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Instruments of Mass Seduction VI


The first significant work for the solo viola with orchestra is the Concerto in G (c.1720) of Telemann, although the original instrumentation is a matter of scholarly conjecture. Mozart, a viola player himself, features the instrument in his Sinfonia concertante in E flat (1779) but wrote no sonatas or concerti for this alto cousin of the violin. In fact, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn were all violists of at least amateur quality and yet none of these great composers wrote anything that remotely approaches a solo piece for this member of the viol family which possesses such a lovely sonorous quality. Only in Aennchen’s aria from Der Freischuetz by Weber is there an extended and lovely viola accompaniment. It was Paganini, a violinist who had recently bought a beautiful Stradivari viola, who first had the idea to commission a work which would showcase the virtuosic possibilities of the lower instrument. His friend Berlioz, the greatest orchestrator of his day and possibly of all time, seized on the burnished quality of the viola’s darker timbre and fashioned a magnificent concerto for viola and orchestra that he entitled Harold in Italy. Berlioz wrote a programmatic work, imagining Lord Byron’s dreamy wanderer, Childe Harold, in the Abruzzi region of Italy, where the composer himself had recently spent a lovely vacation. Harold is a brilliant essay on orchestral color with the principal shade being that of the viola. The solo instrument is introduced over a gentle background of harp and clarinet chords that compliment its rich tone. The violist plays throughout this wonderful piece and travels through depictions of the countryside that are unprecedented in music history. The third movement, for example, entitled Serenade of an Abruzzi Mountaineer to his Sweetheart, is an evocation of the gentle pastoral tradition which dates back to the earliest periods of Italian music. To recreate the native wind instrument, called the piffero (a common sound in the early pastoral music of Francesco Fiamengo), Berlioz combines the solo flute with the solo oboe to produce a rustic equivalent of an ancient shawm. This unusual sound blends perfectly with the viola which also plays a duet with the English horn later in the movement. Berlioz supports the amber sound of the viola throughout, even employing an extra-orchestral device at the conclusion. The march theme of the finale, Orgy of the Brigands, dies away as the revelers disappear into the distance and the theme is taken up by two violas and a cello playing offstage. This lovely work, one of the most beautiful and tasteful in all of classical music, was rejected by Paganini because the viola part did not show off enough of his amazing technical wizardry, but has survived as a signature piece for many viola soloists and has even been appropriated on occasion by exceptional practitioners of the violinist’s art as well.

Liszt also realized the mellow quality of the viola and wrote a lovely sustained solo for it in his highly romantic Piano Concerto in E Flat. Max Bruch, inspired by the sonorous experimentation of Mozart in his Kegelstatt Trio, noticed the amazing similarity of sonority between the viola and the clarinet and capitalized on this phenomenon in two works: The Romance for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra and the Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, the penultimate of which is extremely haunting. But it fell to another amateur viola player at the end of the nineteenth century to compose the most expressive pieces for the instrument. Johannes Brahms first played with the alto register of the viola in his Two Songs, Op. 91 for Alto Voice and Viola, one of which is a very moving and grandmotherly cradle song reminiscent of his famous Wiegenlied (lullaby). Except for the obvious aural differences in enunciation, the alto and the viola sounds are almost identical in these two lovely miniatures. At the very end of his career, Brahms, who had considered retiring from composition, met a musician whose great skill inspired him to create an entire valedictory body of work which looked back autumnally at a life well spent and well enjoyed. The musician was Richard Muehlfeld, a clarinetist, and Brahms composed for him four pieces of incomparable beauty. The two Sonatas for Clarinet (or Viola) and Piano, the Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano (later arranged for viola), and the Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet (also later arranged for viola, but not by its original composer) stand as a set unique in music (and possibly cultural) history, as they express no melancholy or regret, no religious questioning or longing, only appreciation and satisfaction for a brilliantly lived life. Brahms meant for the sonatas to be played on the viola as much as on the clarinet and they are the staples of the violist’s chamber music repertoire. Glinka also wrote an interchangeable Sonata for Clarinet or Viola and Piano and Brahms’ greatest admirer, Antonin Dvorak, inserted an extra viola into a string quartet and created his String Quintet often referred to as the “viola quintet”. This remarkable chamber piece features blended sonorities similar to the quintets of Brahms and in the slow movement the folk-like themes are played with exquisite delicacy by the two violas in tandem. There is also an extended solo for the viola in Wolf’s Italian Serenade.

