The Case of the Tuneless Viola


Why There Are So Few Viola Soli in String Quartets


Most violists are drawn to the instrument because of its timbre and colour, a quality like purple velvet. But this very characteristic is also the reason for the dearth of viola tunes in the string quartet literature, Violists world-wide complain about the lack of opportunity to shine with a really luscious solo in a string quartet.

Perhaps the 3 most loved viola melodies in the quartet repertoire are those beginning the Smetana and the Bartok 6th, and in the second movement of the Shostakovich's 1st. Both Bartok and Shostakovitch begin the theme with the viola completely alone. Smetana gives the cello long sustained notes and the 2 violins quiet slurred accompanying quavers (eighths) in a low register.

I began looking at the way composers deal with the problem of register and colour when I began arranging short works for my own string quartet, We as a quartet meet at regular intervals to spend pleasurable evenings playing together for the sheer joy of it. But we also perform often at weddings, parties etc. For such functions composers such as Brahms, Bartok, and even sometimes Mozart and Haydn are unsuitable. We have a fair repertoire of light classical and popular works, but needed more. I put together a few and we tried them out one evening. Our viola player, Daniel Glancy, left that night with a “cat that stole the family cream” smile. For I had given him melodies which purred away in his favourite register. “Great arrangements, these,” was his reaction.

We decided, thereafter, Danny and I, that we would put together an album of string quartet, arrangements of public domain works, which would feature the viola. It would be called “Viola Dream”. In “Viola Dream” the viola always has at least one real melody, not just a snippet, as is often the case in most quartets, if the viola is featured at all. In the first flush of enthusiasm we had no difficulty. Danny's first arrangement was “Softly Awakes My Heart” from Samson and Delilah by Saint-Saens. It is the jewel of our collection. What a sybaritic sensation to play! The accompaniment is lucid, with light semiquaver (sixteenth) spiccato, or quaver(eighth) pizzicato. Not only does the viola shine, but the 2 violins are allowed to share the second theme. The whole work is so beautiful that even the cellist is happy.

My first contribution was an arrangement of the slow movement of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata. Again, no problems. Although the harmonies are warm and thick, each instrument has a solo which soars over the accompaniment - a pleasure to play for all four instruments.

Encouraged by our success we plunged into more arrangements. It was then that we encountered a couple of disasters. I arranged for quartet, a beautiful song named “Tranquillity” by Tom Mitchell, a contemporary Australian composer, (with his copyright permission). In its original form of piano solo, Tranquillity lives up to its name. In my quartet version for “Viola Dream”, the whole was thick and turgid. The viola was lost in a miasma of dense rain forest.

I then delved into the established quartet repertoire to see how the great composers dealt with viola soli. Of course the biggest problem was finding the viols soli! Certainly there are some, but few of the caliber given to the other three instruments. Many viola soli are doubling the cello or violin soli, or are merely parts of a tune, answering or continuing a theme. Beethoven is kind to every instrument especially in his fugal type passages, but seldom in his quartets have what I would call a real complete melody, variation movements being notable exceptions.

Haydn metes out rather shoddy treatment to the viola in terms of melody - a couple of nice bits in Op. 33 No. 2, and in Op. 76 No. 5. the viola is allowed “out” in movements with variations, especially the “Emperor” quartet

Mozart? - a lovely theme in the closing passage of K 590. Of course there are the viola quintets and lots of other chamber works which have superb parts for the viola, but here I am addressing only string quartets.

Brahms gives the viola a lovely counter tune with Violin 1, in the 3rd movement of the C minor. It's always a moot point which instrument has the main tune, the viola usually insisting on precedence. Violin 2 and cello play soft spiccato quavers. In Brahms Op 67, the second movement begins with a really satisfying lengthy theme for the viola. Brahms lets the viola be heard by muting the other three instruments accompanying with a light airy rhythm.

In Schubert's string quartets the viola is seldom allowed to announce anything by herself. Snippets of themes, and longer passages shared with other instruments is usually all she gets.

The Dvorak “American” quartet begins with a fine viola solo. Dvorak lets the viola through by giving a long note and then a pizzicato passage to the cello and pianissimo semiquavers to the violins. Although the viola part of the “American's” second movement is purely accompaniment to the melodies the other instruments share, the accompaniment itself is so beautiful one could almost be tempted to count this as an important solo for the viola, and indeed is often played as such without detracting from the whole.

Dvorak on the whole is generous to the viola in quartets but even more so in works for other chamber music combinations. I feel that it is these latter works that Dvorak has won his reputation for writing well for the viola.

Violists who have not yet encountered the delightful work “Five Greek Dances” by Nikos Skalkottas should immediately try to purchase a copy. In particular the fourth dance “Arkadikos” begins with a lilting melody for viola. the other three instruments take a back seat here with pizzicato chords.

When Shostakovitch writes a viola tune he often allows it to play completely alone, as in No. 1, or with only the cello as in No. 8, third movement.

As my quartet does not explore the regions of twentieth century to any great extent, I shall refrain from commenting any further in this area. Before I continue I should say here that I am not dismissing as inadequate the above great composers! The quartet repertoire is a rich field of superb music, and the composers mentioned have succeeded admirably for this medium. I believe they “neglected” the viola because of its very qualities. It has such a warm mellow tone and blends so well with the other instruments, that to let it be heard and to contribute to the composition as a whole, the composer is compelled to use certain techniques which could impose an unwelcome constraint.

When true full length viola quartet soli are examined it is evident that most composers have used one or several of the following techniques to allow the viola a balance within the four instruments:-

* Give the viola the top voice in a harmonic texture

* Tacet for one, two, or all three other voices

* Pizzcato accompaniment from the violins, or all three voices

* Send the violins into a very high register, well away from the viola voice

* Light spiccato, and/or airy rhythms to accompany the viola tune

Having analyzed these techniques, Danny and I went back to slave over hot staves, and came up with some more works which are a delight to play.

“Celeste Aida” was tailor made for our requirements. Verdi did the creative work for the accompaniment with a light rhythmic figure in the bass, and light spiccato or tremolo for the two upper voices.

Debussy's “Cake-walk” was a piece of cake, with lots of perky accompaniment figures available.

Dvorak lived up to his reputation as a violist's composer. His sensuous song “Song to the Moon”, from the opera “Russalka”, could have been written for the viola in mind.

Handoshkin's “Canzona” from his viola concerto is a definite success as a string quartet. Violists don't often get a chance to play a concerto with an orchestra, which is of course how the Handoshkin is meant to be played. But it lends itself to the string quartet medium, allowing the arranger to distribute juicy soli to the fairly among the quartet members, while still keeping the violas very very happy.

To order a set of Viola Dream String Quartets email Maxine Komlos

Back to Maxine & Michael's Home Page

Maxine Komlos, Adelaide, Australia