Which came first, the viola or the violin? Actually the answer remains unclear, as the origins of both have been obscured by the intervening years. It is known, however, that an entire family of string instruments called the “violin family” began appearing in northern Italy in the early sixteenth century. The viola is the middle voice in this family; the violin being the high voice and the cello the low. Like the violin and cello, the viola is played by pulling a bow (a wooden stick strung with hair from a horse’s tail) across taught strings. The roughness of the horsehair causes the string to vibrate as though it is being plucked many times in succession. The vibrations of the string pass through the bridge supporting it, and from there into the body of the instrument which amplifies the sound. The viola has four strings (c, g, d, a) which are pitched exactly a fifth below those of the violin.
The earliest makers of violin and violas experimented with the size and shape of the instruments to try to find the best sound. The violin quickly found its ideal form in the hands of the sixteenth and seventeenth century Italian masters such as Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivarius This brings us to one of the most interesting points about the viola; it is generally agreed that the viola has an acoustically flawed design: in order to accommodate its low pitch, technically its body should be half again as long as the 14 inch violin. Unfortunately, the resulting 21 inch body would be much too large to be held as it is on the shoulder. Consequently, instrument makers have been experimenting for the past four or five hundred years to find a model which is large enough to produce a beautiful sound without being too large to play. A modern violist can choose from models which range in size from about 15½ to 18 inches. It’s not all bad news though; it is this very acoustic imbalance which accounts for the viola’s dark, mellow, some say “melancholy” sound which produces its most expressive possibilities.
The role of the viola has changed somewhat throughout the years. Originally, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, violas covered the entire middle ground of a four or five part string ensemble, playing both alto and tenor lines. By the eighteenth century, writing for orchestra had become a more simple four part texture in which two violins occupied the upper lines, leaving the viola to fill out the harmony with what, all too often, turned out to be simple parts not requiring great technique on the part of the player. These were somewhat dark days in the history of the viola.
In the late eighteenth century many important composers such as Carl Stamitz(1746-1801), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91)(reputed to be an excellent violist himself) began to write soloistically for the viola. To this day Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante (k364), a concerto for both violin and viola, stands as one of the finest works of the viola repertoire. In the nineteenth century the viola was used less frequently as a solo instrument, probably due in part to the increased size and volume of orchestras which required the power and brilliance of the violin or cello to compete. This was a century in which the viola’s possibilities were best explored through chamber music; most notably that of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Antonín Dvorák (1841-1904).
The twentieth century ushered in a new age for the viola. Beginning with the British violists Lionel Tertis and William Primrose, a new school of violistic virtuosity inspired many composers to reconsider the viola’s soloistic potential. Concertos by William Walton (1902-1983), Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) (another composer known as an accomplished violist) revitalized the repertoire of this neglected instrument. The newfound tradition of virtuosity continues to this day with a new generation of talented and innovative performers such as Kim Kashkashian.