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The Viola & Violists

by David Dalton

The viola is the middle-range instrument of the violin family. It is sometimes cavalierly referred to as the “big fiddle.” Its position in the violin family somewhat parallels the alto voice of the normal SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) arrangement in a choir of voices, the alto being just below the soprano range. In fact, the French word for viola is l’alto. As do other members of the violin family—violin, cello, contrabass—the viola has four strings, the lowest of which descends at an interval of a fifth below that of the violin.

The viola is played with a bow and placed on the shoulder, as is the violin, in contrast to the cello, which is placed between the player’s legs. In German the viola is the Bratsche, which comes from the Italian braccio, meaning “arm,” or to be played on the arm in contrast with being played on the leg. The etymology of the word viola, or viola da braccio, leads some historians to believe that when the violin family emerged as an entity in Italy during the early part of the sixteenth century, the viola may have appeared slightly before the violin, violino being a diminutive form of viola. Violists often like to think that they may indeed have been at the head of the family, at least historically.

Primrose, while establishing his career in America in the early 1940s by playing not only in the cultural centers but also in scores of midwestern communities and even numerous backwoods settlements was often asked the question, “What is the difference between the violin and the viola?” This question was posed by well-meaning people who had never heard the instrument. Primrose recalled that he usually went into a kind of esoteric exposition referring to the difference in sound and range, of course, but also explaining that the viola was on an average about two inches longer than the violin—wider, thicker, etc. After offering this lengthy explanation innumerable times, he decided to shorten the answer by saying that the viola was a “violin with a college education.”

Much has been conjectured and written about the historical and musical reasons for the viola’s subservient position before the twentieth century to the more brilliant violin and powerful cello. Cecil Forsyth, in his widely used book, Orchestration (London; Macmillan, 1914), takes an over-the-shoulder glance at the viola’s and violists’s comparative humble station in musical life:

The viola has perhaps suffered the ups and downs of musical treatment more than any other stringed-instrument. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century it held much the same position in the orchestra that the 1st and 2nd violins occupy today. The violin with its higher pitch and its more exquisite tone-colour, was continually `knocking at the door,’ and the viola found itself servant where once it had been master.”

Forsyth invites the reader to examine scores representative of the post-Bach, or early classic period, and, here, in a rather hyperbolic review of the situation, he writes:

[Here] we feel that the viola is often merely a source of anxiety to the composer. We feel that he must have regarded its existence as something in the nature of a prehistoric survival. The instrument was there and had to be written for. Interesting but subordinate contrapuntal middle-parts were, however, still a thing of the future. The viola, therefore, either did nothing or something which by the ingenuity of the composer was made to appear as much like nothing as possible. If all else failed it could always play the bass, and, though this often resulted in an unnecessary and uncomfortable three-octave-bass, it was better than filling the part with rests.”

Concerning the instrument itself, Forsyth makes this observation:

. . . a betwixt-and-between instrument imperfect in construction, “difficult” and somewhat uneven in tone-quality, and undeniably clumsy to manage. The viola more than any other stringed instrument is liable to have some one or two wolf notes in its compass. In fact very few violas are wholly free from this defect. The opposite disease, commonly known as sleep, seems to affect it less. Perhaps its constitution, inured for centuries to sleepy passages, has by now become immune to the microbe of sleeping sickness.

We can wonder to how many inadequately prepared violists Forsyth was subjected during his lifetime when he remarks:

[The top string’s] quality has something nasal and piercing; something suffering, even unpleasant. A prominent melody on this string becomes unbearable after a short time.

He offers the listener some hope, however, when the viola is played on its two middle strings.

[They] are at once the least characteristic and the most sympathetic. Lacking the piercing unhappy quality of the top-string, they combine well with almost anything in the orchestra . . . . It is on these two strings that the viola does most of the accompanying and filling-up work, to which a great part of its existence is devoted.

And finally, the reward for any who would wish to hear a viola:

The bottom-string of the viola is the most characteristic of all. In fact, to the average concert-goer the viola is only a viola when it is on its bottom-string. “Somber, austere, sometimes even forbidding,” its mere sound, even in the simplest phrases, is sufficient to conjure up the image of Tragedy.

