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English / Italianviola
classification String instrument String
range Range viola.png
Sound sample Audio file / audio sample Solo ? / i
Related instruments

Violin , violoncello

List of violists
Category: Violist

The viola (Italian viola , French alto ) is the name commonly used in German today for a string instrument , the alternative name of which is viola (plural: violas ) is a relic of the historical viola family of the 16th and 17th centuries. At first glance, it looks like a larger violin , but is proportioned a little differently, tuned lower ( old instrument to violin) and sounds darker. Viola is a modification of the Italian name viola da braccio ( arm violin , with Daniel Speer Braz ) and refers to the handling by the violist, in contrast to the viola da gamba ( leg viola or knee violin ), whose player is called the gambist .


“Apparently the viola is just a larger violin, simply tuned a fifth lower. In fact, there are worlds between the two instruments. They have three strings in common, the A, D and G strings. The high E-string gives the violin's sound a luminosity and metallic penetration that the viola lacks. The violin leads, the viola remains in the shade. In return, the viola has a peculiar astringency due to the low C-string, compact, somewhat hoarse, with the smoky taste of wood, earth and tannic acid, "

wrote the Hungarian composer György Ligeti in the foreword to his sonata for solo viola (1991–1994).

Overall, the will sound of the viola as a full, soft, dark even in the highest positions described, always something melancholic, slightly smoky and slightly nasal voice. The physics of the viola is very similar to that of the violin; Details about the structure of the instrument and the function of the individual components can be found in the article there. The bow is similar to that of the violin, but it is 10–15 g heavier and usually has a rounded edge.

The viola has four strings a fifth apart , tuned to c - g - d '- a'. The three higher strings correspond to the three lower strings on the violin. The lowest string (c), especially in the “forte”, has something wild and rough about it. This sonic characteristic is onomatopoeic in operas, symphonies and film music. The high register of the instrument, the A-string, is rather dark, at the same time with a characteristic sharpness that is reminiscent of the oboe.

About the construction

The peculiarity of the viola sound and what defines its character is based on the fact that the body of the viola is actually too small for its tuning: since its highest note is a fifth lower than that of the violin ( frequency ratio 2: 3), could the body can also be longer than the approximately 36 cm long violin body, i.e. approximately 54 cm long.

Size difference violin - viola

The fact that the viola has a smaller body than physics seems to suggest is the result of a development over centuries. The ratio of the human body size to the instrument played an important role, which had to be taken into account: the larger the instrument, the greater the extension of the left arm, the smaller the physiologically possible radius of the inward rotation ( supination ) of the arm to grip the strings .

About the style of play

A larger instrument body means a longer scale length (vibrating string length) with consequently larger pitch. The fingers of the grip hand are permanently spread when playing and must be relaxed at the same time to ensure dexterity. Even on the smaller violin, the left arm is turned strongly inwards. The viola puts much greater strain on the holding apparatus made up of arm, back and shoulder. The strong supination of the arm creates a limit position that can easily lead to muscle hardening and bursitis of the elbow joint if the playing technique is not appropriate. Until the baroque period into the second deepest was part of a multi-part string set on Viola tenore played mentioned instruments with body length of about 48 cm, the average voice on the 40 cm to 42 body length many of today's violas corresponding Viola alta (hence the French name "alto “), As it was constructed and used by the violist Hermann Ritter in 1876 ​​(with a fifth high string) (therefore also called a knight's viola ). In the ensemble play of the 16th and 17th centuries, the playing requirements were limited, so that the Viole tenore was easy to play despite its size. In the 18th century, however, many of these instruments were made smaller due to the increased technical requirements, for example the originally three-string violetta was often adapted for the early classical period .

Front to back view: Quinte de Violon , viola 42 cm, violin

Today the sound-producing middle parts, for which the formerly special viola construction methods arose, are performed by the viola (and cello). However, the rediscovery of the historical sound by means of replicating old viola instruments and historical playing style leads back to the original variety of instruments.

Turning point in development in the 19th century

The use of a solo viola in Carl Maria von Weber's Freischütz marks a turning point in the importance of this instrument. The interest in the viola, which has grown since then and up to the present, required more sonorous and therefore larger instruments again. In return, the difficulty of playability was accepted. Every violist therefore looks for the best solution for him in the field of tension between sound, technical control and comfortable playing. Instruments in use today are between 38 and 47 cm in length, most of them are between 40.5 and 43 cm.

Part designation in scores and on titles

In scores and on individual parts of old and new printed music and manuscripts, the alternative name “viola” is used for the viola, as is the case on concert program slips for concert-goers.