But it is in the twentieth century that the viola repertoire really flourished. Reger wrote his three Suites for Viola Solo, Op. 131d and Bloch his Viola Suite. Richard Strauss picks the viola to represent the character of Sancho Panza in his quasi-cello concerto, Don Quixote. The English have had a particular fondness for the instrument. Bantock’s Fifine at the Fair has an extended solo for the viola as does the Elgar overture In The South. In The Enigma Variations of Elgar the viola plays the part of Dorabella. Arnold Bax wrote a Viola Concerto, the Sonata for Viola and Piano, Legend for viola and piano, the Fantasy-Sonata for harp and viola and the Elegy for flute, viola and harp. Frank Bridge and Arthur Bliss each wrote sonatas for viola and piano. Vaughn Williams composed the pastoral masterpiece Flos Campi for viola, voices and orchestra and Walton weighed in with his Viola Concerto. The Walton is a watershed in his career, as it is the first indication of that combination of melancholy, sardonic wit and virtuosity which would characterize so much of his later output.

Fortunately for violists, one of the most significant composers of the twentieth century was a virtuoso performer on their instrument. Paul Hindemith wrote extensively for the viola and for many years lived off of his performances of these works. In the 1920’s there were still no significant pieces for viola and orchestra, other than Harold, so Hindemith wrote four of them over a ten year period. The Viola Concerto (1927) is also known as the Kammermusik #5. The Konzertmusik (1930) was scored for viola and large chamber orchestra. The concerto after old folk songs (1935) is entitled Der Schwanendreher and features a Berliozian slow movement with a gorgeous interplay between solo viola and harp. The last of the pieces is the most moving. Hindemith was genuinely shaken by the death of King George V in 1936 (he was in the midst of the political battle of his life at the time, with the titanic figures of Wilhelm Furtwaengler and Joseph Goebbels debating his status in the press) and responded by writing the heartfelt Trauermusik (Funeral Music) for viola and string orchestra, an extremely moving work that finally reveals the incredibly plangent quality of the dark timbre of the viola. Hindemith also wrote much chamber music for his chosen instrument including two sonatas for solo viola, two sonatas for viola and piano and a “little sonata” for viola d’amore and piano. He composed the Duet for Viola and Cello in three hours when he needed a short piece to fill out a recording that he and Emanuel Feuermann were making in London.

It is a strange coincidence that two of the giants of twentieth century music were both working on major compositions for the viola on their deathbeds. Bela Bartok was actually trying to finish two concertos as he lay dying in a New York hospital. One was his Piano Concerto #3 which he was writing so that his wife, the pianist Ditta Pasztory, would have something to perform in order to make money (the Bartoks were desperately poor) and the other was a viola concerto on a commission of William Primrose. Naturally Bartok placed the piano concerto ahead of the concerto for viola and he was almost finished with his wife’s piece when he died. His friend, the musicologist Tibor Serly, had visited Bartok on his last day in this life and secretly orchestrated the remaining 17 measures of the piano concerto that Bartok had left unfinished. The Viola Concerto was another matter, however, as it was but a bunch of tangled sketches. Serly, who had once orchestrated the Fantasia in F Minor K608 which Mozart had written for a mechanical clock, was no stranger to the arcane world of Bartok’s unique sonorities and undertook to finish the concerto for Primrose. At the same time, he fashioned a Cello Concerto out of the same material which was premiered in the 1980’s by Janos Starker and subsequently taken up by Yo-Yo Ma on a custom made smaller version of a cello. There are also viola concerti by Milhaud, Piston, Schnittke and the Yale professor Quincy Porter, but by far the most popular in the modern repertoire is the Bartok/Serly reconstruction.

