What is the Viola?
“You play the what?”
“The viola!” (Taking enough time to properly pronounce the sounds ‘VEE-O-LA’).
“Oh, so that’s not a violin?”
When my music teacher first asked me if I would like to begin learning viola at age eleven (after playing violin for some years already), I wasn’t sure what the viola was, or why it existed, for that matter. My knowledge of string instruments was limited only to the violin and cello, which seemed like the only voices of the string world. As I began my journey learning this beautiful and fascinating instrument, I fell in love with its rich tone and its similarity to the human voice. Understandably, the viola is hard to distinguish, with few visual clues to set it apart from the violin. But I hope to shed some light on this wonderful instrument so that you, too, can enjoy its heavenly sound!
The viola traces back to the early 16th century, developing from the Renaissance viol family. Violas are larger than violins and smaller than cellos, bridging the gap between them in the string family. The viola still has four strings, three of which are the same as the violin: A-D-G. However, the lowest string goes a fifth lower than the violin’s range, a C. Violists read in alto clef and often treble clef as well. Unlike the violin and cello (which have standard sizes), violas come in many different lengths and widths. A longer and wider body allows the viola to resonate more fully. The variety of dimensions can also help violists of various sizes to find a more comfortable fit. The Italian luthier (or instrument maker) Andrea Amati is credited with making the first violas almost 500 years ago, laying the framework for how modern instruments are made today!
Although the viola hasn’t yet reached the soloistic stardom of the violin, it was recognized even in its early years and featured in pieces such as:
Georg Philipp Telemann's Viola Concerto in G major (1716-1721)
J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (1721)
W. A. Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra (1779)
As visibility and popularity for the instrument has grown over time, composers have supplied violists with a wide repertoire of both thrilling and beautiful pieces.
If you think the violin can sometimes sound too ‘squeaky’ and the cello possibly too big and heavy to carry around, the viola might be just right for you!
Jane Lenz and the StringTime Family