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8.557606 - VIOLA (THE ART OF THE)
Chamber Works for Viola
Beethoven • Schumann • Handel / Halvorsen • Hindemith • Britten
A Short History of the Viola
What follows sounds like the beginning of a viola joke, but it is nothing but the truth. What have Joseph Haydn and the viola in common? The answer is that they were both the beginning and the end. Both were marginalised by the next generation and laughed at. Both have been rehabilitated in more recent times. So, as Haydn established the symphony, the string quartet, the piano sonata and the oratorio in their modern forms without, since his time, any improvements in these forms, so the viola is also the origin and centre of the rich and dazzling history of string instruments.
From the viola the violin, a ‘little viola’, developed, and the violone, a ‘big viola’, a sort of double bass, the smaller form of which is the cello, the ‘little violone’. Etymology is also on our side. ‘Viola’ comes from the Latin word vitulari (to celebrate). The German word Geige (violin) comes from the Middle High German gige, related to the German gicksen (to squeak) that today is reserved for our colleagues in the brass. Cello, as we have said, is a simple diminutive.
In spite of its tempestuous and spectacular career, we have for a long time been swept aside by the instruments mentioned and banished to the orchestral basement. To start with early history, string instruments, in Asia, where almost all elements of civilisation had their origin, developed from plucked instruments. In the beginning there were bows, a stick from the ends of which a cord was stretched. The first resonance chamber was the mouth, with an implement held in front. Later men had recourse to gourds, seashells, tortoise-shells, coconut-shells and wooden boxes, stretched strings across them and put the bow to a new use, the one we have today. The Indian ravanastron, a functioning string instrument, dates from five thousand years before Christ; from the North African rebab came the pear-shaped European rebec. The French vielle with four strings and F-holes was related to the later form of the viola.
In the Middle Ages the fiddle (like viola derived from the Latin vitulari) was the favourite instrument, played by wandering musicians and performers to kings and to peasants. From the sixteenth century there arose in the North Italian cities of Milan, Brescia, Cremona and Venice makers such as Andrea and Nicola Amati, Gasparo da Salò, Andrea Guarneri and Antonio Stradivari, who set standards in instrument-making that up till today have never been exceeded.
There were two viola prototypes from which all later instruments developed (with the viola d’amore, that continued into the Romantic period for special effects, between the two):
The viola da braccio (the last word from the Italian for arm, the derivation of the German word for viola, Bratsche), flat, with arched bouts, F-holes and four strings over a curved bridge, and neck set at the same plane as the body; it was played held horizontally. From this the violin developed.
The viola da gamba was, as its name suggests, supported by the knees and was larger, with flat back and C- or F-holes. It has from five to seven strings on a flat bridge. Although the cello in sound and structure belongs to the violin family, it is played, inevitably, because of its size, held downwards, da gamba, held between the legs.
In the sixteenth century there were alto and tenor instruments of different sizes, but similar in tuning to c - g- d’ and a’, the tuning of the modern viola. The body length of from 40 to 42 centimetres is today unchanged. We have then the phenomenon that principle string instruments have hardly changed during the last four hundred years. The last changes in details of construction were made at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it became necessary to produce a greater volume of sound for large concert halls. The tension of the lighter strings was increased, the angle of the neck to the body was slightly tilted back and the neck lengthened.
The choice, however, was stark, and music history seldom stood on the side of the viola: in the seventeenth century, with the development of Baroque opera, the viola da gamba disappeared, as its weaker, lighter tone could no longer meet the orchestral requirements of large rooms. The next to go was the tenor viola, which had to give way to the cello. The alto viola and the ever more dominant cello were finally established as part of the standard orchestral complement.
At the end of the eighteenth century there appeared the first tutors for the viola. They were still aimed at violinists and in fact the instrument itself had disappeared far into the background. While its nimble descendant the violin shone as a solo instrument, the viola provided backing. A few concertos for the viola were written by Georg Philipp Telemann, Carl Stamitz, himself a famous virtuoso on the instrument, and above all by Mozart, who gave it equal importance with the violin in his Sinfonia concertante. Berlioz, who described the viola as melancholy and passionate, wrote his Harold en Italie, a symphony with solo viola.