In perhaps the most redeeming and forward-looking observation Forsyth offers from his turn-of-the-century viewpoint, he observes:

The above remarks must not be taken as pointing backwards to the bad old days when viola players were selected merely because they were too wicked or senile to play the violin. Those days are happily gone forever.

Johann Joachim Quantz in his famous Versuch einer Anweisung . . . of 1752 adjured violists to be at least as technically well equipped as second violinists, and from the days of the first-known concert violist, Carl Stamitz (1745-1801), the rise of viola technique toward the vaunted legerdemain of violinists has been steady, albeit slow. Primrose in 1941 identified a long-standing problem with the viola from a listener’s perception:

Whenever we hear it said that the viola ranks among the less expressive instruments, we may be sure that the speaker has not had the instrument properly revealed to him, and that his opinion has been formed by listening to inferior playing. A vicious circle of thought surrounds the viola. One hears it badly played, one is well aware that it sounds unpleasant, and one draws the conclusion that such an instrument must be highly limited. In point of fact, it is not limited. Even a cheap viola produces a pleasing sound, in hands that know how to play it.

Another misconception that has haunted the violist and the instrument is the assumed “paucity” (a favorite adjective of concert reviewers, and especially uninformed critics) of the viola repertoir. Primrose in an interview with Burton Paige stated:

In approaching the viola we must rid our minds of several unwarranted preconceptions about it. First of all, it need by no means be confined to the realm of the purely ground bass instruments. We think of the viola chiefly as an orchestral and ensemble instrument, because so much of its notable music has been written for group playing. But it is also possible to find a vast amount of distinguished solo music for the viola. I (Primrose) have frequently presented solo recitals of viola music, in many parts of the world, building as many as eight different programs, none of them including as many transcriptions or arrangements as are to be found on the average violin program.

Violists themselves may be guilty of having contributed to the impression that the viola literature is limited. Certainly, it is smaller than that written for the violin or piano, but violinists and pianists, too, tend to present over and over the standard repertoire in their programming. This is a great disservice to composers who have left many outstanding instrumental pieces that, from lack of being know about, sheer laziness on the part of performers to investigate, or fear by soloists and managers of lowered box office receipts, have been neglected and, consequently, never introduced into the “hit parade” of popular repertoire. The general public tends to like what they know, and thus know what they like as do many soloists—including violists—who tend to play repetitively what they hear other soloists play. One consolation for the violist is that since a viola recital in comparison with a violin recital is much rarer, most of what he or she may present in a concert is relatively new to the listener.

To allay any doubts regarding the depth and breadth of the viola repertoire, one need only take to hand the monumental work of Franz Zeyringer, his Literatur für Viola (2nd edition, Hartberg, Austria, Schönwetter, 1985). With thoroughness Professor Zeyringer has attempted to codify all of the repertoire written for the viola, alone and in combination with other instruments, since the sixteenth century. It might astonish the reader to know, for instance, that at least 750 pieces have been written for viola without accompaniment: 1,300 for viola and orchestra, and 3,000 for viola and piano.

Potentially, a violist could select from an expansive repertoire of more than 14,000 pieces, according to Zeyringer’s bibliography (at this time approximately one-third of this repertoire is housed in PIVA). Most of these are not transcriptions, but were originally conceived by composers for the instrument. Not all are masterworks, of course, but the same can be said for the repertoire of any instrument. Although the violist does not enjoy ten sonatas for the instrument by Beethoven, as the violinist does, or two concertos by Brahms, as the pianist, the violist need not lament. There is enough worthwhile literature to occupy a lifetime.

