A bowed, stringed, musical instrument. It is normally played in an orchestra but also solo and in string quartets or larger ensembles. Resembles a large violin but is tuned a fifth lower and sounds better. Considered the alto part of a musical score.

One of William Shakespeare's coolest characters. She's the heroine in the Twelfth Night. She comes to a town shipwrecked, and falls in love with the rich Court Orsino. Ironically, Olivia falls head over heels for Viola while she's dressed as a man. Viola also has a twin brother who ends up marrying Olivia.

The etymology of the word, Viola or Viola da braccio indicates that perhaps the Viola appeared slightly before the Violin when the Violin family became an entity in Italy in the early 16th century - that is, Violino being a diminuitive form of Viola.

It is true what AltoClef said about Violists being considered unintelligent by the other musicians. However, Violists themselves often think they are superior to the other musicians as well.

A musician by the name of Primrose in the early 1940s, when asked about the differences between the violin and the viola, gave a large explanation about tone ranges and explaining that the viola was longer, wider, and thicker, but shortened his answer by simply saying that the viola was a "violin with a college education."

There are also many misconceptions about the viola:

1.) "It is an orchestral instrument only." This is false. There is a vast amount of distinguished solo music for the viola. I mean take a look at Franz Zeyringer's huge work entitled, Literatur fur Viola. There are more than 750 pieces written for the viola without accompaniment, 1,300 for viola with the orchestra, and 3,000 for the viola with the piano.

2.) "The viola is unexpressive, useless, and limited." This is also false. An instrument is only as expressive and unlimited as the creativity and mastery of the person playing it and as useful as the composer sees it. In my experience, a cheap viola can sound almost as pleasing in tone with an unskilled player, as an expensive viola with a skilled player, for that is the nature of the Viola's tone.

3.) "Nobody likes the Viola. It is inferior and it is stupid." Well, people are entitled to their own opinion... But many of the leading composers chose the Viola as their performing instrument. Bach preferred the viola because then he could be "in the middle of the harmony." Beethoven played the Viola in the court orchestra at Bonn before he permanently settled in Vienna. Brahms, Dvorak, and Wagner all gave the viola bigger roles in their orchestral works.

The viola is called Bratsche in German, bratsj in Norwegian, and this clearly shows (at least if you try to pronounce it...) that it's a descendant of the Viola da braccio, which means arm violin.

Why are viola players stereotypically considered inferior musicians by nearly the entire orchestra? Simple.

The viola is significantly larger than a violin. I have a fairly short arm, and play a full size violin (about as big as they get) which has a body length of approximately 14 inches (35.6 cm). Compare to my viola, which measures 15.5 inches (39.4 cm). Likewise, the circumference of the neck of my violin in first position is about 3 inches (7.6 cm), and the circumference of the neck of my viola in first position is about 4 inches (10.2 cm). The viola and the viola bow are also much heavier than a violin and violin bow.

How does this factor into anything? Playing in tune on a violin, for an experienced player, is fairly easy. You fingers learn the places on the neck where each note falls, and that's it. Despite the occasional strain, playing in nearly any position, on any string on the violin can be done without changing the position of the thumb. However, playing on the viola is different. The extra distance adds up in difficulty in playing. For example, a G played on the C string with the fourth finger is nearly impossible to play in first position, unless you move the thumb forward to play the G, then back if you need to play for example, a D with the first finger.

Due to the size of the instrument, intonation is one of the biggest obstacles of the violist, compared to being simply an inconvenience for nearly any other instrumentalist. In spite of the inferior sound quality of an open string, for example, many players will use an open string instead of using the 4th finger: this isn't just the lazy shortcut for a poor musician, this is a neccessity for playing in tune. Many violists go so far as to tune the C string slightly higher than the actual pitch, which compensates for two things: firstly, the C string's tendency to stretch and fall in pitch faster than other strings, and also, so that playing in tune will exert less stress on the player's hand.

In addition to the issue of intonation, a high quality of tone is more difficult to achieve on a viola than on other instruments. On all stringed instruments, to prevent the "crunching" sound that plagues beginners, a perfect ratio of pressure and speed of bowing must be used by the performer. Too much pressure and too little speed equal a crunchy, displeasing sound. However, too little pressure (with, God forbid, too much speed), generates a thin, washed out sound, with no real body. On a viola, the window of opportunity, so to speak, is minute. Play with the same pressure and speed as you would on a violin, and your tone will be mediocre. Too much pressure, and once again, you have now entered crunch city. Factor in the added weight of a viola bow, and the sheer force needed to increase the pressure and speed to acceptable levels, and you have yourself one tired player.


This writeup does focuson comparison between a violinist and a violist. I chose to do this because the two instruments are so similar, and the source of many of the stereotypes regarding violas come about because many people don't understand the differences the between the violin and viola beyond the most fundamental.

Vi"o*la (?), n. [L., a violet. See Violet.] Bot.

A genus of polypetalous herbaceous plants, including all kinds of violets.

 

© Webster 1913.


Vi"o*la (?), n. [It. See Viol.] Mus.

An instrument in form and use resembling the violin, but larger, and a fifth lower in compass.

Viola da braccio [It., viol for the arm], the tenor viol, or viola, a fifth lower than the violin. Its part is written in the alto clef, hence it is sometimes called the alto. -- Viola da gamba [It., viol for the leg], an instrument resembling the viola, but larger, and held between the knees. It is now rarely used. -- Viola da spalla [It., viol for the shoulder], an instrument formerly used, resembling the viola, and intermediate in size between the viola and the viola da gamba. -- Viola di amore [It., viol of love: cf. F. viole d'amour], a viol, larger than the viola, having catgut strings upon, and brass or steel wires under, the keyboard. These, sounding sympathetically with the strings, yield a peculiarly soft and silvery sound. It is now seldom used.

 

© Webster 1913.

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