For a long time the viola played a supporting rôle in the orchestra, but in chamber music held its own. As always it was Haydn who led the way here as well (String Quartets, Op. 33). Mozart gave the instrument a leading part in his quintets, with the full sound of the central parts, with two violas, raising these works over the quartets in public favour. Beethoven, himself trained as a viola-player, gave it an honourable position in his quartets. Schubert’s Death and the Maiden in its darkness and despair is also an important work for the viola. Schumann, with his Märchenbilder (Fairy Tale Pictures) and Märchenerzählungen (Fairy Stories), felt a particular affinity with the instrument, while Brahms wrote his clarinet sonatas with alternative scoring for viola.
In the twentieth century the viola came into its own. Since Richard Strauss it has been equal to the violin in the technical difficulties it encounters. Hindemith, himself a famous virtuoso, became the godfather of all viola players. Britten dedicated works to the viola player William Primrose, Stravinsky and Shostakovich wrote major works for the instrument. Henze, Takemitsu, Bruno Maderna and Kancheli brought its definitive emancipation.
The character of the viola in the orchestra
The viola is the instrument of the inner soul, of despair, of distorted feelings, of suppressed revolt. When the composer Palestrina in Hans Pfitzner’s opera imagines his ability as a composer at an end, the viola depicts his despair. Hindemith’s opera Cardillac and Mathis der Maler are viola operas; in Britten’s main musical dramas, as in his chamber operas, we can revel in his genius in scoring. Richard Strauss offered us fine (and difficult) examples in his Elektra, Rosenkavalier and Arabella, all having to do with loss of direction in life.
In earlier times our orchestral tasks were thankless. In Tristan and Siegfried there is continuous activity that provides only the background mood, and what is given us in Weber’s Der Freischütz is nearly an insult; while the soulful complaints of the hunter lad Max are celebrated by the clarinet and Agathe’s hopes and longings by the cello in bewitching duets, we have the aria of Ännchen ranging the heights of folly.
In orchestral work Richard Strauss has given us great support. Sancho Panza in Don Quixote, where the knight is represented by the cello, is one of our greatest parts. Bruckner’s Fourth and Mahler’s Tenth Symphonies provide good opportunities for the viola.
To be a viola-player one must love the darkness. For me the most admired singer was the velvet-toned bass Cesare Siepi. Tenors I can leave. I like best to read poetry, and my favourite painter is Goya. Nevertheless it cannot be denied that many musicians being too weak for the violin decide for the viola. If something is no good on the violin, it will be worthless on the viola. In principle every viola-player also studies the violin, since the viola is too big for children’s hands. The violaplayer needs big hands and, physically, three times more strength than a violinist. Physical training, though, is unsuitable, since that hardens the fingers.
Many violists make the fundamental mistake of playing the violin on the viola, lacking the specific darkness of tone. It is necessary to bow more strongly and into the string, and to widen the vibrato. All that cannot be learnt, but must be felt deeply. And one requirement cannot be passed over: a professional musician must pay at least $100,000 for a good instrument.
The legend of old instruments
The valuable old violas and violins of the Italian masters are a legend in themselves. The great violinmakers were also viola-makers, although cello-makers were generally specialists in that instrument. The most expensive instrument until now, the ‘Lady Blunt’ violin by Stradivari from 1721, went for $7,500,000. If there were any of the twelve Stradivari violas on the market one would have to pay from $10,000,000 to $15,000,000 because of their great rarity.
