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  • Writer's pictureJane Lenz

My Favorite Pieces Written for Viola

I’m so excited to share some of my favorite pieces in the viola repertoire, from J.S. Bach to Kenji Bunch! Though I’ve only scratched the surface of knowing all the beautiful music that has been written for viola over the years (case in point is the The American Viola Society’s Underrepresented Composers Database which contains a plethora of pieces that should be explored), I’ve selected some of the most memorable pieces from my life which have brought me joy and into new musical experiences. My favorites span musical eras all the way from the Baroque (J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6) and Romantic (Johannes Brahms’ Sonata No. 1) to twentieth century composer Paul Hindemith’s Sonata Op. 11 No. 4 and living composer Kenji Bunch’s The 3 G’s. I hope these pieces inspire you and give you a glimpse into the musical gems that are contained in viola repertory!

Paul Hindemith's Sonata Op. 11 No. 4

The first of my selections to share is a piece by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). He is one of the “champions” of the repertoire, providing numerous viola sonatas and one of the most popular viola concertos, Der Schwanendreher. His Sonata Op. 11 No. 4, known as the most Romatic-esque of the his sonatas, is both beautiful and transformative as it moves from theme to variations to an exhilarating ending. Marina Thibeault’s recording of the first movement is simply lovely:

Kenji Bunch’s The 3 G’s

I’ve always enjoyed Kenji Bunch’s The 3 G’s and hear it often. It puts me into a trance as I groove and jive with the rhythms. The title comes from the scordatura of two strings to G (so, three strings at G, hence The 3 G’s). Kenji Bunch is a composer and viola double force and the brilliant Hsin-Yun Huang has a rendition of The 3 G’s I wish to share:

J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6

Next is a piece to which I’ll always come back and listen: J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 - and who better to play it than artists of the Netherlands Bach Society! Unlike the other Brandenburg Concerti, Concerto No. 6 features two violists as the top voices in the ensemble and no violins. The violas are joined by two viola da gambas, a cello, double bass, and harpsichord. Any piece featuring so much viola is bound to be a favorite, and none of the three movements of this concerto disappoint:

Johannes Brahms’ Viola Sonata No. 1

Johannes Brahms’ Viola Sonata No. 1 is both rich and lush. Both violist and pianist are put to the hard job of communicating Brahms’ music while technical demands can easily steal the attention. Though originally written as clarinet sonatas, Brahms transcribed both Sonata No. 1 and No. 2 for viola and they fit well into the depth and range of the instrument. Molly Carr, the newly appointed violist of the Juilliard String Quartet, along with duo partner Anna Petrova have a beautiful recording here:

As you can hear, the viola is such an amazing instrument. Come study it with me at StringTime Summer Camp!

With joy,

Jane Lenz

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