Viola

Courtesy of Yamaha
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Pitch range

Viola pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale
Viola and Violin

Viola and Violin

The viola is a deep and soulful instrument. It looks like a big violin and you play it in exactly the same way, but it produces a very different character of sound. Many violinists, even famous ones, have tried performing on it. But in the end, it needs an expert.

Viola v. Violin

Size: The viola is bigger than a violin. The exact size has never been agreed on, so each viola varies a tiny bit.

The wood: This is the same thickness as the violin’s wood, so it’s a thinner instrument for its size.

The strings: These are longer and a bit thicker, so they sound darker and less delicate than a violin’s.

The bow: This is shorter and heavier.

Longer strings and a larger fingerboard mean big stretches for the fingers.

Because the viola’s register (the range of notes it can play) is in between the violin’s and the cello’s, viola music is written using a special clef called the ‘alto clef’. It makes sure the notes are easy to read and don’t fall off the stave.

Only 10 violas made by the famous Stradivari survive today, compared with about 50 cellos and over 500 violins.

The alto clef explained

If the notes for the viola were written in the treble clef, like they are for the violin, a lot of them would be reaching down from the bottom, like this:

Treble clef

If they were written in the bass clef, like they are for the cello, a lot of them would be climbing up on extra little lines, like this:

Bass clef

So, to make things easier to read, you get this: Alto clef

The viola has never become a popular solo instrument, despite having a few star players. Its sound isn’t as bright as a violin’s or as rich as a cello’s. Without a lot of skill, it can sound like a violin with a frog in its throat! So although there are solo works, it is found more often as part of chamber groups or in the orchestra.

Inside the orchestra

Plan of the orchestra showing the violas, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Plan of the orchestra showing the violas

Violas are made for the middle: they fill in the notes between the higher violins and the lower cellos. The orchestra needs them, but you’d need really good ears to pick out the violas when all the strings are playing.

There are usually 12 violas in a symphony orchestra. They sit right in front of the conductor, in between the violins and cellos.

Mozart, Haydn and two other composers used to spend many evenings playing string quartets together. For these, Mozart always played the viola part: he liked to be right in the middle of the music.

 

Part of a string quartet by Haydn

Haydn: String Quartet, Op. 33 No. 3 (‘The Bird’), IV. Finale: Rondo: Presto

Kodály Quartet. Naxos 8.550784

 

Outside the orchestra

Concertos: Just a few good ones. The viola is not such an obvious soloist as the high, soaring violin or the rich, sonorous cello.

Chamber music: Many string quartets – the viola plays between the two violins and the cello. Other chamber pieces, often with strings and piano, and sometimes with a woodwind instrument such as the clarinet.

Solo pieces: Some, but fewer than for violin or cello.

Hector Berlioz wrote Harold in Italy – a kind of viola concerto – for Paganini, but Paganini refused to play it! He was a show-off on the violin, and he thought the viola part in Berlioz’s piece wasn’t flashy enough. When he finally heard it performed, he realised what a great piece it was! You can listen to the whole of it below.

Viola player in playing position, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Viola player in playing position

To play it

  1. Take the top of the viola in your left hand.
  2. Bring the instrument round so that the bottom sits underneath your chin.
  3. With your right hand, draw the bow across the strings, or pluck them.

 

For more about the viola’s construction, how the sound is made, and its special effects, go to the String Family section.

Find out more about the development of the Viola in .

A Little History of the Viola

Hector Berlioz, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Hector Berlioz

Like the violin, the viola grew from the viola da braccio in the 1500s – but its history is a bit sad. Things began well: there were many violas. But in the 1600s, nobody seemed to like it anymore. There were few played, and few made.

In many ways, Joseph Haydn saved the day with his string quartets in the 18th century. Suddenly, the viola had a key role to play and people began to realise how important it was. Berlioz wrote Harold in Italy for viola and orchestra in 1834 and continued to promote the viola. He also made sure that there was better teaching available: few people playing it had meant few teachers for those who wanted to learn it!

