Tuesday, 9 August 2011

A viola lesson

Some of my best friends are viola players.

Does that sound like the beginning of a joke to you?

It isn't supposed to be, but by the time you've read this post, you might want to come back and see what you can do with it...

I play the cello. In my time as a 'cellist', I have had the pleasure of meeting lots of lovely musicians, and even some viola players.

Did you see what I did there? I fell into the common trap of making fun of viola players, when in fact, I'm here to defend the viola and viola players a bit. If I can. Partly.

To define the viola, briefly:

  • In size terms, it is the big brother of the violin, but very much the baby cousin of the cello, with a body length of between 15 and 18 inches.
  • Its four strings are tuned an octave higher than the cello, its lowest string being the C below Middle C, which is the lowest note you will have played if you experienced the delights of the descant recorder at school.
  • Its music is written in the alto clef, which is inherently scary. As a cellist I'm already invited to practise the mental acrobatics of the three other clefs - bass, tenor and treble - on a regular basis, and I'm not learning another one. I'm not.
  • It is the subject of scores of jokes - many of them screamingly funny - as are the people brave enough to take it on.

I had always imagined that part of the perceived problem with the viola is that - dare I say it? - it is neither one thing nor the other. It doesn't have the sparkle of the violin, nor the rich, sonorous depth of the cello. It kind of... well, rumbles along somewhere between the two.

When I decided to write this post, I googled 'Viola jokes why?'. I genuinely wanted to get to the bottom of why the viola, and violists, are so often maligned.

My search led me to Dr Carl Rahkonen's fascinating paper No Laughing Matter: The Viola Joke as Musician's Folklore*. This informative and informed article makes a lot of serious points about the reasons behind the notoriety of the viola and the violist.

The viola usually takes an easier orchestral part than the violin. The instrument is far less powerful than its smaller sibling: it is tuned a fifth lower but is only 10% larger, so will never stand out in the orchestra.

The fact that its orchestral parts tend to be easier means that when these parts are more challenging, players sometimes struggle with them. This could account for jokes about viola players having more limited musical and intellectual capacities than their colleagues.

There is also, apparently, a tradition that viola desks are filled by people who just didn't make the grade as violinists. Historically, the viola didn't actually have a part written for it: it doubled up the bass parts and was often played by inferior violin players.

This is a tradition which continues: according to Dr Rahkonen, school orchestra directors routinely 'switch the poor violinists over to viola, where they will do less harm, and perhaps even contribute...'

Even Richard Wagner - yes, the Richard Wagner - put his oar in. He is reported to have said:
The viola is commonly (with rare exceptions) played by infirm violinists, or by decrepit players of wind instruments who happen to have been acquainted with a string instrument once upon a time.
With friends like that...

I would add that Dr Rahkonen's article is made all the more appealing by the appending of three whole pages of viola jokes... (He is, of course, entitled to tell them, being himself a violist.)

According to Dr Rahkonen, the telling of viola jokes was at its height in 1993, and has since greatly diminished.

That doesn't make them any less funny, though. So, here are a few of my favourites:

Q:  How do you know when a violist is playing out of tune?
A:  The bow is moving.

Q:  What is the difference between a viola and an onion?
A:  Nobody cries when you cut up a viola.

Q:  What is the difference between a viola and a trampoline?
A:  You take your shoes off before you jump on the trampoline.

Q:  Why do so many people take an instant dislike to the viola?
A:  It saves time.

Q:  What is the longest viola joke ever devised?
A:  Berlioz's Harold in Italy.

Oh dear. Reading this back, I don't seem to have made a very good job of sticking up for the viola or his noble player, do I? I have simply reinforced a well-established stereotype. Tut tut.

So let me end by saying that there are some beautiful pieces for the viola, and here is a selection of clips you might like to listen to. They will break you in gently...

Far from being a joke, Berlioz's Harold in Italy is a wonderful tour de force for the instrument. He wrote it at the request of Paganini, who was apparently disappointed with it; it seems that it wasn't enough of a showcase for his virtuosity.

Elgar's Enigma Variations feature a beautiful solo for viola. 'Ysobel' (Variation VI - roughly 2'15" into this clip) depicts Isabel Fitton, one of the composer's viola students.

William Walton wrote one of the most famous concertos for viola. This short clip of Maxim Vengerov is a really good introduction to the appearance and earthy timbre of the instrument. (Unfortunately, the world was deprived of the much-anticipated (?) viola concerti of Elgar, Glazunov and Ravel - all three died before doing any substantial work on them.)

I hope you've enjoyed this short tour of the viola as much as I have. Oh, I must go. My violist lodger is outside the house again, standing on the doorstep. I'd better go and open the door for him: he can't find the key and he never knows when to come in...

*Presented at the National Meeting of the American Folklore Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology, October 21, 1994, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Copyright (c) 1994.

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