A tenor violin (or tenor viola) is an instrument with a range between those of the cello and the viola. An earlier development of the evolution of the violin family of instruments, the instrument is not standard in the modern symphony orchestra. Its tuning, typically G2 D3 A3 E4 - an octave below the traditional violin, places the range between the cello and viola and thus is sometimes confused with the modern baritone violin which has the same tuning on the standard violin body. As a formal development, the 17th century tenor violin existed as an instrument with a body larger than a viola but with a short neck. In earlier designs, the tenor was played upright in the musician's lap. Tenor violin parts were written in tenor clef (4th line C-clef).
Improvements in string technology in the 18th century led to greater focus of sound coming from the viola and cello ranges leading to a diminished role for tenor violins and violin makers constructed fewer of these instruments. It is known that Antonio Stradivari constructed two different models of tenor violin as well as tenor variations of violas.
In the modern new violin family or violin octet, the tenor violin exists as an instrument tuned an octave below the violin and approximately the same size as a 3/4 cello. The baritone violin in the same is an enlarged version of the cello.
Tenor Violins were again becoming somewhat popular in Germany during the late 19th century to the early 20th century featuring four strings tuned to G D A E with the G string tuned to the same octave as the modern Cello. They were meant to be played on the lap same as the medium sized Viola da Gamba. The fingerboard has a similar fretted fingerboard as the Viola da Gamba, and the body is eighteen inches long and 30 inches long overall and the ribs being 1/8th of an inch higher than today's standard 16 inch viola. They are much more difficult to play as the finger falls on the E string directly on top of the raised fret and then ever so little behind the fret more and more progressively so that the first finger falls for the A on the G string more closer to the fret behind.the frets are removable on some of the late 19th century tenor violins. The smaller size tenor violins from this same period are comparable in size to a modern day 15 inch viola but with much variation in shape to create the extra volume to make suitable the instrument to suit the tenor octave as well as the fingerboard being an inch longer than the standard modern 15 inch viola and the tail piece being shortened by about 2 inches all changing the tension within the body of the tenor violin and strings, thus dropping the tuning of the violin to GDAE in the cello octave and creating an incredibly marvellous mellow sound. The variations in size of body correspond in golden ratio with the changes to the fingerboard and tail piece length. On the oversized tenor violins the bow response is slow and heavy compared to the violin and more comparable to Cello. On the smaller sized tenor violins the bow response is similar to the viola. Modern viola strings best suit these violins, fitting violin strings and using longer tail piece does not work so well nor create the best sound and using quarter to half size cello strings does not suit at all.
The large German Tenor Violins of this period create a beautiful and loud resonance with choir or orchestra which greatly amplifies their sound, more so with choir than orchestra. This tenor violin is so sensitive to choir that it will, in combination with choir, produce a resonance sound loud enough that can be easily heard by the player even when nothing is used over the strings. Many of these were configured with bass bar and sound post combinations situated in the reverse of today's modern violins to enable German Table Violin players to play without changing their technique. If the Tenor violin has the reverse configurations, the strings can, amazingly, still be fitted as per a typical modern violin with no alteration to the sound. The bridge is no longer commercially available and is best constructed of a half or quarter sized cello bridge with feet cut short to accommodate the difference. Viola bridges are unsuitable being too thin and low causing wolfy notes, especially on the E string but a violin master can make an oversized viola bridge to suit and this works well. This tenor violin has the body after the Stradavarius pattern, the fingerboard similar to the Viola da Gamba, and the tuners similar to the double Base, and strung with viola strings. The E string especially sounds very much like the large base viola da Gamba.
By analogy with the vocal quartet of soprano-alto-tenor-bass, a few composers featured the tenor violin as the voice between the alto of the viola and bass of the cello (e.g. Felix Draeseke or Sergei Taneyev. In contemporary musical improvisation these instruments are again finding a place.
Classic tenor violins
Modern makers of tenor violins
- Tenor violins played at the shoulder like a violin or viola:
- Tenor violins played vertically like a cello:
- Kory, Agnes (1994). "A Wider Role for the Tenor Violin?". The Galpin Society Journal 47 (Mar., 1994): pp. 123–153. doi:10.2307/842665. JSTOR 842665.
- Segerman, Ephraim (1995). "The Name 'Tenor Violin.". The Galpin Society Journal 48 (Mar., 1995): pp. 181–187. doi:10.2307/842810. JSTOR 842810.