Today, although the viola still has to put up with a few jokes now and then, things are a lot better. It has many of its own pieces and the orchestra wouldn’t be the same without it.

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Viola music is often notated using a special clef. What is it called?

a. Middle clef
b. Alto clef
c. Inner clef

 Berlioz wrote a piece featuring the viola as a solo instrument. What is it called?

a. Horace in Austria
b. Harold in Italy
c. Hubert in Germany

 How many strings does a viola have?

a. 5
b. 4
c. 6

 Which instrument does the viola most resemble when you look at it?

a. Cello
b. Guitar
c. Violin

 The viola is classified as which of these?

a. Chordophone
b. Idiophone
c. Aerophone

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Viola Extracts

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767)
Viola Concerto in G major: IV. Presto (extract)

The viola’s unique sound shines out clearly in this bright and cheerful piece.

Performers: Ladislav Kyselák, viola; Capella Istropolitana; Richard Edlinger

Taken from Naxos 8.550156

Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)
Harold in Italy: I. Adagio. Harold in the Mountains. Scenes of Melancholy, Happiness and Joy (extract)

The viola has a rare turn under the spotlight.

Performers: Rivka Golani, viola; San Diego Symphony Orchestra; Yoav Talmi

Taken from Naxos 8.553034

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Sinfonia concertante, K. 364: III. Presto (extract)

Eavesdrop on this conversation between the violin and viola – what a great combination!

Performers: Takako Nishizaki, violin; Ladislav Kyselak, viola; Capella Istropolitana; Stephen Gunzenhauser

Taken from Naxos 8.550332

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 10: I. Adagio (extract)

The viola section sounding mysterious at the very beginning of Mahler’s last symphony.

Performers: Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Robert Olson

Taken from Naxos 8.554811

Viola and Orchestra

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681–1767)
Viola Concerto in G major

Telemann was a Baroque composer who wrote a huge number of pieces. This concerto for the viola shows his attractive style: listen to the jaunty second movement (track 2), where the orchestra begins and the viola comes in at 0.13. Viola and orchestra take it in turns to be at the front of the sound, with a ‘continuo’ part (from cello and harpsichord) always ‘continuing’ underneath everything, keeping a constant, cheerful rhythm. The same alternation happens in the final movement (track 4), which – after the slow third movement – is fresh, free and buoyant.

Performers: Ladislav Kyselák, viola; Capella Istropolitana; Richard Edlinger

Taken from Naxos 8.550156

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Sinfonia concertante, K. 364

This is one of Mozart’s masterpieces. Two solo instruments – violin and viola – share the limelight in a concerto that radiates sunshine. As we might expect in a concerto from the Classical era, there is a long introduction from the orchestra before the entry of the soloist(s): when the work is performed, the two soloists stand at the front of the stage with their instruments, listening and waiting to play while the audience watches them… then at 2.18, in they slide together: you can probably hear the violin most easily because it’s higher in pitch, but both instruments are playing. Then they spend most of the time answering each other. There is a joy within this music – even in the slower, more thoughtful parts – and a freshness that is characteristic of Mozart.

Performers: Takako Nishizaki, violin; Ladislav Kyselak, viola; Capella Istropolitana; Stephen Gunzenhauser

Taken from Naxos 8.550332

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Suite for viola and orchestra

The beginning of this Suite opens like a flower… listen to the viola, with a gentle accompaniment from the orchestra, playing arpeggio-like phrases going up and up and up, until it reaches the top at 0.18 and then carries on singing. The English composer Vaughan Williams played the viola himself, and he knew it didn’t always need to be hidden in the middle of the music. In both this and his Flos Campi for viola, orchestra and choir, he brings the humble instrument out into the limelight. The music of the Suite is ‘friendly’ – sweet, tuneful, pastoral.

