Monday, April 22, 2013

What brought the viola to the present...

Albeit the violin and viola are quite different instruments, it is certainly logical to associate one with the other.  There is no doubt that transitioning from violin to viola is more natural and relatable than, say, the oboe (my clandestine timbre of choice...please don't tell anybody!).  The scope of this project is to highlight the ways these instruments compare in the aim of easing such a transition, but their shared history is also important to consider.

Barrett explains that the roots of our modern instruments, or the "Golden Age" of violin making (led by Stradivari and Amati, etc.), are fairly obscure.  Many predecessors are known to have existed, but the progression from instrument to instrument is hard to exact.  It appears that the violin and viola are hybrids of several different ancient instruments, including the rebec, vielle, viol, fiedel, and the lira da braccio, all shown below in clockwise motion from the top left (the vielle and viol serve also as etymological roots to the violin/viola).

Through the "Golden Age", the violin emerged as an acoustically perfect instrument.  It was of perfect shape and size for under-the-chin comfort in playing and clarity of sound, unlike the larger viola.  Due to the viola's larger size needed to support its lower range, music often did not require leaving first position, and a history of subordinate and incredibly simple viola parts were composed.  The odd proportions also contributed to a sound people didn't care for.  As Lionel Tertis explained, untalented violinist were put on the viola because the instrument's parts simply were much easier.

It is because of composers who played and believed in the viola from an early start that the instrument ever gained recognition.  Telemann, Hoffmeister, Stamitz, Mozart, and Beethoven are just a few names that wrote concertos and chamber works with well-integrated viola parts that allowed the instrument to live through music's "survival of the fittest" if you will.  If you're looking for an example from one of these composers, look no further!!  Mozart's Divertimento for String Trio, K. 563 is proof that the viola has a capable and convincing voice of its own.  

Thanks to the work of viola enthusiasts, the 19th century onward brought a host of commissions to outstanding musicians who dedicated their lives to the viola.  Tertis, Fuchs, and Primrose are responsible for the composition, adaptation, and performance of many widely performed works today.  Fuchs once said in her laborious process of editing the J.S. Bach Cello Suites "Since Bach himself was an indefatigable transcriber and arranger of his own and other people’s music, we need not worry about the propriety of annexing the ‘cello suites to the viola repertory”.  Tertis also advocated for repurposing the repertoire of other instruments for the viola, while also premiering original works such as those by Bax, Bliss, and Walton.  Primrose more than anything established himself as a virtuoso and coach, premiering the Hindemith concerto and commissioning the Bartok concerto, but also birthed leading pedagogues like himself, namely Karen Tuttle (pictured below).

In the attitude of Tertis, who exclaimed "anything however slightly derogatory to the viola immediately makes me see the red light and puts me on the war-path,” the viola has a special place and respect in classical repertory like never before.  The thought that violin and viola technique are one in the same is seldom recognized today.  Even Primrose took back a claim he once made stating that the left hand technique in both instruments is nearly identical.

But even if you believe the instruments can be played in the same way after reading this blog, one difference violinists will always have to overcome in the ability to read in alto clef (Primrose says this is one of the leading issues for transiting players).  Since you spoiled violinists out there might not know what it is to read a second clef, I've attached an alto here from you reference...

SORRY!  I told you I might be a martyr here and there :)

ll3 (Now you may understand that my "ll3" signature is an alto celf!)

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