Dmitri Shostakovich knew that he was dying when he decided to compose one last piece of music. He had recently wrestled with the concept of death in his Suite on the Verses of Michelangelo and had stated affirmatively with the great artist and poet that “…mortal decay does not touch me.” The Sonata for Viola and Piano is a surprisingly upbeat work for a man who so often explored the depths of depression and depravity in his large output. The Sonata does conclude with an adagio in memory of Beethoven (including a quote from the “Moonlight” sonata) but it is overall, in the composer’s own words, “…music…bright and clear.” The sonata was scheduled to be premiered on Shostakovich’s birthday, September 25th, but he passed on August 9, 1975.

The viola is the alto version of the violin and since the fingerboard of the instrument is longer, it is fingered entirely differently than its higher pitched cousin. Viola music is in the rare alto clef and so the notes appear on paper on different lines and spaces from that of the violin. Brahms, in particular, switches from alto to treble clef in his viola music without warning and so the music is difficult to sight read as the performer must make instant adjustments to a different system of notation. Viola bowing technique is different from that of the violin as the bow is used in the viola to emphasize its darker range of musical color. The viola is tuned in fifths with its strings sounding C G D A while the violin’s open notes are G D A E (the opening of the Berg Violin Concerto). A relative of the viola is the older viola d’amore with seven gut strings stopped on a fingerboard and seven wire strings free to vibrate underneath. Modern developments have not improved the quality of the viola and in fact the opposite is true. The prized violas are the old Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati violas of Cremona which were constructed in the seventeenth and very early eighteenth centuries. For some obscure reason, violists and their instruments are the standard butts of jokes from the rest of the orchestra.

Considered the greatest violist of the twentieth century, William Primrose is the only relatively well-known practitioner of his art. He was the son of a violist who played in the Scottish National and London Symphony Orchestras and studied the violin first (as most violists do), receiving advanced training from Eugene Ysaye. He toured Europe as a member of the London String Quartet and began a long career as a solo recitalist. He recorded the Brahms sonatas with Gerald Moore in the 1930’s and with Rudolf Firkusny in the 1950’s. Primrose was the principal violist of the NBC Symphony under Toscanini and formed the Primrose Quartet with other members of this ensemble. The use of Primrose’s name to identify the quartet was extremely unusual (it is almost always the first violinist who is so honored) and served as a form of vindication for many put-upon and ridiculed violists. Primrose premiered the Bartok Concerto with the Minneapolis Symphony in 1949.

Although known today as a significant twentieth century composer, it is not generally remembered that Paul Hindemith was a great viola virtuoso. He toured throughout the 1920’s with the Amar Quartet and later formed an illustrious trio with Szymon Goldberg (who also played in a trio with Primrose) and Emanuel Feuermann. Hindemith played the premiere of the Walton Concerto and recorded some of his own chamber compositions. He was also a master of the viola d’amore and the members of the gamba family, forerunners of the cello. Karl Doktor was the violist in the legendary Busch quartet, considered by many to be the best chamber ensemble of the century. His son Paul is also an accomplished viola player. Lionel Tertis was a British soloist who had a very large influence on the repertoire. His fame as a virtuoso in the first quarter of the century inspired Bax’s many works for the viola as well as compositions by Bliss, Bridge, Farjeon, Bowen, Carse, McEwen and Cyril Scott. Tertis also arranged many of the standard violin concerti for his own use on the viola and recorded the works of Bax. His book, “Beauty of Tone in String Playing”, is still used as a reference work. His pupil Sidney Griller formed the Griller Quartet which premiered several important chamber works of Bliss and gained fame during the Second World War as participants in the National Gallery concerts of Myra Hess. And Boris Kroyt gave up a promising career in Europe as a violin virtuoso to join his fellow Odessan Joseph Roismann and become the violist for the Budapest String Quartet which was just re-forming in America due to the Nazi takeover in Germany. The Budapest (the original members were Hungarian, but when Kroyt joined all of the players were Russian) became the greatest chamber group in the history of the recording and had a very successful career in their adopted country, anchoring the Library of Congress concerts for many years. Kroyt explained that the virtuoso concerto repertoire, even for the violin, was limited, while the world of chamber music exposed him to the entire spectrum of musical ideas and periods. In addition to his distinguished career with the Budapest, Kroyt encouraged the young pianist Murray Perahia while he was still a student at the Mannes College of Music. They recorded chamber works together and played wonderful concerts featuring the Brahms sonatas in the late 1960’s.

