Quick guide to popular Violas

The Viola

The viola or viol de gamba is the tenor string of the viol family. It has a body that is longer by 2 inches when compared to the violin and it also has 4 strings. Being bigger, it also has a darker, heavier yet warmer and penetrating- a quality so much desired by musicians. It is very much a part of the modern symphony orchestra – generally, there are some 6 to 10 violas. In a string quartet and larger ensembles, the viola is an indispensable member.

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The History of the Viola

As early as the 16th century, the viola has gathered a long list of pieces in its repertoire for ensembles, for solo bass owing to its deep body, and for the viola bastarda. But soprano, treble and tenor became the “in” things in the 17th century and the viola was given up in favor of the violin that had a shallower body and less nasal timbre. It had however, gathered enough ornate pieces that although it died out with the coming of the 1700s, the Baroque continued using the Viola de gamba (bass viol). Furthermore, its bass was a great support to the harpsichord.

Thus with the viol-harpsichord combining, the technique basso continuo or thorough bass, baroque ensembles were given bass support. When the classic period arrived, the viola lost favor once again and completely disappeared but was revived in the 20th century for baroque music. Great musicians including Mozart, Haydn and Gluck used the viola to double as the cello. It also became an important part of several musical pieces written by great composers including Don Quixote, Harold, and the concertos of Nindermith, Barok, Primrose and Trampler.


Explanation for the Viola

The viola d’amore that is a close cousin of the violin with unfretted string of 6 or 7 melody strings. The viola da braccio or da brazzo all form part of the viol family.  A lot of experiments in size and shape were made on the viola with the goal of making it lighter. Shorter string lengths, retained sound box size but the viola never really had a uniform size until the 18th century.  Many more experiments made innovations on the viola. One of this tried to improve its sound and so was the viola alta created. It was 19 inches long and played well many of Wagner’s operas. Other experiments targeted the acoustics by increasing the size of the body to produce a deeper tone similar to the cello but this affected the ensembles. Now with size classification, large violas or tenors play low registers while small violas (alto viola) played the higher register.  In the upper registers, violas gave rich sound but lost richness as they went lower.

Probably the best violas were those that were made by A.E. Smith, an Englishman. His violas are high priced. His violas are still in Australia, in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, where are dozen of them are in the viol section.


How the Viola Instrument is Played

In chamber music, the viola can play the foundation, the middle voice, the overtone above the melody or rhythm. In the 16th century, the viol and the lute shared fame together. In the 18th century, it was a middle voice between the violin and the cello. The viol had 3 sizes: treble, tenor and bass with the bottom string tuned to an octave below the bass.  It had deep ribs, was thin, with a flat back and with shoulders that sloped. It rested on the knee or was held between the legs. The small viola was called the cinquiesme in French while the large viola was called haute contre.

The viola primarily uses the alto clef but shifts to treble clef for easy reading when a lot of portions are in a higher. In symphonic music and string quartets, it plays the part of “inner voices” or accompaniment parts.


Purchasing a Viola

Violas are mostly not as expensive as violins or cellos. You can buy a viola, online or in a music store, brand new with only a $100 budget. You can spend more of course but if you’re a beginner, a $100 viola would already be a good start.  Although larger than a violin, the viola is easy to carry anywhere and is a pride to own.

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