About this instrument
The violin family tree has many branches, some short and stubby like the 6-string Arpeggione, for which Schubert wrote his famous sonata now played by cellists. Another early branch was the Viola Pomposa, or five-string viola. J.S. Bach is credited by some with inventing the Pomposa around 1725, and it was widely used throughout the 18th century. Perhaps with this example in hand, we can gain some insight into why it fell into disuse.
This instrument, my first 5-string viola, was conceived last summer when a client asked for a 5-string viola on which to play the sixth of the Bach cello suites, a work written either for a 5-string violoncello piccolo, or for the Viola Pomposa. That suite is now usually performed in a transposed and simplified form on the conventional 4-string cello. I had just sold a 5-string violin I had made as an experiment many years ago, and was intrigued by the chance to revisit the structural, acoustic, and ergonomic issues with 5 string instruments. I made a 5-string violin at the same time, my Opus 797.
My Pomposa was designed and roughed out in September of 2012 and the woodwork was completed on October 31, 2012. The staining and sealing process was finished on December 12, 2012 and the viola was hung in the sun to harden and darken. Varnishing began on April 12, 2013 and the viola was set up on May 6, 2013. It will need several months of playing before the adjustment of the viola is stable and it will be ready for serious evaluation and sale.
Currently, the Pomposa is set up with modern strings and tuned like a viola with an added E string on top. It will lend itself to a baroque set up with gut strings and to tunings other than the modern 5ths.
The 5 string Viola “Pomposa” bears the label ” Douglas C. Cox, Brattleboro, Vermont, 2012 #795” and is branded and initialed on the inside. It is styled after the work of Gaspar da Salo. It is made of well aged New England grown wood. The back is cut on the quarter from two pieces of maple of medium broad horizontal flame. The ribs are of maple of broad flame. The neck and scroll are of plain maple. The table is of two pieces of Vermont spruce of medium-narrow growth. The varnish is of a medium brown color and is shaded and imitated. The fingerboard and tailpiece are of Vermont grown hop hornbeam wood. The pegs are of boxwood. The principal dimensions are:
Body Length: 392 mm
Upper Bout: 192 mm
Middle Bout: 138 mm
Lower Bout: 244 mm
Rib Height: 36-38 mm
String Length: 355 mm