A LOOK AT THAT MOST HEROIC
OF INSTRUMENTS – THE VIOLA

The viola. The big brother of the violin, the smaller of the cello – the middle child as it were. Much like the middle child, the viola gets overlooked and underappreciated, well, depending on who you talk to. Despite its crucial harmony parts in all of the great orchestral works the poor viola is barely ever given the recognition it deserves. Its rich sound provides the perfect tone to fill the chords and therefore gives us those spine chilling moments of a full orchestral sound. Despite these small beginnings, as orchestral music developed so did the viola parts – for instance, in Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique the viola plays the tune during the slow movement and Mendelssohn (who is the basis for our A Midsummer Night’s Dream concert) wrote a Viola sonata in C minor. In a typical, large symphony orchestra there are twelve viola seats, but because són is a chamber orchestra, we generally carry a section of four – this would have been pretty standard for Beethoven’s day, too.

The viola is so well loved that even the greats played it, Mozart, Haydn, and the star of our Eroica Unwrapped concert, Beethoven himself. Of course, they played the violin as well but nevertheless, my point stands. Here at són we love our violas so much that we want to give them a say, and prove to you all that our real heroes come from the centre. As part of an exclusive interview for the són Circle, I got to talk to Sophie Renshaw – our principal viola:

What do you think is the viola’s main role within the orchestra?

I would say that – similar to its role in chamber music from Mozart, Schumann and Brahms onwards – it plays a pivotal role in the harmonic colour and texture of scores. Being in the middle range, it lends warmth and depth to the string section sound and is often given key notes in the harmony, as well as pivotal notes in harmonic modulations, tensions and major/minor changes. To my ear it is the most fun part to play as the violas tend to sit right in the heart of the orchestra. Since composers often give the tune to the violas, a violist needs to be equally aware of playing either the top line to accompany other parts, the bass line with the celli/bass, or an accompanying line with the second violins. Never a dull moment!

How were you introduced to your instrument?

I was introduced to the instrument when asked to play it in a string quartet at school. I had been a violinist for a few years but never really felt quite at home and the moment I picked up the viola aged about 15 I was hooked. I loved it primarily in chamber music and then gradually began exploring the solo repertoire. I have picked up the violin again from time to time, for instance to be able to play both parts for Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’.

What is your favourite piece for viola?

It is very hard to choose just one favorite piece written for it, but among my favourites would be the Brahms sonatas, Britten’s ‘Lachrymae’ and Hindemith’s ‘ Trauermusik’.

Who is your musical hero?

J S Bach, Chick Corea, Glenn Gould, and John Wyre among many others!

Thanks, Sophie, for enlightening us!

Of course, this isn’t to say that the rest of the orchestra isn’t heroic. You can’t have any piece of music without a melody line or a bass line and it doesn’t become interesting without a countermelody. As much as we would like it to, the violas cannot provide all of this alone so we realise that every part is vital, each and every instrument is an unsung hero in its way. It’s just this week we like the viola.

Sophie Hart
són Creative Intern

April 2016

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