While digging through some old stuff today, I came across a paper I wrote in college. It was for a freshman writing seminar that I was required to take, though I tried to make it more interesting for myself by signing up for the one offered by the music department. The topic of the course was the value of virtuosity: The technical skill, fluency, or style exhibited by a virtuoso or a composition; An appreciation for or interest in fine objects of art. Under this loose topic, we discussed everything from Bach to Van Halen, blues to Brit pop. It would turn out to be one of the more interesting courses of my college career, even in light of the pride I took in throwing obscure topics into the mix like Biblical History & Archaelogy or a 400-level English class entirely devoted to William Faulkner.
Under-appreciated Virtuosity in the Viola: 'The Cinderella of the String Family' 1
"What's the difference between a viola and a trampoline? You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline."
If the violin is the veritable diva of the orchestra, then the viola occupies the position of ugly duckling. In the world of classical music, the viola is probably one of the most maligned and least-appreciated instruments around. Entire books and websites are devoted to making fun of the viola and those who play it - a quick internet search confirms violists can be likened to the 'blondes' of the orchestra. The viola did not always suffer such mistreatment, as is evidenced by the importance of the early viol family. How, then, does an instrucment come to be overlooked, under-appreciated, and disqualified from virtuosic status?
The history of the viola illustrates how changes in musical styles, tasts, and forms in the early development of classical music greatly influenced attitudes towards the viola. These opinions and prejudices have prevailed unquestioned for centuries. In allowing these early forms and styles of classical music to shape models of 'perfection' and sound production for solo instruments, composers, musicians, audiences, and critics alike have greatly hindered the development of the viola as a virtuosic solo instrument. It is only when we look beyond established notions of what types of sound are 'perfect' for classical music, that we see that the viola does indeed possess potential for greatness.
"Why do so many people take an instant dislike to the viola? It saves time."
|Early members of the fam|
The family of stringed instruments that preceded the modern viola was often played on the knee and produced a less cohesive body and range of sounds. They came in many different sizes, shapes and ranges - treble, alto, small tenor, tenor, bass and contrabass. Shape was extremely variable and, depending on the number of strings, they could be tuned in numerous ways. Instruments of the new violin family shared greater similarities in design, such as four strings, f-holes, and longer fingerboards, were all tuned in perfect fifths, and were generally more comfortable to play. Though often mistaken for the violin, the viola is slightly larger in length and body, and most notably, strung a full fifth lower than the violin. As a result of its larger size and stringing, the sound of the viola is often characterized as, "darker, warmer, richer in tone quality, though less assertive, more mellow and even subdued at times."3
The viola did not always occupy such a lowly position in the orchestral hierarchy. "Musical demands of the early 16th century made the alto-tenor the most important member of the various stringed instrument families."4 In opera and classical music, the viola provided essential harmony in the middle register, the same position occupied in choruses by the alto and tenor voice parts. Opera scores often demanded high degress of technical skill and the popular five-part harmony style of chamber music of the time called for strength in the middle ranges. So, if the viola clearly had its uses, what led to the decline of the instrument's popularity and status?
"A group of terrorists hijacked a plane full of violists. They called down to ground control with their list of demands and added that if their demands were'nt met, they'd release one violist every hour."
Significant developments in chamber music after 1600 led to a decrease in demand for the viola. These included, "...gradual change... from five-part to four-part harmony, thus eliminating one of the inner parts played by the viola and... the emergence of the trio sonata as the most popular form of chamber music... which usually featuered two violins, to the virtual exclusion of the viola."5 Changes in other areas of music also led to the exclusion or replacement of the viola. Many instruments used in early forms of opera, including viols, lutes, and recorders, found themselves replaced by louder, more resonant derivative instruments, when opera made the move from private salons to large public theaters.6 Instruments of the modern violin family replaced others of the viol and lute families, and recorders gave way to flutes, clarinets, and other wind instruments that can be found in today's orchestras.
The ability to produce greater sound and resonance appeared to reign supreme in music composed at the time. This may have been a function of the growing importance of public concerts, often given in large halls or theaters, as opposed to intimate court settings or private residences. It was during the Baroque era that composers such as Corelli, Handel, and Vivaldi began developing the trio sonata and the concerto. These pieces, which highlighted solo performance, tended either to relegate the viola to a supporting role, or to remove it completely. "Not only was the viola usually excluded from the most popular and prevalent form of instrumental chamber music of the Baroque era, but also composers were failing to recognize it as a solo instrument."7
"What's the difference between a viola and an onion? No one cries when you cut up a viola."
