In an orchestra this is probably one of the most ignored instruments of all time. It’s one of those instruments that if you are not familiar with the tonality of the instrument, it’s easy to forget. However, much like how an electric bass adds depth to a recording and if taken out you notice substantially, there is a similar effect when taking the Viola out of the orchestra.
The alto of the choir
Viola music is usually notated in the alto clef, but to avoid ledger lines, the upper notes are sometimes written in treble clef.
Violin VS. Viola
“The viola is the alto voice of the string orchestra and its playing technique is similar Lo that of the violin. There are some problems to be kept in mind when writing for viola. The most obvious is the size of the instrument. It is quite a bit larger, sometimes as much as three to four inches, than the violin, and this means that the hand must stretch more to get the intervals in tune.” (For a more in-depth look into the differences between the Violin and Viola, Check out this article.)
Qualities of the Viola
1. The viola bow is slightly heavier and thicker.
2. The strings are also heavier; therefore, they speak a bit more reluctantly and require that the player “dig in” a bit to make them sound. Hence, the lighter bowings are more difficult to produce.
3. Harmonics are easier to play because the thicker strings pro duce them more reliably.
“The fingering system is identical to that of the violin, and the same multiple-stop patterns are available on the viola, but a fifth lower. Similarly, all the ideas already discussed about half-positions, chro matic fingerings, pizzicato, and other color effects apply equally to this alto instrument of the violin family.”
“The only string not found on the violin, it is, therefore, the most characteristic of the four. It has been described by the Belgian musi cologist-composer Francois Gevaert as “somber, austere, and some times even forbidding.”
The G- and D-strings
“The least characteristic, these may be called the “accompaniment strings,” because it is on these that the violist performs the many accompanying figures composers have traditionally given his instru ment. But they can also be exploited for their dark quality, as in the following solo”
While not as brilliant as the E-string on the violin, the A-string is, nevertheless, quite piercing and nasal in quality. It combines beau tifully with woodwind instruments and, in some cases, doubles well with soft trumpets and trombones. Because of its carrying power, it has been used a great deal in solo viola passages.
The Solo Viola
The Baroque masters wrote many concertos for the viola, and some pre-Classical composers followed their lead. However, after that period, except for the Symphonie concertante of Mozart for violin and viola, and the solo part in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, there is little significant solo viola music until Wagner and Strauss in the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, however, the viola has finally achieved an almost equal status with its relatives hi the bowed string group. We could cite as proof works like Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, Bartok’s and Walton’s viola concertos, Der Schwanendreher by Hindemith, and Flos Campi by Vaughan Wil
Overall, the Viola is an important part of any orchestra and should not be underestimated at the quality it can produce and it’s beautiful tone.