The viola is the only string instrument generally notated in the alto clef. This is a C-key on the third line from the bottom (counted in the 5-line system). In this position, unnecessarily many auxiliary lines in the frequently used low register are avoided. For high registers from around the f '' onwards, however, the treble clef is used for the same reason .


Unlike the name "Viola", the alternative name "Viola" in the long historical development of the viola from the instrument family of violas back, resulting in the viola da braccio instruments (Armgeigen) and viola da gamba instruments ( Legged ) divided. A weighty difference emerged between these groups of instruments: Da-braccio instruments have no frets (string divisions for the pitches), as do da-gamba instruments. The heyday of the "violas" was in the 16th and 17th centuries in the polyphonic music of the string consort, from which the violin family with violin, viola and violoncello later developed with increased playing style. This transformation began with the practice of solo violin playing at the beginning of the 17th century.

Attempts to modify the instrument in the 18th century included the violon alto built by the French Michel Woldemar , a five-string viola similar to the violino pomposo, also built in the 18th century , with the double- bowed e added. At the beginning of the 20th century, Heinrich Dessauer (1863–1917), a student of Joseph Joachim , worked on expanding the sound of the viola.

See also

tenor viola

Use in music

The viola is an indispensable group instrument of the 5-part string apparatus (1st violins, 2nd violins, violas, cellos, double basses) in the symphony orchestra and belongs as a single instrument to the classical string quartet .

Chamber music

The real home of the viola is chamber music . First and foremost are the string quartet with first and second violin, viola and cello as the main genre of chamber music in general, sonatas, etc. for viola alone and for viola and piano. Further string formations are:

  • the string duo with violin and viola or violoncello or double bass or a second viola,
  • the string trio with violin, viola and violoncello or two violas and violoncello or viola, violoncello and double bass,
  • the string quintet with either a second viola enlarging the string quartet or a second cello,
  • the string sextet, usually with two violins, violas and cellos each.

Solo literature

The most important concerts for viola include:

The most important solo pieces for viola include:

There are also a number of works in more unusual formations such as the following:

  • Flute, viola and harp (over 80 original compositions; main work: Claude Debussy Sonata, in g, 1915)
  • Clarinet, viola and piano (over 80 original compositions: main works: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Kegelstatt-Trio KV 498, in E flat , 1786; Robert Schumann fairy tales , op.132, 1854; Max Bruch Eight Pieces, op.83)
  • Singing (mostly alto), viola and piano (over 150 original compositions; main work: Johannes Brahms Zwei Gesänge op. 91, for alto, "Stillte Sehnsucht" and "Geistliches Wiegenlied")
  • Flute, violin and viola (over 130 original compositions; main work: Ludwig van Beethoven Serenade, in D, op.25, approx. 1795)
  • the piano quartet and quintet with one or two violins, viola, cello and piano.

In addition, there are chamber music works in almost every conceivable combination of instruments.


Principal violist with the New York Philharmonic (1917).

"Of all the instruments in the orchestra, the viola is the one whose excellent properties have been misunderstood the longest," noted Hector Berlioz in his famous theory of instrumentation. Even before the instrument was emancipated in solo play, this state of affairs came to an end in the 19th century. The most important parts for the viola in orchestral works can be found in the second movement of Anton Bruckner's 4th Symphony (the "Romantic"), in the Adagio of the 10th Symphony by Gustav Mahler and, for a solo viola, in the symphonic poem Don Quixote by Richard Strauss . There is also a shorter viola melody passage in Bernstein's Candide Overture (concert version, from measure 82).

Nevertheless, the viola never came close to the popularity of the violin, which has been the leading melodic instrument of the string orchestra for several hundred years . Thus, even in today's musical literature (be it classical music, musical, jazz or pop) there are seldom passages (but among others in the morning mood of Edvard Grieg) in which only the violas take over the melody. Usually these are still less occupied than the violins and mainly serve to support the violins and / or the cellos with melody lines, whereby they themselves rarely come to the fore, which is probably also due to the rather nasal, compared to the violin, rough and far less brilliant sound.