Why was the viola overlooked for solo recognition? The most obvious answer lies in the viola's physical design, which limits it from achieving the resonance and sheer volume of the violin or cello. Whereas the concerto and sonata count on the solo instrument to differentiate itself from the accompaniment, the viola's dampened sound and middle register made it difficult to distinguish itself. In earlier times, around the 16th and 17th centuries, there were two types of viola - the alto and the tenor. The alto was the smaller of the two and "with the gradual change to four-part writing, performers chose the smaller alto viola because it was easier to play."8 The demand for an instrument that could be comfortably played on the shoulder while representing the alto to tenor range presented a challenge to early luthiers and continues to elude many modern makers. It is often times difficult, if not impossible, to achieve full acoustical resonance and strength of tone for all four strings while being limited to the viola's dimensions. Therefore, despite a player's best efforts, a viola will never match the violin's brilliance of tone, nor achieve the strength and depth of tone of the cello.9 This leads many to criticize the viola's sound, while glorifying that of the violin with its ability to achieve "perfect acoustical results."10 With the Baroque's emphasis on strength of tone and the need for soloists to set themselves apart from accompaniment, the viola suffered as a solo instrument.
"What's the range of the viola? As far as you can kick it."
From its creation in the sixteenth century and for three centuries afterwards, little music was written specifically for the solo viola. This seemed to be of no consequence since the low demand for violas in orchestras and chamber groups made quality violists scarce. There was little incentive for a musician to become a career violist and it becames more of a hobby instrument or one that a talented violinist might try on the side. What littel music was available for the solo viola was more often 'borrowed' from music written for other instruments. This did nothing to aid the reputation of the viola in the music world for two reasons.
First, for lack of their own solo repertory, violist were often forced to look to pieces written for the violin or cello and transcribe them. While many transcriptions, such as Bach's Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, were ultimately successful, in other cases, the difficulty the viola has in imitating the original instrument are more apparent. If the original music was not written with the viola in mind, and if qualities were lost in the transcription between instruments, it was certainly no fault of the instrument itself or the soloist. However, audience perception is often that the viola is incapable of virtuosity rather than that the transcription itself is poor. The average listener, unable to discern the difference, is "apt to accept anything on the viola because they don't know any better."11
Furthermore, the classical music world tends to look down upon 'borrowing' music from other instruments, even if it was the express intention of the composer for the piece to potentially be performed by a variety of instruments as soloist. In certain cases, composers themselves recognized the potential for the viola to perform a piece equally as well as the originally designated instrument. Some composers even made special provisions for such conditions. So it was with Brahms' Sonatas No. 1 and No. 2, Opus 120. Though originally written for clarinet, "it was Brahms himself who felt that they were equally suited to the viola, as is evidenced by his alternative instrumental designation in the original edition."12 He made alterations in the solo part so as to accommodate and complement the range and sonority of the viola. Despite this, they are nearly always referred to as The Clarinet Sonatas in popular reference. "Violists need not apologize for 'borrowing' these Sonatas for their own use, since Brahms certainly abetted the intention."13 But alas, as most solo music was written for the more resonant violin, the viola was forced to borrow much of its repertory, giving it the status of a 'wannabe' violin.
"How do you know when a violist is out of tune? When the bow is moving."
With the violin family firmly in place as teh model of solo virtuosic perfection, it seemed as though the viola would always be caught in a cyle of low demand, talentless players, and non-existent repertory. However, this was not to be. To begin recognize the viola's potential for virtuosity, musicians and audiences alike began to look beyond this established notion of 'perfection' the violin historically aquired and recognize the viola's own brand of perfection beyond trying to be a violin and without compromising its unique sound. "Just as the English horn should not sound like an oboe, and the trombone should not sound like a trumpet, the viola should not sound like the violin... the different shades within the same families of instruments asre essential to the overall palette of colors of orchestral sound."14 Change has been slow but not impossible. It requires musicians and composers who are willing to take a chance and go against musical tradition in discovering what they know to be true, that the viola is a legitimate and potentially brilliant solo instrument.