The viola takes a bow

It has long been the joke instrument of the string section, with neither the class of the violin nor the gravitas of the cello. But, says Bayan Northcott, the viola is finally getting to take a lead role
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The Independent Culture

In May 1937, the conductor Boyd Neel was offered a concert date for his pioneering London-based string orchestra at the Salzburg Festival that August. Needing a new work in a hurry, Neel turned to the 23-year-old Benjamin Britten, who duly produced, in a mere five weeks, a dazzlingly virtuosic 25-minute sequence of variations on a theme by his own composition teacher, Frank Bridge. At the initial rehearsal, Neel recalled, there was a passage in harmonics with which his principal viola got into difficulties. "First Britten, then Bridge, picked up the instrument and played the passage quite perfectly."

The humiliation was not quite so complete as it might seem. Bridge had earned his early living as a professional violist in a string quartet, and the viola had been Britten's main student instrument beside the piano. But it is all too easy to imagine the ribbing that unfortunate player must have suffered from his colleagues after the rehearsal. For whatever reasons, viola players have long been treated as lowest of the low in the orchestral pecking order, and become victims of an extensive repertoire of dreadful jokes. Question: What is the definition of a minor second? Answer: Two violas playing in unison. Q: What is the difference between a viola and a coffin? A: The coffin has the corpse on the inside. That sort of thing.

Yet, if orchestral musicians have tended to dismiss viola players as violinists who can no longer get it up, etc, Bridge and Britten were by no means the first composers to regard the instrument quite differently. Though all primarily violinists, Haydn and Mozart preferred to alternate on the viola in readings of one another's chamber works; Schubert played viola in the family string quartet; and Mendelssohn took one of the viola parts in performances of his own Octet. Meanwhile, Beethoven earned his earliest living in the violas of the Elector of Bonn's orchestra, and Dvorak likewise in the pit at the Prague Opera.

Nor was Frank Bridge the only 20th-century composer to live by his viola playing. Between the wars, Hindemith made a brilliant career as chamber player and concert soloist, while in our own time, Sally Beamish, Diana Burrell and Rupert Bawden have all worked as professional viola players - the last in The English Concert. The viola was also the principal student instrument of Vaughan Williams and Elisabeth Lutyens, though Britten himself confined his later involvement to private readings of such favourite works as the Schubert C Major Quintet. Yet just one note of his playing does survive in the commercial discography - in a 1946 recording with the Zorian Quartet of Purcell's Fantasia on one note.

There is, of course, one obvious advantage to a composer in taking the viola seat in a string quartet or orchestra piece: it is the ideal position from which to hear and judge the interactions and balances between the top and bottom of the musical texture - the melodies and bass lines. And doubtless the experience in turn prompts the rewardingly-varied inner part-writing of all those viola-playing composers, compared with the more routine accompaniment patterns of their less-aware peers. But, beyond that, a whole succession of composers, from Mozart to Bartok, seem to have been especially fascinated by the richly ambiguous character of the instrument itself, whether or not they were players.

So the real puzzle is why a repertoire focusing on the viola has emerged so late in Western music. It is arguable, for instance, that the viola blends better with the middle range of the piano than either the violin or the cello - something Mozart exploited in his gentle Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, K 498, and Schumann in a number of suite-like chamber collections for domestic performance. Yet, apart from a youthful effort by Mendelssohn, there are virtually no viola sonatas from the classical period. And why did we have to wait until the 20th century before significant viola concertos began to appear? (With the glorious partial exceptions of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, K 364, and Berlioz's Symphony Harold en Italie with its obbligato viola part, written at the behest of Paganini?

It must be admitted there are certain inherent limitations and uncertainties about the instrument itself. Tuned a fifth below the violin, it ideally requires a proportionately larger body to yield its full resonance. But this demands a longish arm to hold it in violin position and, in practice, many violas embody slightly smaller compromises. Thus a rangy player such as Paul Silverthorne, principal viola of the LSO and London Sinfonietta, is comfortably able to wield the full-scale Amati that he has on loan from the Royal Academy. But one wonders what size instrument Mozart, who was accounted to be a small man even in his own time, played.

Then again, the viola was long thought too lacking in brilliance in its upper range to hold its own as a concerto instrument - though Mozart cleverly got round this in his Sinfonia Concertante by having the viola strings tuned up a notch to increase the brightness of the sound while casting it in E flat, a key that mollifies the edge of the violin. Nor, of course, does the viola have the weight of the cello, tuned an octave lower. That earliest of the great international viola soloists, Lionel Tertis, made an interesting viola version of Elgar's Cello Concerto. But, despite the composer's approval, it never really caught on.

None the less, with the advent of soloists such as Tertis, Hindemith and the American virtuoso William Primrose, in the earlier decades of the 20th century, composers began turning to the viola with new curiosity. First Reger, then Hindemith began writing unaccompanied viola pieces of a Bach-like ingenuity - a tradition that culminated in Ligeti's great Sonata for Solo Viola (1994). Meanwhile Debussy, in his Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915), and Bax, in a whole skein of chamber works exploiting what he evidently felt to be the especially "Celtic" character of the viola, began developing the instrument's special propensity for intimate expression - a tradition carried forward in such deeply personal works with piano as Britten's haunting Lachrymae (1950) and Shostakovich's spectral Sonata, Op 147 (1975), completed virtually on his deathbed.

Meanwhile Bax and Hindemith began to re-tackle the viola and orchestra challenge; nor should one forget Vaughan Williams's radiant suite Flos Campi (1925). However, it was the young Walton's masterly Viola Concerto (1929), composed for Tertis but premiered by Hindemith, that demonstrated the instrument's viability in a full-scale concerto once and for all. Admittedly, there remains something poignant about what might have been its greatest follow-up; Bartok had more or less sketched a viola concerto for Primrose when he died in 1945. Yet, despite the ministrations of subsequent editors, the piece retains a somewhat ghostly air.

However, the range of players and repertoire has continued to burgeon as never before in recent decades. Internationally, one thinks of such stars a Nobuko Imai, Yuri Bashmet and Tabea Zimmermann, who is playing the Bartok Viola Concerto in the Symphony Hall, Birmingham, tomorrow and Wednesday. Yet with British soloists of the quality of Silverthorne, Jane Atkins, Philip Dukes and many others in circulation, it is hardly surprising the last couple of decades have seen a flood of new concertos from Thea Musgrave, Alexander Goehr, Robin Holloway, Robert Saxton, John Woolrich, and Simon Holt - the list goes on.

Only next week, that rising talent Lawrence Power, of the Nash Ensemble and Leopold Trio, will be giving the UK premiere in the Barbican of Mark-Anthony Turnage's new viola concerto On Opened Ground. Just as a whole world of new possibilities has been found since the last war in the classical guitar , so the viola has about it the aura of an ancient instrument that at last is coming into its own.

Bartok's Viola Concerto will be played at Symphony Hall, Birmingham (0121 780 3333) tomorrow at 7.30pm and Wednesday at 2.15pm. Turnage's 'On Opened Ground' is at the Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550) on Thursday at 7.30pm and live on Radio3. A large collection of viola jokes can be found on