The laughing stocks in the orchestra

The viola – between joke and prejudice.

Do you know this one?

As long as he can remember, the orchestra's old viola player goes to his locker and looks inside it before he goes out on to the concert platform. The ritual has awakened curiosity among his fellow musicians, and after he retires they open the locker and find a reminder stuck behind the door: »Viola on the left, bow on the right«.

People who play other instruments can be relied on to burst out laughing at this, but a viola player just shrugs his shoulders apathetically: they get to hear things like this all the time. Something that's little known among non-musicians is that viola players are the laughing stocks in the orchestra.

Too big, too small – compromises in construction

© Frinck51/Wikimedia Commons

Difference in size between the violin and the viola

This has to do with the history and the character of the instrument. The viola is first and foremost a big violin which doesn't have the high E string, but has a low C string instead. This means that it is tuned a fifth lower than the violin, and an octave higher than the cello. However, the viola is really too small for this tuning: in order for it to have the same ratio between range and size as the violin has, the body of the instrument would need to be 10 – 15 cm longer. As a result, the brilliant overtones come out significantly less than with the »little sister« the violin, and this gives the viola its characteristic, darker-toned timbre.

But it would be close to impossible to build the viola any bigger. The scaling (the distance that separates the notes on the fingerboard) and the construction already call for larger and more powerful hands than with a violin. This technical handicap caused composers for a long time to keep the viola parts simple, in turn giving other musicians something to joke about.

Belated solo career

Moreover, in comparison to the violin or the piano there is not much prestigious solo repertoire for the viola to help polish up its image. In the 18th century, the only composers to write genuine viola concertos were minor masters, such as Carl Stamitz and Franz Anton Hoffmeister. For a long time, the viola found itself confined to its function as a humble instrument filling the gap between the violin and the cello. As we move into the 19th century, we find composers making more use of the instrument's potential: Hector Berlioz in »Harold en Italie«, Richard Strauss in »Don Quixote«. But not until the 20th century did further horizons open up for the viola. Béla Bartók wrote his big Solo Concerto for Viola and Orchestra in 1945, and Paul Hindemith, himself a viola player by training, contributed several works. It was Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina und György Ligeti who discovered the viola for modern music.

»To this day, its image remains worse than that of the other strings because the viola's specific quality lies less in solo playing than in the art of the middle part. The unpractised listener pays attention to the melody line – but you can only really tell what else is going on in the mesh of all the parts if you are playing yourself.«

Tabea Zimmermann

Things have changed, however, and less promising violin pupils are no longer passed on to the viola desk. A whole generation of excellent virtuoso musicians has refuted all the prejudices about the viola for once and for all, among them Tabea Zimmermann, Antoine Tamestit and Kim Kashkashian.

Last but not least: it's true that music history discriminated against the viola for many years, but the viola section offers an exclusive right by way of compensation. Viola players are the only group of instruments that can bestow an additional title: if someone learnt to play the viola straight off as a child, i.e. did not, like so many youngsters, start with the violin, his colleagues refer to him respectfully as a »noble viola«.

Text: Clemens Matuschek

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