Instrument Profile

The Viola

by Kerrick Sasaki

When thinking of string instruments, the viola often is forgotten amongst its smaller and larger cousins, yet its rich, dark timbre and interesting history make taking a closer look worthwhile. Did you know, for example, that Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven all played the viola? Or that famed instrument maker Stradivari also made violas that are worth more than his violins?

In the popular realm, bands including Velvet Underground, The Who, Van Morrison, The Goo Goo Dolls, and Vampire Weekend have featured the viola prominently on various songs and albums. 

Introduction to the Viola

The viola is the middle voice of the string family, sitting comfortably between the violin and cello. More specifically the viola’s range is a perfect fifth below the violin’s, having the same A, D, and G strings as the violin with the addition of a C string (an octave below middle C). It has the same four strings as the cello (C, G, D, A), but is one octave higher. As the middle voice in a string section, the viola similar to the alto voice in a choir. In fact, the viola uses its very own clef, called the alto clef.

How to Read Alto Clef:

Alto clef may seem unusual, but it is just as easy to learn as the treble or bass clef. The middle line, pictured below, indicates middle C. Once you know this, you can simply follow the lines up and down to find the other notes.

Violas are held almost exactly the same way as violins: to one’s left side, over the shoulder, and under the chin. In fact, the two instruments are so similar that many people have trouble telling them apart! This makes sense considering that they share the same playing position as well as three strings, but the viola’s slightly larger size creates a unique sound. A full-sized violin has a body length of 14 inches whereas there is no official full size for a viola. Violas found in orchestras generally range in size from 15 to 18 inches, with the most common size being 16.5 inches. While a couple of inches may not seem like a big deal, that extra size is the crucial element in the creation of the viola’s unique sound, which is often described as being mellow and dark. A teacher of mine once described the viola’s sound as being chocolaty! It is this chocolaty sound that draws people to play the viola.

More Background

Would you believe that the beautiful tone of the viola has often prevented it from achieving the same fame as the violin and cello? This makes sense if you think again about the vocal equivalents of each string instrument. The violin is the soprano voice of the strings and the cello is the tenor voice of the strings. It is very easy to hear sopranos and tenors in a choir and even basses for that matter, but what are the altos up to? Much like altos in a choir, the viola often fills in harmonies in an orchestra. Its dark and chocolaty sound blends the string sections together and gives body to the orchestra as a whole. You may not notice them at first, but should you lose your alto voice/violas, your ensemble would sound hollow and deflated! Violas really are the (pardon the pun) the unsung heroes of the orchestra!

The Unsung Hero

The viola is hundreds of years old. In fact, some reports say that it is the oldest of the string family. The viola has been utilized as a harmonic (as opposed to melodic) instrument by composers for hundreds of years. This is the main reason that people are less familiar with it than the violin or cello. The viola has less solo music written for it than the violin and cello, and while it does have more solo music written for it than the string bass, the viola is still less recognized than the bass. Besides being visually hard to miss on stage, basses are regularly seen performing in various popular music groups such as jazz ensembles and pop/rock groups.

This lack of star power has also contributed to something curious amongst violas and viola bows. Because of their role as harmonic instruments, violas were not made in as large numbers as the violin and cello. Great old violas and bows are extremely rare and thus a viola made by Stradivarius or Guarnerius is worth many times more than a violin of the same condition. Fortunately, there are several viola makers today that specialize in producing great violas, making for many happy violists.

Famous Composers who Played Viola:

  • J.S. Bach
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Benjamin Britten
  • Antonin Dvorak
  • Joseph Haydn
  • Paul Hindemith
  • Wolgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Franz Schubert

The Violin, the Viola, and How to Play

Should you play viola? Well, the most important question to ask yourself is, Do you love the sound of the viola?

As I mentioned earlier, the viola and violin are played in a similar manner. The main difference is that the viola is slightly larger, meaning that you must place your fingers slightly farther apart when playing viola than on the violin. Since the instrument is larger, is it also heavier and requires thicker strings and heftier bows.

Viola bows generally weigh anywhere from 69 to 74 grams—about 10 grams heavier than violin bows. One way to tell a viola bow apart from violin bows is by looking at the frog (the part of the bow that is held in the hand). The frog on a viola bow is rounded while the violin bow is pointed. The cello bow also has a rounded frog, but is shorter than both violin and viola bows and weighs around 10 grams more than a viola bow.

Another major difference in playing viola is the use of the alto clef. Alto clef is easy to read (with a bit of practice) once you know that the center line on the music staff is middle C. Although the alto clef was used quite widely in the Baroque period, it is rarely used by instruments other than the viola in modern times. The trombone and cello sometimes use tenor clef, which looks like an alto clef floating one line higher on the music staff. It should be noted that violists also get to use treble clef on occasion when they play in higher registers.

The last major difference between playing the violin and viola is in the production of sound. Generally, because of its thicker strings the viola speaks slower than the violin. That is, it actually takes a bit longer to hear its sound from the time the bow touches the string. Violists need to be mindful of this since we don’t want to be behind the violins in the orchestra! They also need to learn to play slightly shorter strokes than on the violin depending on the desired sound. The viola can be easily lost in the sound of an orchestra, therefore they need to be able to stop and start bow strokes clearly in order to be heard. Violists have to be masters of articulation! Remember that the viola is the middle voice in the string section. They are often the mediator between the articulations of the cellos/basses and the violins (It is no coincidence that violists as people tend to be calm and stable!) Along with sound production comes vibrato! Again, vibrato on the viola is very similar to that of the violin, but it tends to be slightly slower and wider to match the larger size of the instrument. Of course vibrato is purely personal, but a slower and wider vibrato achieves the darker tone that is more commonplace on a viola.

