similar to the wood in the first viola that Nat has – flames or flecks of light across the grain, also the lengthwise grain has a slight wave. Basically the viola should be done mid-September, then adding a thin varnish coat at Weers mid-October. Well, that’s all for now, Kindest Regards
In a letter dated September 16, 1972, Weertman wrote proudly of his finished viola:
Originally I was fearful, since I had never seen or played a good small viola, meaning an instrument sounding the true melancholy viola tone. However, no doubt due to the genius of Gasparo da Salo the new venture came out very surprisingly. Towards the completion, I wrote Nat Gordon, that I felt quite confident about a good outcome. It took a bit of skull cracking, but I am sure that you will like the results. The playing on it is remarkably easy – string length just 3/4 inch more than a violin. Yet the tone is of a true viola character. The power, while more than adequate, of course does not match the 17 1/8 inch viola, but the tonal color is on par. Varnish is of a coffee-chocolate finish and the appearance of an instrument – old, but well cared for.
Links about Roelof Weertman: