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Violas

Your Viola Questions Answered

Q. Should the beard be worn inside or outside the shirt when playing the viola?
A. This is a tricky one. The usual answer is "inside for Baroque and outside for Romantic." Of course, problems arise with music from the Classical period, such as Mozart, Gruntfutter, Stamitz, Schimmelfarb, Haydn, and Hummel. A good compromise is to wear a waistcoat and tuck the beard into that unobtrusively while retuning for slow movements. In fast passages, the player naturally will want the beard to fly free.

Q. Can playing the viola damage my health?
A. The simple answer to this is: not if done in moderation. Ardent young players probably will want to play the viola once and day and may even have an uncontrollable urge to try the viola d'amore (or, in extreme cases, the viola da caccia). As middle age approaches, however, three times a week is a good regimen. I know happily-married violists who take the viola out only once a week.

Q. Sometimes when I get up in the morning and take my viola out of the case, I find that it has grown from 15 to 18 inches. Is this normal?
A. The problem of viola size is one that can never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. The case you are describing is called Parallax Phenomenon, in which, if the player has imbibed strong beverages the night before, the viola will, indeed, seem larger in the morning. If the player closes the eyes and relaxes for 10 minutes, the sensation will pass, in most cases. Sometimes a cold shower will do the trick. If symptoms persist, you (or your viola) should see a doctor without further delay.

Literature for the Viola da Caccia

I am often asked, especially by my mother, about the viola da caccia. What can we learn from study of this instrument (provided we can find one)? What literature is available? Which pieces in the repertoire are best? As you may know, the viola da caccia was principally played on horseback during the hunt. Its 14 sympathetic strings - - to say nothing of its 27 unsympathetic strings - - left the player very little scope for managing the horse well. Hence, the number of these priceless artifacts which were smashed and the many virtuosi who were permanently crippled or even killed by falling from their mounts remains yet to be catalogued. The interrogator is quite correct, therefore: it may be difficult to find an instrument.
As to what you might learn, I do not know.
As to literature, the outdoor curse touches posterity here, as well. Judging from the remaining repertory, we must assume that many of the best pieces were blown away, eaten by dogs, used to wrap the remains of lunch, or rendered sodden by inclement weather. These same factors, in slightly different form, may also figure in the paucity of instruments. Let us move on to the literature which does remain. It is a rather uneven assembly, in terms of quality. Here are some of the less-offensive oeuvre:
  • Sonata for Heckelphone, Viola da Caccia, and Kazoo (Paul Hittenmiss)
  • Trio for Stringless Viola da Caccia, Timpani Stick, and Euphonium Mouthpiece (KarlHeiniz Zwangsarbeit)
  • Silent Vibration for Prepared Piano and Unprepared Viola da Caccia (Johannes Käfig)
  • Nonet for E-Flat Hoover, B-Flat Hair Dryer, Unpitched Kitchen Mixer, and Six Violas da Caccia (O. Nono)
  • Fantasy Sonata for Highland Bagpipes, Viola da Caccia, and Harp (Sir Egbert Blax)
    All are published by Dummkopf u. Würfelspiel, except for the Nono Nonet, which is available from Edizione Chaotica Roma.



No Laughing Matter: The Viola Joke as Musician's Folklore

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

As with any other group, musicians tell stories and jokes to one another based upon their specialised knowledge and experience. In recent years there has been a joke cycle among musicians pertaining to the viola. For those of you not familiar with the viola, it is slightly larger than the violin, and plays the alto, or middle-range voice in the string section of an orchestra.
Being a violist myself, and also an ethnomusicologist trained folklore, I have paid particular attention to the telling of viola jokes, and over the past three years have personally collected fifty examples. From the number of different musicians who told me these jokes, I can conclude that they were being told in music departments, in major symphony orchestras, regional and community orchestras, and were even being told in orchestras abroad.
As further evidence of the pervasiveness of the viola joke cycle, I have heard several programs on WQED, the Pittsburgh classical music radio station that have featured viola jokes. I have seen viola jokes published in the Pittsburgh Musician, the newsletter of the American Federation of Musicians Local 60-471. The Cleveland Plain Dealer on Sunday March 27th, 1994 featured an article on the viola section of the Cleveland Orchestra, which begins with the line "Hold the viola jokes." Also, cartoonists have featured the viola in some of their recent work.
Going strictly by the number of jokes I personally heard, the viola joke cycle began in 1992, reached it peak in 1993, and at the present time has greatly diminished. In order to organise these jokes, I have arranged them into six different categories, which are not necessary mutually exclusive:
  1. Jokes disparaging the viola itself.
  2. Jokes disparaging viola players.
  3. Jokes which offer a general disparagement, which can be easily understood outside musical circles.
  4. Jokes which usually can only be understood by among musicians.
  5. Reverse jokes which get revenge on musicians telling viola jokes.
    All the viola jokes in these first five categories are in the form of a question and answer, so I have added a sixth category which I call
  6. Narrative viola jokes


