Viola: Bridesmaid or Bride?


Bach and Mozart loved the instrument, so why has the viola always languished in the shadows?…

Yes, there they are right under the nose of the conductor in the front-middle of a modern symphony orchestra, perhaps four or five desks of two; and yes, that soft-edged, dark-hued baritonal sound does indeed remind one of the human voice. Without a violin alongside you could mistake it for its smaller, brighter cousin but it is a little longer and slightly wider with, usually, thicker strings and a heavier bow. A violin’s open strings are turned to G, D, A and E; the first three on a violin become the last three on a viola, with the addition of a 4th lower string tuned a 5th below G at C3, an octave below middle C. Why then has this marvellous instrument languished, at least until the middle of the last century, in the shadows? Both JS Bach and Mozart loved the viola and made space for it whenever they could – in fact Mozart doubled-up the viola count in his masterful string quintets, and perhaps one of the glories of his whole oeuvre is the sublime Sinfonia Concertante, with solo parts for both violin and viola. As a teenager playing in a youth orchestra in the late 50’s we always struggled to find violists, the excuse usually put forward being that there was not enough music written for the instrument, or that the spans required to reach the finger positions on the strings were too great for small hands. Girls in particular complained about this, along with the fact that they found it ‘too heavy’ to keep in position for hours on end. Poor post-war diet perhaps, as now the world seems to be awash with women players.

Regular readers of Lazy Sunday may remember that the year 1934 was a particularly bad one for composers slipping off the coil, but before the seriously under-appreciated Gustav Holst left us he completed, in 1933, one of his greatest miniatures, the transcendentally beautiful Lyric Movement, scored for viola solo and strings, with just a flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. Cast in a solemn D minor, it was dedicated to the great violist Lionel Tertis who first performed it.

The Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov is, happily, still with us and though traumatized by the death of his wife, the musicologist Larissa Bondarenko in 1996, he recently began to compose again in earnest. The artistic result of his grief was perhaps his greatest work, the searing Requiem for Larissa, scored for orchestra, a mixed chorus, plus piano and synthesiser. I urge Dabblers to sample this great work, but here, in a reduction of the score, a viola and piano bring their own intensity to the piece.

In Le Nuove Musiche a couple of weeks ago we looked, albeit briefly, at the period around 1600 which marked the passing of the Renaissance Period and the birth of Baroque – and at almost exactly that time the great lutist and composer John Dowland published his collection Seaven Teares, or Lachrymae in London. Almost 350 years later Benjamin Britten presented his ‘reflections’ on that wonderful cycle in a 15 minute set of variations for viola and piano (or string orchestra) at his own festival in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Like any other work of art it invites a hearing in its entirety, and perhaps Dabblers will be encouraged to do so on hearing the final measures here, played by the Armenian-American master Kim Kashkashian – not to be confused with another American with a similar name, the possessor of no discernible talent.

Here, to end, a piece of music that should never be ‘cut up’. At five minutes to midnight on January 20th 1936 King George V died at Sandringham, his dignity preserved by a lethal injection of cocaine and morphine. He would have known, as did the German composer Paul Hindemith who was in London for a concert, that the dark clouds of war were gathering in Europe. What happened next was extraordinary. The BBC decided that the form of the concert on the following day should, quite rightly, take account of the sad (but not entirely unexpected) passing of the King, and asked Hindemith to craft something ‘suitable’. What he produced, in a little under six hours was, by any reckoning, a masterpiece – for viola and string orchestra. But having written out the solo part and the parts for each of the string sections, this supreme violist had to rehearse the piece and, later that evening, perform it as Trauermusik (Funeral Music) to a waiting audience of millions. No pressure then? The rest, as they say, is history – and supported by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Adrian Boult (the Knighthood came a year later), the piece immediately entered the repertoire, where it has remained ever since, at or near the top.

Share This Post

About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

3 thoughts on “Viola: Bridesmaid or Bride?

    John Halliwell
    March 17, 2013 at 15:14

    I recognise that It’s a matter of personal taste, MM, but for me, the viola, followed by the oboe, sinks its claws into my particular set of emotions and tugs as no other instrument can. I guess one has to be careful when listening to a solitary viola, that a pre-existing sense of melancholy is absent. If that isn’t possible, probably best to get someone to lock the knife drawer, hide the skipping rope, and remove everything lethal from the drugs cabinet. I suppose, where this isn’t possible, a Maigret or Morse would soon pin down the reasons for a listener’s demise: ‘Well, medical reports suggest an underlying morose state of mind, but I discovered the deceased sat in front of his hi-fi system and in the CD player was Stravinsky’s ‘Elegy For Solo Viola. I’m convinced it was this that pushed him over the edge.’

    I hadn’t come across the Holst piece before today. It is beautiful. I can imagine Holst, during one of those wanderings around the lanes of the Cotswolds with RVW, humming his ideas for the Lyric Movement and asking his friend for his thoughts: ‘Oh yes, Gus, wonderful; Turtis would do it justice.’ I would have been happy to act as bag and hamper carrier for them, simply to listen to two great English composers exchanging views and ideas.

    The thought just came to mind of Flos Campi, Vaughan Williams’ suite for solo viola (with small orchestra and small chorus), an outstanding work for the instrument. Wasn’t it included it in an earlier Lazy Sunday post? Yes, of course: The Cowpat School – 6 November, 2011. I have just revisited the post, MM, and been reminded of and moved by the context of your choice.

    Today’s post prompted me to google RVW and the viola, and I found this piece, totally unknown to me, and wonderful:

    March 17, 2013 at 20:33

    Lovely – I do prefer the warmer timbre of the viola over the shrilled violin. I recall hearing some lovely viola piece by Arnold Bax but can’t remember what it was

    March 17, 2013 at 22:59

    Less bride or bridesmaid, more ugly sister. My cousin, who is 6’3″ tall, with fingers like bunches of bananas, produces the most exquisite sounds from the instrument. He played the Allemande from JS Bach’s cello suite in G major at my Dad’s funeral. I have been known to play the viola myself – as you say, there is a shortage – and violinists often get asked to stand in. And you?

    I shall certainly listen to the Britten, Mahlerman. I wonder if the other Kim has ever listened to a piece of classical music?

    There is also a Cesar Franck sonata – and one by Brahms and another (I can’t recall) for the viola. Lionel Turtis rearranged many pieces for the viola too – and he also taught my cousin for a while.

Comments are closed.