(Fr. alto; Ger. Bratsche)
The term ‘viola’ now refers to the alto (or, more properly, to the alto-tenor) member of the violin family. The viola came into being in northern Italy at about the same time (not later than 1535) as the other members of the new violin family.
The viola, in general, has the darker, warmer, richer tone qualities of the alto voice as opposed to the lighter, more brilliant soprano of the violin. The strings are tuned to c–g–d'–a', a 5th below the violin.
To produce optimum strength of tone and, especially, beauty and depth on its lower strings, the ideal size for a viola would make it too long for the player. Viola size has never been standardized as to length of body, depth of ribs or width of bouts. Just as the length of the viola varies from instrument to instrument, so, naturally, does the sounding length of the strings.
The strings of the viola were originally gut, but a wound C string must have been used in the 18th century and probably also a wound G string in the 19th. In modern practice, wound strings are often used for all four strings to aid their capacity to ‘speak’, to improve their evenness of tone and response from string to string, to stabilize intonation and to reduce breakage. The fingering and bowing techniques of the viola are similar in principle to the violin’s, and many technical studies (e.g. Kreutzer, Ševčík) are simply transposed down a 5th for the viola.
Differences in technique are related to the viola’s larger size. For one thing, its weight and size suggest that it be held with its scroll slightly lower than is common on the violin. Viola fingering, while similar to that of the violin, utilizes more half-position playing and demands greater left-hand expansion. The vibrato is generally somewhat wider and less intense on the viola than on the violin. While viola bowing is in principle similar to that of the violin, the viola player uses somewhat greater energy on the viola’s thicker strings to make them ‘speak’ properly, while the bow itself is generally heavier and slightly shorter.
By 1535 the alto-tenor violin (the modern viola) was established as one of the three principal members of the new violin family but it was not called ‘viola’ because at that time the term had a variety of meanings both general and specific. Around 1500 ‘viola’, in the most general sense, might mean any bowed string instrument. From this general sense, the Italian term viola (Fr. vielle; Ger. Fidel) was modified in various ways to describe a specific family or a specific instrument. Examples from the 16th and 17th centuries are the viola da braccio (‘arm viola’; a member of the violin family), soprano di viola da braccio (violin), viola da gamba (‘leg viola’; a member of the viol family) and basso di viola da gamba (bass viol). Later instances are the Viola d’amore and Viola pomposa.
In the 17th and 18th centuries ‘viola’ is often used with adjectives to denote different registers (but not change of tuning, which, whatever register was involved, moved invariably upwards in 5ths from c).The term ‘violetta’, used in the 16th century to mean ‘violin’ or even ‘viol’ in certain contexts, often refers in the 18th century to the viola (alto violin).
Historically, the viola was ‘the instrument of the middle’, being used for both the alto and tenor registers: in the 16th and 17th centuries, a four-part ensemble might use two violas; and a five-part ensemble, three violas. This distribution accounts for the relatively large number of violas produced in these two centuries by makers of the time, including such famous ones as the various members of the Amati family in Cremona and, in Brescia, Gasparo da Salò and Maggini. The distribution of parts explains also why the sizes of violas varied from very large models, needed to play in the deep tenor register, to small models for playing in the higher alto register.
The best viola makers have often been successful in minimizing the inherent acoustical difficulties and a fine viola, played by a true artist, is therefore capable of a beauty and variety of tone and effects of virtuosity that are thrilling and moving in the alto-tenor register. However, the viola has always suffered as a solo instrument by comparison with the greater brilliance of the violin and the strength and depth of the cello. Both violin and cello can compete more successfully with the symphony orchestra in concertos, and this explains why, over the years, composers have written innumerable violin concertos, a fair number for cello and until recently comparatively few for viola. Before 1740 the viola was seldom treated as a soloist in any context, generally being banished to the decent obscurity of the accompaniment, realizing the harmony of the middle parts.
After about 1740 the viola began to enjoy a new lease of life though less noticeably in its orchestral role than elsewhere. It was treated increasingly as a solo instrument in concertos. According to Ulrich Drüner (1981), the history of the viola concerto begins with that of Telemann (probably written shortly before 1740) and is represented by only three other concertos from the Baroque period, those of J.M. Dömming, A.H. Gehra and J.G. Graun. Among the better known classical viola concertos are those of J.A. Amon, Friedrich Benda, F.A. Hoffmeister, Roman Hofstetter, Ignace Pleyel, Josef Reicha, G.A. Schneider, Joseph Schubert and, above all, Alessandro Rolla. Mozart's Quintet in G minor for two violins, two violas and cello (k516, 1787) amply demonstrates the potential of the viola as a chamber music instrument in the hands of a master. Also worthy of remark is the way that Mozart made the first viola serve as either a treble or a bass: that is, as a bass to the trio of the upper three instruments or – a marked contrast in tone-colour – as the treble to the lower three. Several viola methods, somewhat analogous to those for violin and cello, were published at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries; they include those by Michel Corrette (1773), Michel Woldemar (c1800), François Cupis (attributed, 1803) and M.J. Gebauer (c1805).
The average orchestral viola player around 1900 was still regarded as a cast-off from the violin section, but in the 20th century the viola was increasingly called upon, especially the viola soloist in chamber music, to perform special effects such as col legno bowings (e.g. Schoenberg), rebounding pizzicatos (Bartók), glissandos, harmonics and so on.
After Beethoven, the string parts in the music of such composers as Berlioz, Brahms, Verdi and Tchaikovsky gradually increased in difficulty. The technical demands on the viola are often as great as on the other parts, notably in Schoenberg's String Trio or Bartok's string quartets (particularly nos.3–6).In the 20th century compositions featuring the solo viola have become more numerous because, among other reasons, the presence of such outstanding players as Lionel Tertis, William Primrose and Paul Hindemith has encouraged composers. Tertis, in particular, inspired a number of pieces by British composers, including (though indirectly through Thomas Beecham) the Walton Viola Concerto, one of the best in modern times.
Many other distinguished composers might be mentioned for their viola compositions, including Berio, Bloch, Britten, Henze, Milhaud, Penderecki, Piston, Rochberg, Schnittke, Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams. In spite of the relatively numerous 19th- and 20th-century pieces originally written for the viola as a soloist in one capacity or another, perhaps the instrument is most at home in chamber music. Among the many chamber-music combinations, composers have evidently written for the viola the most frequently and with the greatest devotion in that most perfect of musical mediums, the string quartet, as a number of the finest works of the most celebrated composers attest: among them Beethoven, Schubert, Dvořák, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Dohnanyi, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Schoenberg and Webern.
Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
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