Many times, the viola is mistakenly known to be the same as the violin. But now, the violas are making their own name and personality in the strings family. Because of the similarity of these instruments – the violin and the viola, along with other string instruments like the cello and double bass, their history are closely related as well. They all originated in Europe from the viol and are classified into two: the “viola da gamba” which means “viola played on the leg” and “viola da braccio” which means “viola played in the arm”.
At first, the da gamba was the instrument chosen by most musicians, but the da braccio won the hearts of many during the Renaissance period because of the great works of legendary craftsmen such as Andrea Amati and Antonio Stradivara. Amati, who is considered to be the favorite of the king of France, Charles XI, was even asked to build over 30 violas for the royal musicians in 1570s. These instruments which seemed to be square shape were then transformed to curvy ones.
The Development of Viola and other String Instruments
The viola isn’t an instrument that was invented in an instant. Rather, it has evolved overtime, making changes to improve the quality of its sound as well as the convenience for musicians. Originally, luthiers experimented in creating stringed instruments with an optimal combination of its size, shape, and tone while complementing the current trends during their era.
Little by little, string instruments began to replicate the range of the human voice. The viola mirrored alto and tenor, soprano for the violin, and bass for the cello. As the viola covered more than one voice range, it has a larger number in category compared to other groups of string instruments. However, it isn’t really different from the famous violin. In fact, they only differ on one string – where the violin has GDAE while the viola is tuned CGDA. When it comes to tone and size, the viola has a larger body and a lower range compared to the violin.
The innovation of the viola to reach its modern form began in the 1600s and early 1700s. Up to this day, the experimentation in improving the sound and quality of the viola and other string instruments continues. Experts keep an ongoing study and development on its neck, fingerboard, bridge, and strings without omitting the original classic sound and full tone.
Some Famous Viola Players
In early orchestras, viola players are known as failed violinists that transitioned in playing the viola instead. However, many violists proved the uniqueness of the viola and its distinctive personality. In fact, Nicolò Paganini, an italian violinist and composer, even showed his admiration on the viola by composing his exceptional piece called the Sonata for Grand Viola and Orchestra in 1834.
Other famous violists that have marked history are William Primrose – the man behind the Bartók’s concerto, Paul Hindemith, and Carl Stamitz. These days, the viola continues to make a name for itself and gradually stand out in the strings family through present day viola players such as Kim Kashkashian, Lawrence Power, Tabea Zimmerman, and other aspiring violists in the modern world.