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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 5

Instrumental Insights: Viola

by Pemi Paull / February 1, 2012

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Early history

As with the violin, the viola evolved directly from the viola da braccio at the beginning of the 16th century. Since the Italian word ‘violino’ is a derivative of viola, there is a theory that the viola may have appeared a little earlier than the violin. Viola da braccia means the “viola played in the arms”, hence in German, “Bratsche”, which is still used today along with viola. For a long time, the name viola was used to refer to Western classical string instruments in general, and the viola itself was referred to as the “alto-tenor violin”. Before the late 18th century, the role of the instrument was often limited to accompaniment and filling in the middle of an ensemble. An exception to that rule was the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto by J.S. Bach, which placed two violas in the solo role; however such examples were uncommon. Towards the end of the 18th century, composers like Mozart began to give the viola a more prominent role, especially in chamber music. Carl Stamitz of Mannheim even began to write concertos for it, which he performed himself on his pan-European tours, and Mozart wrote the Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra (in which he himself played the solo part). The 19th century produced few works of lasting importance for the viola, with the notable exception of Harold in Italy by Berlioz, which was instigated as a commission for the great violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, who owned a Stradivarius viola and desired a work he could showcase it with. Other important works of the 19th century include arrangement in the composer’s hand of Brahms’s two sonatas op. 120, originally for clarinet, and sonatas by composers of secondary importance, like Glinka and Vieuxtemps. It wasn’t really until the 20th century that the most successful steps forward were made.

Modern Mastery

The eventual emergence of the viola into the prominent instrument it has become today can be credited to the great British violist, Lionel Tertis. Tertis, a contemporary of Pablo Casals, can be said to have done for the viola what the great Spaniard did for the cello. He briefly replaced the great violist Oskar Nedbal in the Bohemian Quartet, one of the most important ensembles of the 19th century. Tertis quickly became one of the best known violists of his time, touring Europe and the U.S.A. as a soloist. Composers such as Arnold Bax, Frank Bridge, Gustav Holst, and York Bowen wrote pieces for him. William Walton’s Viola Concerto was written for Tertis; however, he did not give the world premiere as he found it difficult to comprehend at the time. That honour went to Paul Hindemith, another pioneering viola virtuoso (and as a composer, a prolific contributor to the instrument’s repertoire).

Following the example of Tertis was the Scottish violist, William Primrose, who went on to become a world famous soloist and chamber musician. Primrose performed as a soloist throughout America and Europe, invariably under the leading conductors of the time. He was an active chamber musician, performing with such celebrated ensembles as the Heifetz/Primrose/Feuermann Trio and the Schnabel/Szigeti/Primrose/Fournier Piano Quartet. His commission from Béla Bartók produced one of the great concertos for viola (completed by Tibor Serly after Bartók’s death) and many other leading composers, such as Milhaud, Britten, and Rubbra, created works specifically for the violist, greatly expanding the available repertoire for his instrument.

In recent times the viola has seen a real renaissance, and many violists, such as Kim Kashkashian, Tabea Zimmermann, Yuri Bashmet, Maxim Rysanov, and Garth Knox have been able to build substantial careers and commission works of lasting value for their instrument. Such is the standard of contemporary viola playing: composers are writing more music for the viola now than ever before, and the viola is increasingly accepted as a solo instrument on par with the violin.

Violin vs. Viola

• The body of the viola is bigger, generally about two inches longer than the violin.
• Viola music uses the alto clef, rather than treble clef.
• The viola is tuned a fifth lower than the violin.
• The role of the viola in an ensemble is often as a harmonic pivot around which the melody and the bass revolve, though the viola does emerge from time to time with melodic material.

A composer’s instrument

The viola has historically been a favourite of composers. Of his father, C.P.E. Bach wrote “As the greatest expert and judge of harmony, he liked best to play the viola...” At 18, Beethoven was employed as violist in the Bonn court. Mozart and Dvořák were excellent violists, and Hindemith even gave the premiere of Walton’s viola concerto. The tradition continues today: Brett Dean and Sally Beamish, among others, began their careers as violists.

Of all the instruments of the orchestra, the humble viola is endowed with the largest repertoire of jokes told at its expense—often by violists themselves! For the uninitiated, viola jokes are the orchestral players’ equivalent of other stereotype-based jokes. Here is a favourite:
Q: Why do violists stand for long periods outside people’s houses?
A: They can’t find the key and they don’t know when to come in. 

Pemi Paull’s Viola Tips

FOR THE BEGINNER: What would you consider to be an important, yet often overlooked element of instrument care that violists should follow in order to maintain their instrument?

It might seem counter-intuitive, but the most important thing one can do to maintain and improve the instrument is to use it every day. There are all sorts of environmental factors, from excessive humidity to dryness. Dryness can cause cracks to appear, dust buildup inside the instrument can dampen the sound, not to mention woodworms and bow mites which can cause damage to your viola and eat your bow hair. By regularly playing your instrument, you keep in contact with it, and that can help keep little problems from turning into big ones. Also, it is a truism that the more you make a string instrument resonate, the better it will sound over time.

FOR THE INTERMEDIATE: What is an essential daily routine that an intermediate-level violists should have in their arsenal to maintain and further develop their playing?

The number one most important element of string playing in the long run is the control of the bow. If an intermediate student spends a portion of their practice every day developing a clear, resonant sound, by practicing long-drawn-out tones on open strings, while paying attention to keep shoulders and back as relaxed as possible, they will find their playing will certainly improve with time.

FOR THE ADVANCED: What would you recommend as a potentially inexpensive way to upgrade a viola for someone who may not be able to afford a professional instrument?

First of all, the player should make sure the instrument he owns is regularly adjusted by a luthier, that the strings are not changed too infrequently, and that the instrument is generally kept in good shape. Just polishing an instrument, any instrument, helps to bring out its best sound (I don’t know why this is, but in my experience, it is so). If the player can afford to buy a decent bow, one that helps draw the best possible sound out of the instrument, that would be the first thing to purchase, even before a better instrument.

If you could recommend one work and recording that would romance anyone into falling in love with the viola, what would it be and why?

The recording that converted me to the viola, once and for all, was Lachrymae, on ECM featuring Kim Kashkashian with Dennis Russell Davies and the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester. It features Hindemith’s Trauermusik, written in London the day after King George V died in 1936, and performed by the composer the next day in a broadcast memorial concert, along with Britten’s Lachrymae and Penderecki’s viola concerto. These are dark works full of deep emotions and dusky hues, perfectly suited to the expressive qualities of the viola. When I heard Kim Kashkashian’s colourful, richly varied, and hauntingly beautiful playing on this album for the first time, I became aware of the true possibilities inherent in the viola.

Pemi performs across Canada and the U.S.A. as a recitalist and chamber musician. In addition, he performs as a member of the Montreal-based Ensemble Caprice, The Theatre of Early Music, Bradyworks, and the ensemble of the SMCQ. He is a founder and artistic director of the chamber music collective, Warhol Dervish.
www.pemipaull.com, www.youtube.com/pemipaull, www.violalotus.tumblr.com

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