Violas

Viola

So why is the viola so maligned? First of all, there's the assumption that the violist, if he or she were really any good, would be a violinist. Richard Wagner apparently once commented, "The viola is commonly (with rare exceptions) played by infirm violinists, or by decrepit players of wind instruments who happen to have been acquainted with a string instrument once upon a time." After all, the violin is the star-the champagne of the string world-playing those virtuosic passages, hogging the limelight with the melody line, singing up high where everyone can hear, with all those frilly trills and fast notes. The viola tends to get the meatloaf and mashed-potato notes. Plus there's really very little solo music for the viola compared to the violin-the viola usually gets stuck playing along with the bass line or echoing the violin's melodies. Then there's the traditional orchestra hierarchies-the first violinists are tops, followed by cellos, second violins, violas and basses. It's the proverbial "kick the dog" situation.

Part of the difficulty for the violist is that instrument makers have been struggling over the centuries to find a good balance between size and timbre (or sound quality). The violin and the cello are more ideally proportional in length and thus have a clearer sound than the more veiled tone of the viola. Ideally the viola should be a bit larger to get the best timbre, but that would make it even more difficult to play. As the viola master William Primrose once remarked, "The viola is difficult enough without having to indulge in a wrestling match with it." Today's violists have to be fairly athletic to handle the instrument-they have a longer and more awkward stretch with their left hands, and need to use greater pressure on both fingerboard and bow than the violinists.

Then there's the problem of getting the soft-spoken, purple-toned viola to stand out against an orchestra. The violin and the cello are more able to ring out over a full orchestra-which is why there are fewer solo pieces for the viola. As Cecil Forsyth noted in his book Orchestration (1914), composers often didn't really know what to do with the viola. "The instrument was there and had to be written for. Interesting ... middle-parts were, however, still a thing of the future. The viola, therefore, either did nothing or something which by the ingenuity of the composer was made to appear as much like nothing as possible."

But the paucity of excellent music for the viola, and the quality of playing, is certainly the stuff of mere folklore. The artistry of modern violists nips in the bud any doubts about the beauty or versatility of the instrument. And the viola has had some illustrious champions-Bach liked to play viola so he could be "in the middle of the harmony" and relaxed by bowing away on his viola, Beethoven started out as a violist in the court orchestra in Bonn, and Mozart himself was an excellent violist and wrote some marvelous pieces for it. In fact, 18th-century composers such as Hadyn and Mozart recognized the viola's potential and started to write for it as a solo instrument. It was in that century, too, that the viola took its place as a fixture in the standard string ensembles that we know today - the string quartet, quintet and trio. (Reasons why, violists might argue, the 18th century is nicknamed the Age of Enlightenment.) And finally, in the 19th century, composers such as Brahms and Berlioz helped to unleash the viola from any remaining prejudices. The rise of the Romantic style, which needed the subtle coloring of the viola to achieve its lush effects, and the emergence of the viola virtuoso, brought the viola into its own.

Fast forward to the present all the “Dean” have in fact raised the stature of the viola to a soulful solo instrument. As an indulgence, my violas are called “Titan” in honour of the “Titan’s” of the musical world Beethoven and Mahler – Mahler and Beethoven.