Thursday, January 26, 2012


Since I cannot seem to solve my conundrum with any success, I thought I'd give going off on a tangent a try. The definition of this phrase seems to suit my mood a bit better: To pursue a somewhat related or irrelevant course while neglecting the main subject.

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.

So, for a highly tangential read, here's a little dose of music education and appreciation. And in case you're wondering about the topic, I was a violist for too many years to count. And if you're one of those people who just can't handle when things don't make sense, here's how I bring it all back to Danes: My all-time favorite viola strings are handmade by a family-owned company in Copenhagen called Jargar Strings.

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 modern viola first appeared around mid-1500 in Northern Italy at approximately the same time as the development of the new violin family. Its simultaneous development alongside the violin reflected the desire of instrument makers of the time, such as Gaudenzio Ferrari, Andrea Amati, and Gasparo da Sala, to "...create an instrument that incorporated three qualities: 1) a greater acoustical potential than other existing bowed instruments; 2) a model that was aesthetically attractive; and 3) an instrument that could be held and played with maximum ease."2

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.

W.A. Mozart was ahead of his time when he composed Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra in 1779. Despite being a proficient violinst, as Mozart grew older, "he more and more turned to the viola as his favorite string instrument."15 Though the Sinfonia Concertante was often overlooked and hardly ever performed until recent years, Mozart proved that it was possible to compose for solo viola without compromising the unique character of the instrument. In his concerto, he treats the violin and viola as equal partners - "he made technical demands of the viola quite unprecedented at the time."16 Mozart also utilized innovative scoring to balance the brighter, louder voice of the violin against the mellower, deeper voice of the viola.

To provide subtle support for the viola, Mozart scored the concerto "so that the natural brilliance of the violin is somewhat muted, while the natural reticence of the viola is somewhat brightened and amplified."17 He also avoids amplifying the technical difficulty for the violist by scoring the piece in the key of E-flat and writing a scordatura part for the viola in the key of D major. Scordatura, from the Italian word 'to mistune,' in music, refers to tuning a string instrument to other intervals than its established tuning.18 Mozart utilizes this technique, calling for the viola to be tuned up a semitone for the Sinfonia; where the strings are normally A, D, G, and C, they become B-flat, E-flat, A-flat, and D-flat respectively. This also increases string tension, as they are wound tighter, thereby increasing sound production potential as well. Use of the E-flat key for the violin means that the soloist has no open strings available to be played, when the strings are most resonant. The key of D is alternately easier for the viola to be played in. In D major scordatura, three out of four open strings reinforce tonic, subdominant, and dominant notes in the E-flat key.19 Mozart proved that, with some creativity and thoughtfulness, a violin and viola may retain their unique qualities without sacrificing the successfulness of a piece.

"What's the difference between a viola and a chain saw? If you absolutely had to, you could use a chain saw in a string quartet."

Though early preferences and forms of classical music hindered the development of the viola as a solo, and by extension, virtuosic instrument, recent trends have begun to resurrect the viola from orchestral obscurity. Composers of the nineteenth century began to cultivate the tone-color of different registers and found the sonority of the viola worked well in this respect. In chamber music, increasing independence of the various parts demanded greater technical facility of violists.20 One has only to look at the orchestral and chamber music of composers such as Beethoven, Brahms, Hindemith, Schubert, Dvořák, Bartok, and Shostakovitch to see greater importance bestowed upon the viola. Dvořák's String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, 'American' features the viola in a prominent role, beginning the main musical theme to the first movement. He utilizes the instrument's broad, expressive character as it goes back and forth trading this theme with the violin. As a young violinist in the Bonn Court Orchestra, Beethoven himself wrote many chamber works that contain interesting viola parts.21