Performers: Helen Callus, viola; New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; Marc Decio Taddei

Taken from Naxos 8.573876

Ernest Bloch (1880–1959)
Concertino for flute and viola

There are two solo instruments with the orchestra here: flute and viola. Listen in track 1 to how the solo viola gets things going, with pizzicato strings in the background. Then at 0.24, the high flute takes up the same melody while the viola explores beneath. At 0.56, they partner each other and you can hear them equally together. Ernest Bloch was born in Switzerland but moved to the United States in 1916 and stayed there for the rest of his life. This Concertino shows how he had mastered styles of composition from the past: like a lot of Baroque music composed 200 years earlier, it is often contrapuntal (that is the same as ‘polyphonic’, where several lines of music weave in and out of each other to make a nice whole). Listen to track 3 to hear this most clearly. In the final 30 seconds, a polka emerges to finish things off with a flourish! The work was written in 1948, commissioned by the famous Juilliard School of Music.

Performers: Noam Buchman, flute; Yuri Gandelsman, viola; Atlas Camerata Orchestra; Dalia Atlas

Taken from Naxos 8.570259

Miklós Rózsa (1907–1995)
Viola Concerto, Op. 37

Miklós Rózsa spent about 55 years in Hollywood, writing music for films, but he never forgot his native Hungary. He said ‘the music of Hungary is stamped indelibly one way or another on virtually every bar I have ever put on paper’. His Viola Concerto of 1979 was written for the young viola player Pinchas Zuckerman. For an example of the viola on its own, listen to the cadenza at 7.00 – the part in a concerto where the solo instrument plays completely alone. The work has plenty of variety, with sections that are slow, fast, smooth, spiky, and more besides. Can you hear the solo oboe at 0.55 in track 4 with a new, gentle theme, which the solo viola then replies to?

Performers: Gilad Karni, viola; Budapest Concert Orchestra; Mariusz Smolij

Taken from Naxos 8.570925

Solo Viola & Viola and Piano

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
Viola Sonata No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 120

Brahms wrote two sonatas for either clarinet or viola, and piano. They’re often heard on the clarinet, but they are wonderful for viola players – Brahms’s meaty music and rich invention are satisfying on any instrument. The viola and piano are very much equal partners: there is no sense that the piano is ‘accompanying’ the viola. You can sometimes hear them passing bits to each other, as if they’re having a chat: try 3.29–3.57 in track 1, for example. Or, for a truly tender section of music, try the third movement (track 3) from 3.49 to 5.05.

Performers: Roberto Díaz, viola; Jeremy Denk, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.570827

Frank Bridge (1879–1941)
Berceuse (arr. V.L. Jacobs for viola and piano)

There aren’t as many solo pieces for the viola as there are for the violin or cello. It’s not so obviously a solo instrument: it is lower than the violin, which can soar up high with melodies, but higher than the deep sonorous cello, which can sound rich and satisfying. It is brilliant for filling out the sound in groups – a team-player, perhaps! It can, though, be a soloist too. So a lot of pieces that were originally written for other instruments are ‘arranged’ for the viola, which creates more music for viola players to choose from. Here is an example: a lovely lullaby (‘Berceuse’ means ‘Lullaby’), originally for violin or cello and piano, by the English composer Frank Bridge.

Performers: Matthew Jones, viola; Michael Hampton, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572579

Frank Bridge (1879–1941)
Allegro appassionato

Frank Bridge, a composer famous partly for teaching Benjamin Britten, was also a good viola player. He didn’t write much solo music for the instrument, but this Allegro appassionato shows how it can really stand out and make a statement. ‘Appassionato’ means ‘passionately’ – the theme at the start (c. 0.10), which we hear again, is certainly passionate and bolstered by the piano’s rapid notes underneath – like waves of the sea, rushing in and out at double-speed!