It is perhaps curious that some leading composers did not write more works for the viola, especially those who chose the viola as their performing instrument. Bach preferred playing the violas so that he could be “in the middle of the harmony.” His second wife, Anna Magdelena wrote, “Whatever troubles there were [in the first few years in the Thomas School], they found no place in our home. They belonged ‘outside,’ and there they remained when Sebastian sat down beside the klavier or took out his viola.” Before permanently settling in Vienna, Beethoven played viola in the court orchestra at Bonn. His instrument can be seen today displayed in his native city at the Beethovenhaus. To this subject, Ralph Aldrich has penned:

Eat out thy heart, O Cello proud,
And Violin, go don thy shroud.
Pray Saint Cecilia’s mercy mild
Forgive thy up and downbows wild,
For she in sacred restitution,
Bless’d VIOLA’S contribution,
Paying IT the compliment
Of genius’ favoured instrument.
Mozart, Schubert, Dvořák, Britten,
All for orchestras have written.
Hear, O Man, and earth rejoice. . .
VIOLA played they all—BY CHOICE!

Composers in the nineteenth century, beginning with Beethoven, started writing more equal voicing in the string quartet and the string section of the orchestra. Brahms, Dvořák, and especially Wagner gave the viola within the ensemble a more prominent, even soloistic role. Technical demands placed on violists by Richard Strauss were no less than for other instrumentalists of the orchestra. The viola was propelled into the twentieth-century, and with that came a new dawning.

The redoubtable Lionel Tertis (1876-1975), born on the same day as the master cellist Pablo Casals, was a feisty Englishman who would not take “no” for an answer when he demanded of composers that they write for his instrument, the viola, in an idiomatic fashion, treating it as a separate entity in the family of stringed instruments. Tertis was the first of three prominent violists who converted from the violin to the viola during the first half of this century, demonstrating that the viola was a viable concertizing instrument. Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), one of the foremost composers of our time, a highly skilled violist and widely known as a soloist and member of a distinguished string quartet, wrote copiously for his instrument. Hindemith bequeathed a lasting written legacy to violists. Completing this formidable triumvirate of twentieth century violists was William Primrose. Yehudi Menuhin puts it succinctly: “If Lionel Tertis was the first protagonist, Primrose was certainly the first star of the viola.”

About half a century ago, Primrose noted that the viola and violists were emerging from generations of misunderstanding and benign neglect:

It is gratifying to observe the unmistakable awakening of interest in viola playing. There was a time, not too long ago, when the viola was not only neglected but thoroughly misunderstood. Indeed, the misunderstanding caused the neglect. A clearer comprehension of the uses, technic and scope of the viola has already increased its popularity and this fact also points to a still deeper penetration into one of the richest and most rewarding fields of musical activity.

Since the dawn of this century, violists have sensed an increasing respect coming their way from various corners of the musical and psychoanalytical-musical world. The great conductor Artur Nikisch came to the conclusion that a player’s psyche depended upon the instrument he played. Nikisch characterized violists as being calm and good-natured. Henry Ellis Dickson, for thirty years a violinist in the Boston Symphony, wrote in a short volume, Gentlemen, More Dolce Please! (1969), that among the different sections of the orchestra, viola players are the least troublesome. Ralph Greenson, a Los Angeles psychoanalyst and an amateur violinist, has observed among orchestra string players the “Prima Donna on the first violin,” the “Bon Vivant on cello,” and the “Mortician on bass,” while saying of the “Middleman on viola,” that “the infighting for advancement that goes on among the more populous violin desks is not for him; that is why he switched over from the violin years ago. The cerebral sort, he lives for chamber music, which offers more challenge than the routine supporting role that composers give his instrument.” Finally, the eminent music critic Irving Kolodin left this assessment: “As a fledgling viola player I naturally regard all other violists as studious chaps who don’t have the finger facility of the notenfresser who make agile first violinists, but are better read, have heard more music, and are, altogether, men of superior taste.”

Leading contemporary composers, such as Walton and Bartók, have discovered a new potential of the instrument, it seems, and more music has been written for the viola during our time than ever before. Running concurrently with this phenomenon is the rising technical standard of playing among younger violists (notable among women) and, most interesting, the appearance more and more of echt violists, those who started on the instrument rather than changing over from violin later. This would have been unheard of a generation ago.

The twentieth century has discovered the viola, and violists appear to have found their own identity. If the ignominy suffered by players who were “too decrepit or immoral to play the violin and were sentenced to scrape away the winter of their discontent as violists” still lingers in the minds of some modern violists, one senses that the memory is fading fast.