As you may have guessed by now the viola is considered somewhat a second-class citizen in the orchestra. There are several reasons for this. Orchestral viola parts are easier than violin parts and they tend to be the less important, non-melodic parts. If viola players do get difficult parts, as they do from time to time, they tend to struggle while trying to play them.
As an instrument, the viola does not have the same carrying power as a violin or cello, since it is pitched one-fifth lower than a violin, but is only about 10% larger. Its solo literature is very limited. Only string bassists tend to suffer the same stereotyping as violists, because of a lack of solo literature for the instrument and having mundane orchestral parts.
An additional handicap is the fact that most violists start out as violinists. Even the greatest violist of recent times, William Primrose, in his book Playing the Viola, includes a chapter about coming to viola playing by way of the violin. The Cleveland Plain Dealer article I mentioned earlier revealed that ten out of the eleven violists in Cleveland Orchestra started out on the violin! One of the first assumptions in junior high school orchestras is that the director will switch the poor violinists over to viola, where they will do less harm, and perhaps even contribute. Viola players are frequently considered inferior musicians since they are thought of as the ones who couldn't make it playing the violin.
An additional factor is the extremely hierarchical structure of a symphony orchestra with regards to musical authority. The conductor is the highest authority. The next highest is the concertmaster, who is the first chair, first violin. The brass, wind, and percussion players are typically all soloists playing one person to a part, so the real pecking order can be seen primarily in the string sections. Each of the string sections has a principal player, whose job it is to lead that section, giving specific directions with regards to bowings, fingers and phrasings. The principal players also gets to play the solo parts, if there are any. Each of the string sections are seated in hierarchical order, with the better players near the front. Superimposed of this hierarchy is an overall hierarchy in the strings. The first violins are the most important, almost always playing the chief melodies. The cellos are perhaps the next most important, followed by second violins, violas and string basses. The violas are always at, or near the bottom, of the hierarchy.
There is an historical reason for this. In the beginning of the era when symphonies began, comparatively few pieces had actual viola parts. As a rule the violas doubled the cellos, switching octaves whenever necessary. Early symphonies were published with three string parts, 1st violin, 2nd violin and bass. The poor violas dragged along with the basses, and were frequently played by individuals who couldn't handle the violin.
The attitude and stereotype about the viola and its players can be seen quotations about the viola from a standard reference work, The Dictionary of Musical Quotations (Ian Crofton and Donald Fraser, Schirmer Books, 1985, p.152): "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." Richard Wagner, in 1869, quoted in Gattey Peacocks on the Podium (1982).
"If you'd heard the violas when I was young, you'd take a bismuth tablet." Sir John Barbirolli, quoted in Kennedy, Barbirolli Conductor Laureate (1971). So why are viola jokes told? Certainly for fun and humor, but they also serve the functions of reinforcing the hierarchical structure of the orchestra and to voice unspoken but widely understood stereotypes. A joke will be funny only if it is unanticipated and if there is some basis to it in reality.
Irvin Kauffman, the Associate Principal Cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, was a significant informant for viola jokes. He assured me that the violists of the Pittsburgh Symphony are just as fine musicians as the rest of the orchestra, and that other musicians tell viola jokes because, "The violas get paid the same money for doing a dumb (i.e., easier) job!"