The strange thing is that the legendary ‘Lady Blunt’ is now considered barely playable, since it is in its perfection and unaltered state a museum-piece, an object of study. Whoever today plays an old viola or violin, is using a modified instrument. For today’s conditions violas would be too big and awkward to handle, so that the edges will have been cut, causing some loss in the bass register. The modern strings used are better than gut strings that were always breaking, the reason for the fact that during a concert the violin-maker used to sit by the musicians, ready to fit new strings, in today’s orchestral performance something unimaginable. I myself have changed from gut strings to first class new synthetic strings, since the sound of the former in large concert halls can easily be lost. I do not use steel strings. I play a Milan instrument of 1720, modified from its original form; it has been reduced in size but is still very big. The fingerboard has been lengthened and the whole instrument strengthened to meet the requirements of modern string-tension. It sounds quite different from 1720, and differs in sonority with its full range of frequencies, especially in fascinating overtones. Silver in the upper register, dark below in the bass, that is the ideal viola sound, the secret of which the old masters understood.
In earlier times viola-players were given the unflattering title of ‘third violins’. Superannuated or uninspired violinists were relegated to the viola section, a position that had no standing. To play second viola even today one can be very very old. This is the origin of the essential viola joke: ‘What do you do with a dead principal violist?’ - ‘Put him on the second desk’.
There are hundreds of viola jokes. Unsupported theories about their origin circulate (someone must have put strings by mistake on the violin case) and a last question for musicians is: ‘If you see a conductor and a viola-player on the road, which do you run over first? - ‘Always the conductor, as work comes before pleasure’. And ‘If the conductor has been dealt with, the violaplayer will not have got far’. Hard on the viola-player is the story of one who complains to the conductor about the principal clarinet: ‘He has put one of my strings out of tune and will not tell me which’. We are accused of only being able to play our instrument with the help of a crib: ‘Viola left, bow to the right’. To add to all this comes the accusation of faint-heartedness: ‘How do you get a viola-player to play tremolo?’ - ‘Write solo in big letters over the part’.
Moments of reaction are few and the violist has developed a kind of proud composure that gives strength to his vocation. Yet I advise no-one to insult us. In the first place the viola-player has naturally big hands, and secondly we actually give the lie to all such prejudices: the first woman, apart from the traditional harpist, to join the century-old male club of the Vienna Philharmonic was my colleague, the violist Ursula Plaichinger.
The CD: Works by Beethoven, Schumann,Handel/Halvorsen, Hindemith and Britten
Ludwig van Beethoven (1779-1827):
Beethoven in a good mood, even playful. Not happy as in the Spring Sonata, not taking time away from the unbearable burdens of life as in the Pastoral Symphony. Just in a good mood and playful. It is a rare and great pleasure that Beethoven has left us this cheerful, technically brilliant Duo. He wrote it as a young man in his late twenties, full of hope, in 1796 and 1797 in Vienna. Here as a pupil of Haydn, he had entry to the best aristocratic circles from which he drew important patrons and friends, among them Count Waldstein and the Princes Esterházy, Lichnowsky and Razumovsky. Beethoven had need of financial support. Since 1794 there had been no contribution from his native Bonn. A patron who was not from the highest aristocracy and became his lifelong friend was the Hungarian Court Secretary Baron Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz und Lestine, living in Vienna, a gifted amateur cellist. Beethoven indulged in a correspondence with him of almost Mozartian levity, and it was for him too that he wrote a musical joke ‘Graf, Graf, liebster Graf’ (Count, Count, dearest Count). Beethoven had had serious training as a violist in Bonn, and so he wrote for Zmeskall, for them to play together at home, the duo ‘with two obbligato eyeglasses’. Both gentlemen, so it is said, were very short-sighted, the reason for the title of the piece. It shows us. besides, what a high technical level domestic music-making of the time had reached.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856):
