The Art Of The Viola (Alexandra Koll/ Heinrich Hofmann/ Heinrich Koll/ Madoka Inui/ Peter Schmidl) (Naxos: 8.557606)
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Chamber Works for Viola
Beethoven Schumann Handel / Halvorsen Hindemith BrittenA 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 Haydnand the viola in common? The answer is that they wereboth the beginning and the end. Both were marginalisedby the next generation and laughed at. Both have beenrehabilitated in more recent times. So, as Haydnestablished the symphony, the string quartet, the pianosonata and the oratorio in their modern forms without,since his time, any improvements in these forms, so theviola is also the origin and centre of the rich anddazzling history of string instruments.
From the viola the violin, a 'little viola', developed,and the violone, a 'big viola', a sort of double bass, thesmaller form of which is the cello, the 'little violone'.
Etymology is also on our side. 'Viola' comes from theLatin word vitulari (to celebrate). The German wordGeige (violin) comes from the Middle High Germangige, related to the German gicksen (to squeak) thattoday 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 theinstruments mentioned and banished to the orchestralbasement. To start with early history, stringinstruments, in Asia, where almost all elements ofcivilisation had their origin, developed from pluckedinstruments. In the beginning there were bows, a stickfrom the ends of which a cord was stretched. The firstresonance chamber was the mouth, with an implementheld in front. Later men had recourse to gourds, seashells,tortoise-shells, coconut-shells and woodenboxes, stretched strings across them and put the bow toa new use, the one we have today. The Indianravanastron, a functioning string instrument, dates fromfive thousand years before Christ; from the NorthAfrican rebab came the pear-shaped European rebec.
The French vielle with four strings and F-holes wasrelated to the later form of the viola.
In the Middle Ages the fiddle (like viola derivedfrom the Latin vitulari) was the favourite instrument,played by wandering musicians and performers to kingsand to peasants. From the sixteenth century there arosein the North Italian cities of Milan, Brescia, Cremonaand Venice makers such as Andrea and Nicola Amati,Gasparo da Sal??, Andrea Guarneri and AntonioStradivari, who set standards in instrument-making thatup till today have never been exceeded.
There were two viola prototypes from which alllater instruments developed (with the viola d'amore,that continued into the Romantic period for specialeffects, between the two):The viola da braccio (the last word from the Italianfor arm, the derivation of the German word for viola,Bratsche), flat, with arched bouts, F-holes and fourstrings over a curved bridge, and neck set at the sameplane as the body; it was played held horizontally. Fromthis the violin developed.
The viola da gamba was, as its name suggests,supported by the knees and was larger, with flat backand C- or F-holes. It has from five to seven strings on aflat bridge. Although the cello in sound and structurebelongs to the violin family, it is played, inevitably,because of its size, held downwards, da gamba, heldbetween the legs.
In the sixteenth century there were alto and tenorinstruments of different sizes, but similar in tuning to c -g- d' and a', the tuning of the modern viola. The bodylength of from 40 to 42 centimetres is today unchanged.
We have then the phenomenon that principle stringinstruments have hardly changed during the last fourhundred years. The last changes in details ofconstruction were made at the beginning of thenineteenth century, when it became necessary toproduce a greater volume of sound for large concerthalls. The tension of the lighter strings was increased,the angle of the neck to the body was slightly tilted backand the neck lengthened.
The choice, however, was stark, and music historyseldom stood on the side of the viola: in the seventeenthcentury, with the development of Baroque opera, theviola da gamba disappeared, as its weaker, lighter tonecould no longer meet the orchestral requirements oflarge rooms. The next to go was the tenor viola, whichhad to give way to the cello. The alto viola and the evermore dominant cello were finally established as part ofthe standard orchestral complement.
At the end of the eighteenth century there appearedthe first tutors for the viola. They were still aimed atviolinists and in fact the instrument itself haddisappeared far into the background. While its nimbledescendant the violin shone as a solo instrument, theviola provided backing. A few concertos for the violawere written by Georg Philipp Telemann, Carl Stamitz,himself a famous virtuoso on the instrument, and aboveall by Mozart, who gave it equal importance with theviolin in his Sinfonia concertante. Berlioz, whodescribed the viola as melancholy and passionate, wrotehis Harold en Italie, a symphony with solo viola.
For a long time the viola played a supporting r??le inthe orchestra, but in chamber music held its own. Asalways it was Haydn who led the way here as well(String Quartets, Op. 33). Mozart gave the instrument aleading part in his quintets, with the full sound of thecentral parts, with two violas, raising these works overthe quartets in public favour. Beethoven, himselftrained as a viola-player, gave it an honourable positionin his quartets. Schubert's Death and the Maiden in itsdarkness and despair is also an important work for theviola. Schumann, with his Marchenbilder (Fairy TalePictures) and Marchenerzahlungen (Fairy Stories), felta particular affinity with the instrument, while Brahmswrote his clarinet sonatas with alternative scoring forviola.
In the twentieth century the viola came into its own.
Since Richard Strauss it has been equal to the violin inthe technical difficulties it encounters. Hindemith,himself a famous virtuoso, became the godfather of allviola players. Britten dedicated works to the violaplayer William Primrose, Stravinsky and Shostakovichwrote major works for the instrument. Henze,Takemitsu, Bruno Maderna and Kancheli brought itsdefinitive 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 thecomposer Palestrina in Hans Pfitzner's opera imagineshis ability as a composer at an end, the viola depicts hisdespair. Hindemith's opera Cardillac and Mathis derMaler are viola operas; in Britten's main musicaldramas, as in his chamber operas, we can revel in hisgenius in scoring. Richard Strauss offered us fine (anddifficult) examples in his Elektra, Rosenkavalier andArabella, 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 thatprovides only the background mood, and what is givenus in Weber's Der Freisch??tz is nearly an insult; whilethe soulful complaints of the hunter lad Max arecelebrated by the clarinet and Agathe's hopes andlongings by the cello in bewitching duets, we have thearia of ?ännchen ranging the heights of folly.
In orchestral work Richard Strauss has given usgreat support. Sancho Panza in Don Quixote, where theknight is represented by the cello, is one of our greatestparts. Bruckner's Fourth and Mahler's TenthSymphonies 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-tonedbass Cesare Siepi. Tenors I can leave. I like best to readpoetry, and my favourite painter is Goya