As appreciation for the instrument grew, so did the number of talented violist who, in turn, have inspired the composition of solo literature. Among some of the most notable pioneers of viola virtuosity are Lionel Tertis, perhaps the first widely recognized viola virtuoso, and the Scottish violist William Primrose. The pieces they inspired remain a legacy for all violists to come. Modern composers, such as William Walton, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and Gustav Holst, were encouraged by Tertis to consider the viola in their compositions, as well as to feature it in a solo role. Primrose also inspired the composition of works by composers such as Benjamin Britten and Darius Milhaud. The most notable of all though is Bela Bartok's Viola Concerto, which "exploits fully the virtuoso resources of the solo viola it typical concerto fashion."22 Another interesting figure in the composition of solo viola literature is Paul Hindemith, who was both a composer and violist himself. His legacy includes four viola concertos, four pieces for viola and piano, and two pieces for unaccompanied viola.23

Another example in the history of the viola of talent inspiring an orchestral work is the creation of Harold en Italie (Harold in Italy), an "intensely dramatic and lyrical work,"24 composed for solo viola and orchestra. The story goes that legendary violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini approached Berlioz and commissioned him to compose a solo piece for the viola. Paganini had just acquired a Stradivari viola and was eager to show it off in a public concert. Berlioz responded by creating "a viola concerto disguised as a programme symphony,"25 utilizing the viola as the voice of the character, Harold, as he wanders through Italy.

Though Paganini rejected the piece after viewing the first movement - he complained that there was too little for him to do - Berlioz went on to complete the piece. No longer under the pressure of Paganini's ego, Berlioz strove to write, "for the orchestra, a series of scenes in which the solo viola should figure as a more or less active personage of constantly preserved individuality."26 Violist Chrétien Urhan premiered the final piece and it so delighted the audience that the second movement was repeated as an encore. Harold makes great use of the voice-like quality of the viola in its melancholy and reflective tone. Paganini had not heard the piece since returning it, but it is said that, upon hearing it performed, the elderly, ill virtuoso was so deeply affected taht he later "knelt and kissed Berlioz's hand in appreciation."27

"A violist came home and found his house had burned to the ground. When he asked what had happened, the police told him, "'Well, apparently the conductor came to your house and...' The violist's eyes lit up and he interrupted excitedly, 'The conductor? Came to my house?'"

Various composers have demonstrated that it is possible to write justly for the viola without sacrificing its personality and individuality as an instrument. True, there may always be people for who, for any combination of reasons, are bound to dislike the viola. But to discriminate against the viola without giving it a chance to prove its worth seems harsh and unfair. The rise of the viola can only continue with the vision and support of those in the music world brave enough to defend and even promote the merits of the viola. According to perhaps the greatest violist of the century, William Primrose, himself a pioneer and advocate of the instrument, "we [violists] are bound by a performance tradition, that is, so far as we feel we are willing to be bound by it."28 It is up to the modern violist, one with technical talent, performance flair, and a dedication to promoting the instrument, to unbind him or herself from the chains of tradition and assert the worth and virtuosity of the viola.

1. Lionel Tertis, My Viola and I: A Complete Autobiography (London: Elek Books Limited, 1974), xiv.
2. Maurice W. Riley, The History of the Viola: Volume I (Ann Arbor, MI: Braun-Brumfield, 1980), 3.
3. Stanley Sadie, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), 808.
4. Riley, 9.
5. Riley, 51.
6. Riley, 74.
7. Riley, 70.
8. Riley, 221.
9. David Dalton, Playing the Viola: Conversations with William Primrose (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), 10-11.
10. Sadie, 808.
11. Dalton, 11.
12. Harry Halbreich from Johannes Brahms' Sonata no. 1 in F minor for viola & piano, op. 120, ed. Magda Rusy (Musical Heritage Society MHS 691, 1967), 1.
13. Riley, 191.
14. Riley, 240.
15. Riley, 130.
16. Sadie, 811.
17. Sadie, 812.
18. [Missing citation, page ripped off...]
19. Sadie, 813.
20. Sadie, 813.
21. Riley, 188.
22. Dalton, 185.
23. Sadie, 813.
24. Hector Berlioz. Harold in Italy. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Dir. Sir Thomas Beecham. William Primrose (Columbia/Odyssey Records Y33286, 1975), 1.
25. Sadie, 813.
26. Berlioz, 1.
27. Riley, 192.
28. Dalton, 1-2.