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Viola Power

by Benjamin Sheng
The Beauty of the Viola

Jealous orchestra members have inadvertently credited violas and violists with many impressive feats. An MIT website claims that the canon (I’m sure you’ve all heard of Canon in D) was invented when two violists tried to play together. More concerning is the fact that violist brains can be purchased for five times the price of Ph.D. brains since they “haven’t been used” (this stems from the misconception that violists are just violinists who didn’t have the brainpower to play the violin). Violas are apparently also useful for many handy-dandy life skills – for example, if you don’t want to get your instrument stolen, you should just put it in a viola case.

Violas have long been the source of many, many, many underserved jokes. The first viola joke, reportedly from the 18th century, tells the story of a violinist who was such a bad conductor that he threw the orchestra into chaos that he was demoted to a violist (during that unfortunate time period, violas were used for easier parts and violists were paid less and had a lower social standing). Violas are stuck in the middle ground between violins and cells, two popular instruments. It’s not easy to sound as good when your instrument is only slightly larger than a violin but has the same set of strings as a cello.

Violas are in reality instruments with amazing tone quality that combine the size of the violin and the deep tone of the cello, allowing for a rich, dark, sound. This combination allows for a unique sound that you cannot get from any other instrument. Violists are in reality very nice people. Very few, if any, of them are failed violinists and they are certainly not stupid. In fact, the only ailment that violists suffer from is probably being attacked by everyone else simply for being a violist.

During the 16th century, when the viola first originated in Northern Italy, “viola” referred to any Western classical string instrument. Even today, the words “violin” and “violincello” stem from the word “viola”. Eventually, it referred to the viola da braccia, a predecessor to most instruments of the violin family. During the 19th century, the instruments of the violin family, including the viola, experienced major changes. Strings, bodies, bridges, bows, and other parts of the instruments were all made stronger. Although the form of the viola that we know today evolved during the 1600s and 1700s, small tweaks in the design are still being made. At that time, violas were still only used as accompaniments in ensembles and orchestras, to produce deeper sounds as a base for the higher instruments. The viola’s role as an accompanist finally started to change when composers started to write more advanced and complicated works for the viola, leading to an increase in the instrument’s prestige. Mozart highlighted the viola in his chamber music, while Telemann wrote several concertos for the viola. Even so, it wasn’t until almost the start of the 20th century that violas gained the same status as violins. 

Violas a long, long, time ago
Take a second to appreciate how much better the viola looks than the violin

Even though violas have borne the brunt of many jokes, the mentioning of violas in these same jokes can simply be replaced with the names of other instruments. Violas are also superior to violins, cellos, and basses in every way. Violas, because of the lower pitches of its strings, sound better than the higher tones of the violin, which can sometimes sound scratchy (no offense). The viola is also slightly harder to play than the violin because it requires larger finger spacing and more weight on the lower strings, but this provides a welcoming challenge for players wishing to master the art of playing the viola. As mentioned before, violas also have a more beautiful, richer, and darker tone than violins, and have a broader range of notes. Despite the fact that cellos have a richer sound (all viola strings are tuned an octave higher than their cello counterparts), violas can still be held and transported more easily. Being in the middle of the orchestra (quite literally) also gives viola players an advantage by being able to hear all instrumental parts of a piece of music. Violas also get their own clef, alto clef, that no other instrument in the orchestra uses.

Hindemith and the Viola

In addition to those who gave the viola more interesting parts in their orchestral scores such as Mozart and Hadyn, many composers have written classical repertoire for the viola. Handel and Casadesus’ Concerto in B Minor, Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G Major, and J.C. Bach’s Concerto in C Minor for Viola are all major works written for the viola. Strauss’ Don Quixote, Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, and Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet have also included prominent viola sections. A surprising number of world-renowned composers, like Rebecca Clarke and Paul Hindemith, preferred to have violas as their main instruments. After the classical era, the viola also gained prominence through the performance of dazzling performers such as William Primrose and Walter Trampler. 

The word “viola” is the base of the word “violet”, which is a color of the rainbow, a breathtaking flower, and a melodious name. Viola is also the name of one of the main characters in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, as well as that of a unicorn in Adventure Time, and continues to be a popular, as well as an elegant, name. Viola Davis is a celebrated actress, and Viola Liuzzo was an eminent civil rights activist. 

The idyllic violet - Viola

The viola is a sadly unappreciated instrument. Its sound quality is both rich and dark, and combines the deep notes of the cello with the size of the violin, making it the best of both worlds. Countless composers have played the viola, given the viola important roles in the orchestra, and written challenging works for the viola. The viola is something that everyone should be playing because it is just so amazing. The jokes that target the viola are senseless and broad and were probably only created because people were jealous of the awesomeness of the viola. Since its creation, the viola has continued to become stronger, more beautiful, and more powerful and continues to rank number one in the list of instruments (at least in my opinion).

Viola Power! 

Viola Power!


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