Viola players are to violinists what Belgians are to French: (very pleasant) neighbours which we love to make fun of. There are quite a few jokes going around which spread a persistent rumour: viola players can’t play in tune, or, to approach the issue from another perspective, the viola is a naturally off-key instrument. Nowadays, there are plenty of reasons to doubt this childish jibe. Thanks to virtuoso soloists and amazing orchestra musicians, the viola has plenty of champion. Why, then, do these jokes remain so popular?

Viola player Antoine Tamestit
© Julien Mignot

Let’s go back in time. A possible answer comes from an ancient essay, written by flautist Johann Joachim Quantz in 1752. Writing in French, Quantz doesn’t use the modern term “alto” (which didn’t enter common usage until the second half of the 19th century) but there is no doubt that it is this instrument that he is talking about:

“Generally the Violette (viola da braccio) is not considered very important in music. The reason for this is that it is seemingly only played by people with mediocre musical skills, or not talented enough to become distinguished on the violin; or that this instrument gives too little advantage to those who play it, and for this reason skilled musicians don’t want to work with it.”

Quantz attributes to viola players a label that will stick to them more stubbornly than the plaster to Captain Haddock’s fingers in The Adventures of Tintin: viola players are nothing but failed violinists. The academic defends his theory by portraying a vicious cycle: viola players are mediocre, hence composers don’t even try to highlight the instrument – the opposite, actually – and as a result, the bland scores keep the artists stuck in their mediocrity. And Quantz concludes with a mortal blow: “If they could be bothered, they could have more luck by making their way little by little, instead most of the time they stagnate next to their Violettes until the end of their days.” According to this theorist, viola players are the scum of musical society and are destined to die out miserably, smothered by off-key notes.

Although there are no official records that let us verify Quantz’s statement about the mediocrity of the viola players of his time, a quick look at the scores from that era allow us to better understand his remarks. Until the middle of the 18th century, the main genre of chamber music was the trio sonata, an ensemble where two “dessus” (main tunes) debated in more or less equal voices, accompanied by a bass and a polyphonic instrument (often the harpsichord, like in the video above); the “dessus” were often entrusted to two violins, creating basically a quartet with harpsichord but, more interestingly… without viola. When, later on, the string quartet became the essential core for orchestral music, composers at first did not know what to do with the viola, using it as more or less successful harmonic filler that did not encourage the development of the instrument: viola players remained the muffled minority in the orchestra.

In the second part of the 18th century, a few early large concertos helped the progression of the viola, but without allowing it to escape the cumbersome shadow of the violin. The clearest example of this paradox is the famous Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart, where violin and viola are, for once, on the same level: in this innovative work, the composer resorted to subterfuge, recommending that the viola player tune their instrument a semitone higher than usual to achieve a brighter sound. So, to be able to compete with the violin, the viola needs to contradict its very nature? Mozart seems to start a sort of musical Darwinism: does the viola need to modify its genetic code to be able to survive?

Under ascending harp arpeggios, the understated theme of Harold in Italy (autograph manuscript)
© domaine public

A negative answer comes from Hector Berlioz: when the famous violinist Niccolò Paganini commissioned him to write a viola concerto, the French composer refused to write a work that responded to the criteria of violinistic virtuosity that had been so far the norm. In Harold in Italy, in 1834, Berlioz concocts a tailor-made role of fourth musketeer for the trio sonata: the viola shines as a melancholic anti-hero instead than frenetically lining up semiquavers.

Berlioz understood the unique expressivity that can be given to the viola, something he would theorise ten years later in his Treatise on Instrumentation: “Out of all the orchestral instruments, the one whose excellent qualities have been neglected the most is the viola. It is just as agile as the violin, the sounds of its low strings having a particular bite, its high notes shining with a mournfully passionate accent and its general tone having a deep melancholy, different from that of the other bowed instruments.” Influenced by Berlioz’s theories and by its great application in Harold in Italy, many composers allowed themselves to be seduced by this “violistic” identity: a recent example is the Viola Concerto by Jörg Widmann, a veritable Harold in Italy for the 21st century.

If the viola achieved recognition in the middle of the 19th century, viola players have not earned an equivalent acknowledgement and the jokes at their expense keep circulating. In the musicians’ hierarchy, the viola remains a sort of spare wheel for the violinist. It was not until 1894 that a viola course was offered at the Conservatoire de Paris, officially recognising the importance of a specialised learning path separate from the violin. From then on, the first great viola masters started to appear at the four corners of Europe: Lionel Tertis (England), Paul Hindemith (Germany), Maurice Vieux (France) or Vadim Borisovsky (USSR).

A century and a half later, the vicious cycle described by Quantz has transformed into a virtuous cycle: the more and more brilliant and popular, viola players inspire commissions that advance the repertoire… inspiring the rise of new champions for this instrument. The viola now occupies a particular place in the catalogue of important composers, such as Béla Bartók or Benjamin Britten. As to Dmitri Shostakovich, in 1970 he dedicated his Quartet no. 13 to viola player Borisovsky, placing him in the spotlight for most of the piece. The times of the trio sonata seem very far away.

After the second part of the last century, viola players therefore happily “stagnate” with their instruments, when they are not leaving them to explore other avenues: Mathieu Herzog (ex-Quatuor Ébène) and Maxim Rysanov have recently added conducting to their list of artistic accomplishments. One could even start to get worried: after having endured for centuries the bullying of the other musicians, could it be that the mysterious viola players' faction might have gone off to conquer the world? It’s not impossible: the new Japanese Emperor, Naruhito, has already admitted openly that he is part of the circle of the viola practitioners…

Translated from French by Laura Volpi.