Strident, assured, passionate, virtuoso.
These are not words normally associated with the viola, one of the more modest and inconspicuous members of the orchestral family. But anyone who hasn’t heard the distinctive sound of this unheralded stringed instrument should have been at the Oriel Champagne Concert in Michaelmas Term 2015, where we heard not one but two, played superbly by Peter Mallinson and Matthias Wiesner, young violists from the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The viola in its modern form appeared in the early 16th century, at about the same time as the violin, although there was continuous development up until the middle of the 20th century as players strived for a good balance of sound quality and playability. One of the oldest ‘modern’ violas, made in 1574 for Charles IX of France, can be seen in the Ashmolean museum. It is huge, and must have been a great physical challenge to play.
Cinderella No More is the autobiography of one of the greatest violists of all time, Lionel Tertis. Born in 1876 in West Hartlepool, Tertis was persuaded to take up the viola in 1896 in order to complete a string chamber group. At the time there was very little music of interest for the viola as a solo instrument, and it was largely given dull accompanying parts to play. As a result, the standard of playing was not good. In an interview towards the end of his career, Tertis summed up viola players in the 1890s thus:
‘They were absolutely despised by the other string players. Anybody could get into the viola section simply because they were down-and-out violinists. They could get nobody else to do it. They produced a perfectly appalling sound.’
The woeful quality of the average player, a consequence of the lack of any decent music to play, gave the viola a poor reputation and has spawned an entire genre of viola jokes: ‘How is lightning like a viola player’s fingers? Neither one strikes the same place twice’; ‘How can you tell when a viola player is playing out of tune? The bow is moving’. etc. etc.
An exception to the dearth of pre-twentieth century showcase music for the viola is Berlioz’s second symphony, Harold in Italy, written as an orchestral work with an extensive viola solo. The piece was commissioned in 1834 by the great violinist Paganini, who had acquired a wonderful viola made by Stradivarius and wanted something appropriate to its (and his) quality to play on it. When he saw what Berlioz had written, however, Paganini declined to give the first performance, declaring the music to be ‘too full of rests’.
Generally speaking, the viola is more difficult to play than the violin because the notes are further apart on the fingerboard. The size also makes it heavier and slower to respond acoustically than the violin. From the outset, however, Tertis loved the particular sound quality of the viola, and he spent the whole of his life championing his chosen instrument through concerts and teaching. He is the person most credited with developing the characteristic sound of the viola we know today. An intense, mellow, even melancholic timbre, but at the same time rich and expressive, with a wide variety of tone colour.
The twentieth century witnessed a change in the viola’s fortunes. Through the efforts of Tertis and others in promoting the instrument, a vast quantity of great music was written for viola by composers including Bartok, Britten, Shostakovich, Walton, and many others.
Although still primarily an instrument for orchestral and classical chamber music, the viola is also occasionally heard in jazz and rock music. It even made a brief appearance in popular culture during the 2013 final of Britain’s Got Talent when violist Natalie Holt, who was playing in a backing group, walked forward and pelted Simon Cowell with eggs in protest at being asked to mime rather than play live.
Notwithstanding such eggcentricities, the viola has a much higher profile today than it had a century ago. The instrument’s unique qualities are more widely appreciated and it can be heard in performances by many highly accomplished violists, such as the duo that visited Oriel in November. Lionel Tertis would have been thrilled. His Cinderella has turned into a princess.