Classical: Snobbery with violins

The war between viola players and violinists is as relentless as ever.
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The Independent Culture
I AM QUITE an equable fellow. I don't get steamed up about things. Cudgels remain un-taken-up, dudgeons stay low. However, I am moved to brandish crayon and slate over one issue which has caused me so much anguish that I am at least warm under the collar and in medium dudgeon.

Some time ago I was ploughing my way through the Faure Requiem in a concert, when suddenly, during the pause between the Offertorium and the Sanctus, the number two viola turned round to the number four viola sitting behind her and muttered something while throwing a nodding glance in my direction.

In the next pause between the Sanctus and the Pie Jesu, the number four viola passed the message to the number six viola, again nodding in my direction. Eventually, during the Agnus Dei, the message reached me, just as I was trying to find an F-sharp. "The Ride of the Valkyries has been done in Dallas."

"Pardon?" This sensational item of news was verified during the next pause, and I spent the Libera Me and In Paradisum trying to work out why a performance of a pot-boiler in Dallas, Texas, was such a burning issue at that very moment in Poole, Dorset. On further investigation during the applause, I discovered that they were talking about my arrangement of The Ride of the Valkyries for 10 violas, which had apparently "brought the house down" at the Meyerson Hall, Dallas.

In 1994 our viola section had been invited to a barbecue by our counterparts in the Dallas Symphony, held in their principal viola's back garden.(sorry, back yard.) We had given them as a token of appreciation a special "presentation set' of my arrangement, and, it would seem, five years later they had performed it.

A goodfriend of our number two viola, who witnessed the event, had rung her with the news just before the Faure concert. The number two viola lost no time in telling the number four viola, who told the number six viola, who told etc. I felt a bit miffed. After all, here was a world premiere by an internationally renowned orchestra, getting a standing ovation in a sell-out concert at one of the world's finest concert halls and not only was I not invited, with all fares paid and a stay at a luxury hotel, but I wasn't even told about it until several days after the event.

That's not the reason for my anguish, however. I have had a set-to with another violinist who has been staying with us. On the 11 August I received a letter and a brochure from a distinguished viola player who had just attended the International Viola Congress in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and, blow me, my arrangement of The Ride of the Valkyries for 10 Violas had been performed there and was one of the sensations of this momentous week. I realise I received these wonderful tidings exactly two months after the event, but nevertheless I proudly told my violinist friend. It would impress him. After all, following my success in Dallas, and now Canada, I am an international celebrity. I scanned the glossy brochure, and there, on page 11, following on from "Working Session One, How to Prevent Shoulder, Neck and Back Pain", was my name in blue and white.

I was not prepared, however, for the reaction of hilarity from my friend, as he thumbed through the brochure and saw it as a compendium of some of the best viola jokes he had ever heard. As one who loves the viola, I could not get him, a mere violinist, to understand my serious regret at missing some unmissable events. My friend was nearly the recipient of a Viola and Head-Banging Demonstration, but that would only provoke funnies from my colleagues - "Best thing you can do with a viola - hit a violinist over the head with it...".

I was then subjected to a relentless onslaught of supercilious comments as he pointed out masterpieces by icons of the viola world, with which my piece was proudly rubbing shoulders, and which to me eloquently gave the lie to the myth that very little of worth has been written for the viola. To him they were the cause of eye-wiping, side-splitting hilarity: "Stigmata 1993" by Chris Howard - that sounds a real foot-tapper. "Duplexity" by Jens Harven, "in which the pitch material is loosely derived from two complimentary hexachords" - you'd be good at that one - nothing's looser than your pitch material when you play", "Wild Bells" by Lansing D Mcloskey: "the piece seeks to exploit the often overlooked athletic virtuoso capabilities of the instrument, overlooked by you, tee hee hee."

He felt that the exploits of Blues Viola Music player George Andrix, who played the viola while white-water rafting down the Grand Canyon should be compulsory for all viola players. His reaction to "Glyph for Viola and Ensemble" by Judith Shatin is totally unprintable, and as for "Piece for Viola and Rubbish Tin" by Chris Cree-Brown - we nearly had to call an ambulance,we could hardly get him off the floor.

I could have made a useful contribution to "Working Session II How to Prevent Arm, Wrist and Hand Pain", by suggesting that people didn't say "With all this stuff, no wonder your "Ride of the Valkyries" went down well."

What really got my goat was the fact that I was reading him this letter at the very moment the eclipse was taking place. The morning went from gloomy to very gloomy, and back to gloomy again. That's all that happened, but my friend was ecstatic. And yet my glittering achievements in North America impressed him not one jot. Had it been a violin piece, he would have sat up and taken notice. Jealousy, really. As one viola player poetically wrote about violinists, "They toil and sweat for years and years with gnashing of the molars. A few go on to make the grade - they become violas."

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