What is the role of the viola in ensemble playing?

The viola may have its challenges as a solo instrument, but as part of an ensemble it has a unique perspective on music’s inner workings, says Tom Service

What is the role of the viola?

It’s the viola’s place inside the textures of string quartets and orchestral music that’s at once its essence and its curse. The curse is built into the acoustic compromise of the viola, which is held like a violin, but tuned a fifth lower.

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What is the role of the viola?

Preserving that violin-like shape impairs the viola’s ability to resonate equally powerfully across the spectrum: the viola should be bigger than it really is to allow its bottom C string properly to resonate. Playing in the middle of the texture, the viola is often lumbered with repetitive patterns and musical padding in the way composers write for it in the 18th and 19th centuries. Instead of having the glamour of the tune, like the violins, or the scaffolding of the harmony, in the cellos and basses, the violas are left to play the often mundane middle.

Paradoxically, that’s precisely the richness of the viola’s place. As a player, that position inside the orchestra of the string quartet offers a unique vantage point to understand the entirety of the musical experience, to interpret the melody above and the harmony below. That’s why composers, from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Paul Hindemith, Rebecca Clarke to Sally Beamish, have relished playing the viola more than any other instrument.

And all of those composers have transformed the viola in the way they compose for it, turning it from a taken-for-granted middle voice to a revelation of the music’s expressive character. You hear that in the voluptuous viola writing that Mozart composes in his string quintets, and in the solo part of his Sinfonia concertante for viola and violin, in which the viola intensifies everything the violin says in their rapturous dialogue with the orchestra.

What are the best pieces of music for the solo viola?

It’s often music’s natural collaborator, but as a soloist, the viola dares to reveal its beautifully flawed resonances to us. That move to the solo spotlight is still innovative in the 21st century, as in Sally Beamish’s three viola concertos, or the dozens of the pieces that the violist Lawrence Power has catalysed and commissioned. Composers continue to discover new regions of sound and possibility when they compose for the instrument, just as Hector Berlioz did in the 1830s in his non-concerto Harold in Italy, and like Ralph Vaughan Williams realises in the ecstatic spiritual progress of Flos Campi, composed in 1925 for viola, orchestra and choir.

It’s no joke – just as there are no viola jokes in this column! – the viola makes our souls resonate in sympathy with it as no other string instrument can do. When we listen to it and love it, our lives become viola-shaped, perfectly imperfect, beautifully human. 

Tom Service explores how music works in The Listening Service on Sundays at 5pm onBBC Radio Three

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Illustration credit: Maria Corte Maidagan