Viola music: 12 of the best works
We reflect on some of our favourite pieces for this most beautiful – though historically unfairly dismissed – stringed instrument
Ah, the viola. An unjustly treated instrument, if ever there was one. It is thought that jokes about viola players actually originate from the 18th century, when viola parts were often rather pedestrian, and as a result talented musicians were more enticed by other instruments, leaving weaker players to take on the viola.
Sadly, those jokes still kick around today, though the instrument's reputation has improved considerably over the last 50 years, thanks in no small part to a wealth of formidable players stepping into the spotlight.
There are many wonderful viola works worth listening to. Read on to immerse yourself in this beautiful instrument's lyrical possibilities...
Best viola music
Walton Viola Concerto
Walton’s terrific Concerto was written in 1929 for English violist Lionel Tertis – as many viola works were at the time – though he promptly pooh-poohed it, handing premiere duties over to composer and fellow viola player Paul Hindemith (see below). It’s hard to understand Tertis’s complaint that it was too ‘modernist’, as the work is overtly lyrical and mischievous, with moments of breathtaking beauty.
Maxim Vengerov (viola)
Hindemith Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 25 No. 1
Composed in 1922, this virtuosic composition consists of five movements set out in a roughly symmetrical pattern, with the dark and sinuous Sehr langsam at its very heart. It is either side of that third movement that the player really lets fly, however, in the short but fast-and-furious Sehr frisch und straff and Rasendes Zeitmass: Wild: Tonschönheit ist Nebensache movements. There is no piano to share this thrilling ride – the work is for viola alone.
Schumann Märchenbilder, Op. 113
These four gorgeous ‘fairy-tale pictures’ for viola and piano date from 1851, near the end of Schumann’s life. He left no clues in the score as to which particular stories he had in mind, but each piece is a perfectly fashioned vignette. We particularly love the headlong rush of the third movement and the gorgeous lullaby that draws the set to a gentle close.
Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Christian Ihle Hadland (piano)
Telemann Viola Concerto in G
Written c1716-21, Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G has remained popular in the instrument’s repertoire, particularly for its high-spirited Allegro movement. It may even be the first viola concerto ever written. The other movements are also impressive, from the solemn Largo opener – which allows the violist to express the instrument’s warm, mellow tone – to the Presto finale which fizzes with energy.
Liisa Randalu (viola) hr-Sinfonieorchester / Richard Egarr
Bax Viola Sonata
Another piece dedicated to violist Lionel Tertis, Bax’s viola sonata was composed in late 1921 and premiered by Tertis and Bax together. With a wild, restless Scherzo sandwiched between two more moderate movements, the piece is fiery and expressive. What most appeals about this work is the exploration of the beefy lower range of the viola, one of the finest elements of the instrument.
Hsin-Yun Huang (viola), Pie-Yao Wang (piano)
Rebecca Clarke Viola Sonata
Composed in 1919 by the then 33-year-old Rebecca Clarke, the Viola Sonata is considered, alongside her Piano Trio of 1921 and Rhapsody for Cello and Piano of 1923, to represent the height of her creative powers. The Sonata's three movements are highly influenced by the musical language of Debussy and Vaughan Williams, and feature lush, lyrical passages and brilliant displays showcasing the viola's whole range.
Gérard Caussé (viola), Katya Apekisheva (piano)
Berlioz Harold in Italy
This four-movement orchestral work was written in 1834, with the viola part representing the titular protagonist. Berlioz was encouraged to write the work by none other than the great Paganini, who having acquired a 'superb' Stradivari viola, complained of having nothing to play on it.
Though Paganini initially rejected the work for its lack of soloistic qualities, he later told Berlioz he had found the music hugely affecting upon hearing it in concert. The piece is perhaps more a symphony than a concerto, and although the solo viola is important to the score, it does not occupy the highly virtuosic role of other concertante works.
Antoine Tamest (viola) hr-Sinfonieorchester / Eliahu Inbal
Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, K364
Although the viola shares the spotlight with its better-known cousin in this 1779 work for solo violin, viola and orchestra, its equal billing is in itself extraordinary for the time. Mozart's music is of the highest quality, with violin and viola echoing each other in perfect thematic synchrony across three beautifully constructed movements. With a huge number of recordings committed to disc, the work's popularity speaks for itself.
Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin) Timothy Ridout (viola) Manchester Camerata
Strauss Don Quixote
Another example of the viola's collaborative prowess, this tone poem for solo viola, cello and orchestra was premiered in 1898, based on the novel Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. The 45-minute work is written as a theme and variations, in which the cello is representative of the eponymous Don and the viola in its extensive solo part takes the role of his squire.
Amihai Grosz (viola) Berlin Philharmonic / Donald Runnicles
Bartók Viola Concerto
One of Bartók's final compositions, his 1945 Viola Concerto was commissioned by Scottish violist William Primrose, who requested that Bartók should not 'feel in any way proscribed by the apparent technical limitations of the instrument'.
Although Bartók died before completing the concerto, his sketches showed that he had taken Primrose at this word, and the completed work (by his friend Tibor Serly) was duly premiered in December 1949. Influenced variously by the trauma of the Second World War and Hungarian folk melodies, the work is at times both tragic and aggressive. A tour de force.
Pinchas Zukerman (viola) Euskadiko Orkestra / Robert Trevino
Shostakovich Viola Sonata, Op. 147
Completed in 1975 just weeks before his death, this was Shostakovich's final composition, dedicated to Fyodor Druzhinin, violist of the Beethoven Quartet.
The work can be considered one of the composer's cycle of works written for instruments not usually thought ideal for solo roles. Upon its premiere the three movement sonata was described by a critic as 'like the catharsis in a tragedy; life, struggle, overcoming, purification by light, exit into immortality'.
More like this
Maxim Rysanov (viola) Kathryn Stott (piano)
Again composed for William Primrose, Britten's work for viola and piano was premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1950 - and 25 years later Britten orchestrated the piano part for strings to create a concertante piece for British violist Cecil Aronowitz. The work is a moving series of variations on Dowland’s songs ‘If my complaints could passions move’ and ‘Flow my tears’.
Kim Kashkashian (viola) New York Classical Players / Dongmin Kim
Photo: William Primrose (Getty)
Charlotte Smith is the editor of BBC Music Magazine. Born in Australia, she hails from a family of musicians with whom she played chamber music from a young age. She earned a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from London's Royal College of Music, followed by a master’s in English from Cambridge University. She was editor of The Strad from 2017 until the beginning of 2022, and has also worked for Gramophone Magazine and as a freelance arts writer. In her spare time, she continues to perform as an active chamber musician.