Performers: Enikó Magyar, viola; Tadashi Imai, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572407

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976)
Lachrymae, Op. 48, ‘Reflections on a Song of John Dowland’

The Renaissance composer John Dowland (1563–1626) wrote many beautiful songs for voice and lute. One particular song from a set called Lachrymae (‘Tears’) is what Britten took as the big ingredient for this piece: ‘reflections’ basically means ‘variations’ – so he treats the song to all sorts of ideas and changes. What you will hear is the viola exploring, with the piano by its side. It is curious and atmospheric. At the beginning, up to 4.48, the viola is muted: a little piece of rubber is fixed onto the bridge of the instrument to stop the resonance of the strings and make a softer sound. It’s like somebody has put a blanket over the music, and the whole thing sounds very mysterious. Where composers often put the theme of their variations clearly at the beginning of the work, Britten does things the other way round: it is only at the end of the work that the original song really emerges, as if the mists are clearing; listen from 12.30 to the end.

Performers: Heinrich Koll, viola; Madoka Inui, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557606

Rebecca Clarke (1886–1979)
Sonata for viola and piano

This sonata is Rebecca Clarke’s best-known work – a lush and lyrical gift for the viola. There are some lovely dreamy moments: listen, for example, to the final movement (track 3) from 1.34, where the piano ripples gently and the viola hums high notes. As the viola moves to a lower register (lower notes) at 2.13, there is a richness to the sound. Rebecca Clarke was born and went to school in England, but had an American father and lived much of her life in the US. She wrote the work in 1919, for a competition in Massachusetts: it was up against 72 other entries. The judges nearly picked it as the winner, but eventually they decided it was the runner-up.

Performers: Philip Dukes, viola; Sophia Rahman, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557934

Luciano Berio (1925–2003)
Sequenza VI

Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas were written across 34 years of his life. Here is a chance to listen to the viola, all alone, go a bit crazy! This is not a delicate tune by Mozart, safely within the viola’s sound: this music pushes at the gates, wide-eyed, dying for adventure. There is a lot of ‘tremolo’ here: that is when the bow is moved rapidly back and forward on the string, making a ‘trembling’ sound. Try having a sheet of paper and a pencil to hand as you listen, and see if a picture comes into your head. If it does, draw it!

Performers: Steven Dann, viola

Taken from Naxos 8.557661-63

Chamber Music

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat major, K. 498, ‘Kegelstatt’

Mozart chose an unusual combination of instruments for this trio: clarinet, viola and piano. The singing melodies and perfectly shaped phrases are typical of him. Hear at 4.56 in the first movement (track 1) how brilliantly he knits together all three instruments just before the coda (the little section that ends the movement). The nickname of the work, ‘Kegelstatt’, is because it’s possible Mozart composed the piece during a game of skittles (the German word ‘Kegelstatt’ means a place where skittles are played). He must have been good at multi-tasking if so! Often the viola is beneath the clarinet – can you hear it? Try 2.00 in the final movement (track 3), where it plays alone with the piano before the clarinet gives a little reply. This is a joyful, sunny work, and great fun for the players.

Performers: Béla Kovács, clarinet; György Konrád, viola; Jenő Jandó

Taken from Naxos 8.550439

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)
String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96, B. 179, ‘American’

String quartets need two violins, a viola and a cello. There are many string quartets, so the viola has plenty of choice when it comes to chamber music. Because the viola’s register (how high or low the sound is) is between the high violins and the low cello, it’s not often that we can hear it really clearly. But there’s a lovely little section here, right at the start of Dvořák’s ‘American’ Quartet, where the viola has a strong solo. Listen to the opening, and to the rich sound of the viola playing a melody at 0.05 in track 1, which is then taken over by the first violin. See if you can then hear the viola in other places too! Dvořák wrote this while he lived in America – he worked in New York but was on holiday during the summer in Spillville, Iowa, where a lot of other Czech people lived. He was relaxed there… which you can hear in the music!

Performers: Moyzes Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550251