1854 was a disastrous and decisive year in Robert Schumann’s life. His mental illness came to a head and led him to his first attempt at suicide. For two years, until his death on 29th July 1856, he was condemned to creative silence. A few months before the fatal date, in October 1853, he wrote his four Märchenerzählungen (Fairy Stories) for clarinet, viola and piano, distinguishing them fundamentally from the Märchenbilder (Fairy Tale Pictures) for viola and piano of 1849. In the latter the charm of domestic musicmaking and a poetically affirmative attitude to life predominate, while in Märchenerzählungen the composer is affected by his illness. The choice of the viola and clarinet, instruments suited to introspective situations, produces, particularly in the long third movement, a mood of depression and pessimism. In the other movements we find, on one side, a touching glance of nostalgia towards happier times, and on the other neurotic, even aggressive moods. With this work, one of the last he was able to write, Schumann closed a circle: his idol Mozart created the instrumentation of clarinet, viola and piano in his Kegelstatt Trio. Over a century later the Hungarian composer György Kurtág completed another circle with his Hommage à Robert Sch., Op. 15, for clarinet, viola and piano.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) / Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935):
The virtuoso violinist, conductor and composer Johan Halvorsen was, after Grieg, the most important Norwegian composer of the late Romantic period. His 1894 arrangement of the Passacaglia (a Spanish dance form) from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 7 in G minor is a first-rate virtuoso piece. Written in the form of the typical Passacaglia, with its eight-bar foundation, it makes use of staccato, pizzicato and ricochet bowing, without concerning itself in the least with considerations of taste a hundred years later. In an age of original sound the untroubled Romantic virtuoso treatment of Baroque music seems inadmissible. In the nineteenth century it was a matter of course, and when we hear Halvorsen’s work we may suspect, at least, that those times were happier for players and audience alike.
Paul Hindemith (1895-1963):
Hindemith was a kind of holy redeemer for violaplayers. Himself one of the most important virtuosi in the history of the instrument, he reached a position as an opera, orchestral and chamber composer that had nearly passed. The so-called Fantasy Sonata, Op. 11, No. 4 (named after the first movement with its direction Phantasie) was written at the beginning of 1919. Hindemith had just been discharged from the army and had, in the midst of the nationalistic sound of a World War now lost, concerned himself, in opposition to this mood, with Debussy. The work, between Romantic and Impressionist, has still nothing of the anarchy of later times, in which Hindemith indulged as a young man. Neverthless it enters the realm of free tonality, is marvellously musicianly, full of irony and colour, and finally reaches an almost erotic sensuality. Hindemith gave the following advice to performers: ‘The sonata must be played without breaks between the movements, especially the second and third movements should be so connected that the listener should not have the feeling of hearing a finale, but the last movement must appear simply a continuation of the variations’. With this work he established his reputation and became one of the most successful musicians in Germany. This continued until the barbarity of 1933, when he was denounced as a cultural Bolshevik and attempts were made to ban his work. Art, however, has lasted longer.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976):
Britten, the most important British composer of the twentieth century, was an immensely cultivated man and wrote music, uninfluenced by all contemporary fashions, drawing on the riches of the past. As a conductor, pianist and composer he did the greatest service to the work of his compatriot Henry Purcell, whose compositions he sometimes transcribed, sometimes edited for modern performance. From the thematic material of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, a formidable orchestrator, he created a compositorial whole and an independent chamber opera. He was also fascinated by the work of the lutenist-composer John Dowland (1563-1626). The latter wrote, under the title Lachrymae (Tears), a cycle of hypnotic love-songs. ‘If my complaints could passions move’ takes on a curious position of its own: under the guise of a love-song Dowland expresses his desire for a lucrative place at court. In 1950 Britten made this song the theme of his ‘Reflections’, since he did not like the word ‘Variations’. The work, for the Scottish viola-player William Primrose, who gave the first performance with the composer, is built on the principle of reversed variations. Britten starts as far as possible away from the theme that first appears in its original form in the twelfth and final movement. In the sixth movement Dowland’s ‘Flow my tears’ is interwoven. Britten here shows once again a marvellous command of technique and of suggestive harmonic colouring. In 1976, in the last year of his life, he arranged the work for viola and orchestra. The clear transfer of voice and lute to viola and piano is masterly and fascinating.
English version by Keith Anderson
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