Should you play viola? Well, the most important question to ask yourself is, Do you love the sound of the viola? As was mentioned earlier, the viola has less star power than the violin, cello, or bass, but its beautiful and rich sound quality sets it apart. A modern violist is a team player, who at any moment must be able to jump in and take the lead rhythmically or melodically. A violist tends to have some of the best ears and listening skills of all of the strings due to their location in the center of the orchestra and their middle range of notes amongst the strings. It should be stressed that violists can do anything that violin, cello, or basses can do. It is up to you, the player, to make the viola sing!

It used to be said that violists have more opportunities to play and gain employment than violinists and cellists. That may still be the case to a certain extent, but much less so than in the past. The level of viola playing has risen in the last 100 years and dramatically so in the last 20 to 30 years, when the level and expectations for violists has increased while the number of traditional performing jobs continues to shrink. The bright side to this trend is that the viola has risen to higher and higher artistic standards. There still is performing work out there, but only for very good violists! Recent viola openings in top orchestras have attracted hundreds of applicants. Hundreds of violists for one spot!

Not ready to audition for the New York Philharmonic just yet? Or you haven’t even played the viola? If you want to start playing the viola, there are some physical considerations for youngsters. The smallest violas that are available are 12 inches, which is about the same size as a half-sized violin. Students that are 8 or 9 should be big enough to play a 12-inch viola. Smaller violins may be strung with viola strings with some success, but the sound is usually lacking. As I said before, the reason to play viola is for its sound! For all students and adults, there are many viola outfits (viola, bow, and case) being made for a couple hundred dollars that are perfect for a beginner. More advanced students would want to consider a viola in the $2000 range, and the sky is the limit for professional violists!

If you are switching over to the viola from violin, then you will need to learn how to read the alto clef, but that shouldn’t take too long. Remember that you still need to know treble clef to play the viola in higher registers, so you are ahead!

Important Violists

Would it surprise you to know that Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, and even Paganini played the viola? It’s true! Mozart and Beethoven loved to sit in the middle of the sound when performing their own string quartets. Dvorak was a very good violist and worked as a viola player early in his life. Paganini studied with Alessandro Rolla, a famous viola virtuoso and composer, who most likely introduced Paganini to the wide technical possibilities of the viola. It was Paganini who commissioned Hector Berlioz to write Harold in Italy, a symphony that features a solo viola. As the story goes, Paganini thought that the solo viola part written for him was not flashy enough and he decided to write his own viola composition. The result was the Sonata per la Grand’Viola, a piece in the same vein as Paganini’s virtuoso works for violin.

As I said the quality of viola playing has jumped dramatically in the last 100 years due mainly to the high standards set by the three pioneers of the viola listed above. There are wonderful violists that are performing, recording, and teaching right now! There are many young violists who are making their name in the viola world! Who will be next? Here are some violists that I think are playing at the highest level artistically: Yuri Bashmet, Tabea Zimmermann, Roberto Diaz, Kim Kashkashian, Nobuko Imai, and Helen Callus. You will not be disappointed with any of their recordings!

Let’s jump a bit ahead in history now to three pioneers of modern viola playing.

Lionel Tertis

Cinderella no more! Those are the words spoken by pioneering violist Lionel Tertis (1876-1975) about his beloved instrument of choice. Through his advocacy, Tertis sought to raise the viola to equal ground with the violin. Without Tertis, the viola might still be seen as just a bigger violin. Tertis was strongly influenced by Fritz Kreisler’s warm sound and vibrato on the violin and wanted to adapt that sound to the viola. Tertis performed with many of the great musicians of the time, such as Pablo Casals, Arthur Rubinstein, and Fritz Kreisler. Many composers took notice of his playing and composed pieces for him, the most famous being William Walton’s Viola Concerto. To expand the limited viola repertoire, Tertis made several arrangements and transcriptions of music for the viola, including a famous transcription of the Elgar Cello Concerto for viola. With Kreisler, he performed Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante on numerous occasions. It was one of these performances of the Sinfonia Concertante that inspired the legendary William Primrose to switch from the violin to viola.

Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was famous as a viola soloist in his time, but he is most remembered now for his viola compositions. Hindemith was a music theorist who wrote many textbooks on theory and composition. He was highly respected as a teacher and composer because he had intimate knowledge of almost all of the orchestral instruments—he played them all! He composed one of the most famous viola concertos, Der Schwanendreher, along with the beautiful Viola Sonata, Op. 11 no. 4. Besides performing his own compositions, he gave the world premiere of the Walton Viola Concerto. The Walton concerto was written for Tertis, but Tertis didn’t understand the modern sound that Walton was after, so he recommended that Hindemith give the premiere performance . Hindemith was not remembered as being the most beautiful viola player, but with his formidable compositional skills and strong drive to advocate for the viola, he has become a revered figure amongst violists.​

William Primrose

William Primrose (1904-1982) was destined to become one of the greatest violinists of all time but, upon hearing Tertis play the Sinfonia Concertante, he switched to the viola. He is widely regarded as the best violist in the history of the instrument. Primrose’s fame is based on his amazing technical skills on the viola. He could play extremely difficult virtuoso pieces with amazing speed and clarity. He has been called the Heifetz of the viola in reference to the pure technical perfection that Jascha Heifetz possessed. Primrose was in demand as a performer, teacher, and recording artist, and he performed and recorded often with Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, and Artur Rubinstein. Besides showing the world that the viola had no technical limits, Primrose commissioned the Bartok Viola Concerto and gave its world premiere.

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