Viola essentials: 10 pieces you should know

Teng Li, principal violist of the L.A. Phil, provides an introduction to this misunderstood instrument.
Teng Li is principal violist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Bo Huang)

"People sometimes think playing the viola is boring," muses Teng Li, the newly appointed principal violist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"Traditionally, the viola has been considered a 'filler' instrument. We don't always get to play the melodies and show off our technique like the violins, and we don't play the deep bass lines like the cellos," she explains.

"But the fact is, in the history of classical music, many important composers loved the sound of the viola, and wrote for the instrument. A few of them even played the instrument themselves: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorák, Mendelssohn, Britten and Vaughan Williams, to name a few."

Li, who's the viola soloist on the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Grammy-nominated Vaughan Williams: Orchestral Works, agreed to talk us through her favourite works — music that shows off the viola's sensual, melancholic and rich tone.

Below are 10 viola pieces you should know.

1. W.A. Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante, K.364

"Mozart was one of the first composers to liberate the voice of viola by writing six string quintets featuring two violas. (Mozart himself was also a violist!) This Sinfonia Concertante was written for solo violin, solo viola and orchestra. The solo viola is given the same role as the solo violin. In the slow movement, Mozart gave the viola an opportunity to show off its warm, dark singing character."

2. Robert Schumann: Märchenbilder, Op. 113

"This work comprises four short pieces for viola and piano, and the title translates to Fairy Tale Pictures. Schumann didn't leave any trace of what the fairy tale stories might be, but the music itself is so imaginative that it's easy to make up your own stories. In my opinion, no instrument can tell these stories better than the viola."

3. Johannes Brahms: Sonatas for Viola and Piano, Op.120, Nos. 1 and 2

"Brahms loved the sound of the viola. These sonatas were originally written for clarinet and piano, but days after he sent them to his publisher, Brahms made the alternative viola and piano editions. These works have become the most important sonatas in viola repertoire." 

4. Brahms: Two Songs for Alto, Viola and Piano, Op. 91

"Brahms wrote these songs for his friend, violinist (and violist) Joseph Joachim and Joachim's wife Amalie Schneeweiss, a contralto. The second song, 'Geistliches Wiegenlied,' was written first, in 1863, at the time of the couple's marriage, and was later 're-gifted' for their son's birth. In 1884, Brahms revised the second song and added the first one, 'Gestillte Sehnsucht.' This time Brahms was intending to help the couple's troubled marriage. The warm sound of the viola really complements the alto voice. In my opinion, these are the most successful examples of compositions featuring string instruments, voice and piano." 

5. Hector Berlioz: Harold in Italy

"In 1833, Niccolo Paganini, one of the most important violinists in the history of music, acquired an extraordinary Stradivarius viola and asked Berlioz to write him a piece. However, Paganini was disappointed when he saw the draft of Berlioz's writing, remarking, "I expected to be playing continuously." Berlioz had made the piece more like a symphony with some passages featuring the solo viola. Paganini kindly declined to perform the piece. However, when he heard a performance of the work five years later, he was so overwhelmed he got on his knees and kissed Berlioz's hands in front of the audience. A few days later, he sent Berlioz a letter of congratulations, and a bank draft of 20,000 francs."

6. Richard Strauss: Don Quixote

"This symphonic tone poem, written for cello, viola and orchestra, is a musical portrait of the famed Cervantes character. The solo viola, together with tenor tuba and bass clarinet, represent Don Quixote's servant, Sancho Panza. Strauss's brilliant writing makes this character come alive."

7. Antonín Dvorák: String Quintet No. 3, Op. 97

"Dvorák is another one of the composers who played the viola. I often wonder what his viola concerto would have been like, had he written one. After Mozart, many composers wrote viola quintets, including Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms. In Dvorák's quintet, he gives the viola so many opportunities to shine. I love how the first phrase of the piece is played by a single viola!"

8. Paul Hindemith: Sonata No. 2 for Solo Viola, Op. 25, No. 1

"At the beginning of the 20th century, the overall level of viola playing improved tremendously, thanks to soloists Lionel Tertis, Maurice Vieux, Paul Hindemith and, later, William Primrose. Because of these viola giants, many composers began writing for the instrument. Hindemith wrote seven sonatas for solo viola and three works for viola and orchestra — a huge contribution to the viola repertoire.

"His Sonata No. 2 for Solo Viola, Op. 25, No. 1, is not an "easy listening" piece; the constant dissonances are often uncomfortable to listen to. But in my opinion, this is a musical reflection of a difficult, turbulent time. The tempo marking for the fourth movement is quarter note equals 600-640 — probably one of the fastest tempo markings ever!"

9. William Walton: Viola Concerto


"Walton wrote this concerto for Tertis in 1929, but Tertis rejected the piece and thought it was too modern for his tastes. At the premiere of this concerto, Tertis realized he had made a mistake.

"Tertis later wrote in his autobiography, 'One work of which I did not give the first performance was Walton's masterly concerto. With shame and contrition I admit that when the composer offered me the first performance, I declined it. I was unwell at the time, but what is also true is that I had not learnt to appreciate Walton's style. The innovations in his musical language, which now seem so logical and so truly in the mainstream of music, then struck me as far-fetched.' Guess who gave the premiere? Hindemith!"

10. Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op.147

"This is the last work Shostakovich wrote. This 'swan song' is full of references and reminiscences. The musical giant might have already known that he was dying, and chose the melancholic voice of the viola to finish his last statements."


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