Walter Trampler was trained in his native Germany and came to America in the 1940’s to establish a fine career as a soloist and guest of many important chamber groups. He was not a member of a string quartet as such, but rather joined with the Yale, Emerson, Juilliard and Guarneri Quartets and the Beaux Arts Trio to perform and record chamber music of all periods. His recording of the Dvorak “Viola” Quintet with Kroyt and the Budapest is heartbreakingly beautiful (as, in a much different manner, is the Primrose-Budapest version). Nobuko Imai was the violist of the Vermeer Quartet for many years. She left to become a soloist and was the dedicatee of several pieces by Toru Takemitsu. She directed the Hindemith Viola Festival in 1995. Kim Kashkashian has recorded agile performances of the Hindemith solo repertoire. Fyodor Druzhinin was the violist of the Russian Beethoven Quartet and as a member of this group played chamber music often with Shostakovich. He was the dedicatee of the great Shostakovich sonata and premiered it privately at the composer’s home and soon thereafter in Leningrad’s Glinka Hall.

Pinchas Zukerman is equally at home on the violin or the viola. He has often switched instruments for chamber music performances and recorded both the Brahms violin and viola sonatas on the same set with Daniel Barenboim. He also recorded the Bartok Viola Concerto and the Violin Concerto #2, complete with two different endings, with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony. Josef Suk is another crossover string player who has made the transition flawlessly. Great-grandson of Antonin Dvorak and grandson of the composer whose name he bears, Suk recorded a famous Harold in Italy with another fine musician who was expanding his intellectual horizon. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the acknowledged baritone master of the German lied, made his debut as a conductor on this recording. Rudolf Barshai was the violist of the Borodin Quartet who went on to a career as a conductor, forming the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in 1955 and encouraging many Soviet composers to write for them. He also was the leader of the Israel Chamber Orchestra and the principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony.

Yuri Bashmet is generally recognized as the greatest contemporary violist. A pupil of Druzhinin at the Moscow Conservatory, Bashmet has had incredible success for a young musician, achieving status in Russia only reserved for rock stars in the West. A master of self-promotion, Bashmet has become the most famous musician for an entire generation of Eastern Europeans. Although rumored to be guilty of the same excesses as his popular music role models, his classical musicianship is impeccable. He has recorded extensively with the pianist Mikhail Muntyan, who was the pianist at the Shostakovich sonata premiere, and also appears with Valentin Berlinsky, the cellist who played with Barshai in the Borodin Quartet. Like Barshai, Bashmet has founded his own chamber group, the Moscow Soloists, and has been successful in inducing contemporary composers, like Schnittke, Kancheli and Taverner, to write works for him to perform.

The viola has an extremely rich sonority, much more full-bodied than the violin. It is dark toned and earthy and, in the hands of a master, can express a range of emotions particularly suited to Romantic melancholy or contemporary angst. No longer a stepchild in the viol family, it has emerged as a solo instrument of great beauty and power.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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