Though similar in shape to a violin, the viola is slightly larger and lower in pitch by a perfect fifth. It is usually tuned from high to low, A D G C, an octave higher than the violoncello. The tone of the viola also sets it apart from the violin, being less brilliant and warmer.
The viola has been the subject of many jokes because of its lesser role in orchestral music, implying that one does not require as much talent to play it. However, many musicians claim that the viola is actually more difficult to play and it has its own rewards.
The modern viola was developed around the same time as the violin, in the mid-fifteenth century. Originally thought to have been developed by Gaspara da Salo, earlier violas have been found proving this theory untrue. During the classical period of music, composers viewed the viola as a lesser instrument, writing music only out of a sense of tradition. It was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that composers started to write better parts for violas, realizing the instrument could provide interesting music of its own.
Reading viola music can be difficult at first, even for experienced musicians, because most viola music is written in alto clef (which is rarely used), rather than trebel or base clef. The different clef is difficult for musicians to transpose without practise.
The viola is typically assigned secondary parts in music, often harmonies without significant melodies assigned to the instrument. Chamber music, especially of the 1800s, is one notable exception, where the viola is often assigned significant parts. Even with extensive existing music, few modern composers write viola music.
Playing the Viola
The biggest differences between the viola and the smaller violin come primarily from the viola's larger size. Many techniques trasfer over from the violin to the viola with small adjustments for the larger size. The fingers are more widely spaced on the bridge, and the bow is slightly larger.
Famous Viola Players
- William Primrose
- Paul Hindemith(who also composed for the instrument)
- Yuri Bashmet
- Nobuko Imay
- John Cale
- Whit Schroder
- Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown (also a Texas blues violist and guitarist)
Many famous violinists also play, or have played, the viola as a secondary instrument, such as
Notable Works for the Viola
Some famous works for the viola include viola sonatas by Brahms, (Brahms' own transcriptions of his clarinet sonatas, op.120) and the works of English composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, (who studied the instrument) Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge, Rebecca Clarke, and Arnold Bax, who used the unique tone of the instrument in their compositions.
Two major compositions for the instrument with orchestra that are regularly played are Berlioz's "Harold in Italy", a musical invocation of a part of Byron's epic "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage"; and William Walton's Viola Concerto, one of the great string concertos of the 20th century.
The viola was W. A. Mozart's instrument of choice when playing chamber music with his friends. His "Kegelstatt" Trio for piano, viola and clarinet is a rare example of this combination.
Dmitri Shostakovich's last work is his Viola Sonata.
- Hindemith - Viola Concerto "Der Schwanendreher" (1935)
- Walton - Concerto in A minor (1929)