In the early Baroque period (for example in early Bach cantatas ), many composers still wrote two divided viola parts, but very soon a single, undivided part was the rule. In the orchestra, the viola forms the sonic bridge between the two violin parts and the bass section with the cello and the double bass . In today's symphony orchestra there are often twelve violists in large string ensembles, two fewer players than in the second violins and two more than in the cello section. The first violist is called the solo violist; he leads the vocal group and plays the solo passages for a single viola, if the score so allows . In the orchestra, the violas are usually placed in the middle to the right in front of the conductor between the second violins and cellos; in some orchestras, such as the Berliner Philharmoniker , they are also on the far right of the podium, opposite the first violins and in front of the double basses. (This arrangement, which was practiced by Serge Kussewitzki and Wilhelm Furtwängler at about the same time - and is enjoying some popularity - is the one that creates the best acoustic conditions for the violas. Occasionally the violas are also placed to the left - behind the first violins - and the second violins then on the right. This setup is acoustically favorable, but changes the viola sound a little in the direction of the lighter violin sound.)


Many violists first learn to play the violin as children and then switch to “big sister”. On the one hand, this can be in your own interest if the young violinist likes the sound or the lower register better, on the other hand, there are also violin teachers who recommend students with large hands and long arms to switch to the larger instrument. However, there are also small children's violas from 1/16 size, so that young students who would like to play the viola now have the option of starting directly on the viola. Unfortunately, for a long time it was common to let less talented violinists learn the viola, which increased prejudices against violists.

Aspects of development

A viola with a body length of 43 cm

For a long time the viola was overshadowed by the violin and the cello, which was valued in the Romantic era , so that there was comparatively little solo literature until the 20th century. Above all, the peculiarities resulting from the size of the instrument and the dark sound in the middle register, which is much more difficult than an accompanying orchestra, prevented a virtuoso display for a long time . The larger violoncello is easier to play in difficult passages and stroke types due to its different playing position and fingering (chromatic fingering and use of the thumb) .

Although the special requirements of the viola require instrumentalists with an elaborate technique, there is a prejudice in music circles according to which "bad" violinists are passed on to the viola. This is also addressed through numerous jokes .

Orchestral practice

For a long time it was a widespread custom to cast violas only very weakly. Whether the sentence attributed to Richard Strauss: “The fifth viola begins the great orchestra” really comes from him is unproven. However, it shows the practice of many orchestras in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century of making very few violas. Ironic phrases like “You can't hear them, you don't see them, but our Heavenly Father feeds them all” were common. A string line-up of 9/8/4/6/5 was quite often to be found. Therefore find z. In Smetana and Fibich, for example, there are a noticeable number of divisions of the violoncellos that support the lower registers of the viola. The orchestra of Andrè Rieu also has the violoncellos stronger than the violas. ( This shows a striking parallel to popular wind orchestras like that of Ernst Mosch, which - if at all - only have two horns, but often double or even triple the tenor horn / eufonium register in order to achieve more volume .)

The composer Peter Jona Korn advised all his students to follow the example of American film music and to always reinforce the violas in the tutti with clarinets if necessary. “You can always leave it out”.

Known players

Well-known violists include Juri Baschmet , Rudolf Barschai , Wolfram Christ , Viacheslav Dinerchtein , Marius Nichiteanu , Veronika Hagen , Paul Hindemith , Nobuko Imai , Kim Kashkashian , Ulrich Koch , Jürgen Kussmaul , Tatjana Masurenko , Nils Mönkemeyer , Lawrence Power , William Primrose , Hartmut Rohde , Vincent Royer , Antoine Tamestit , Lionel Tertis and Tabea Zimmermann .

See also: List of violists


As an excellent viola player and instrument maker, the German behavioral scientist Erich von Holst reconstructed violas that sounded like old Italian models - to prove that he had correctly grasped the principles of sound formation. In addition, he developed a proposal to solve the so-called "viola problem" (arm length and rotation, see above) through an asymmetrical construction (a simple geometric shear ), which, according to his calculations, does not cause any tonal disadvantages.


  • Yehudi Menuhin , William Primrose : violin and viola. (Menuhin's music guide) . Ed. Bergh in Verlag Ullstein, Frankfurt 1993, ISBN 3-7163-0175-2 .
  • Hugo Pinksterboer: Pocket-Info, violin and viola . Music Distribution Services, 2003, ISBN 3-7957-5535-2 .
  • Heinrich Dessauer: The attempts to improve the construction of the viola (viola) . Warsaw, Berlin 1912
  • Franz Zeyringer: literature for viola . Julius Schönwetter Jun., Hartberg (Austria) 1985
  • Michael Jappe, Dorothea Jappe: The repertoire for the historical viola from 1649 to after 1800 : annotated thematic directory. Amadeus, Winterthur 1999
  • Daniel Speer: Basically correct, briefly easy and necessary teaching of musical art . Ulm 1687, Leipzig 1974.
  • Articles "Viola", "Viola", "Violetta" and "Violin" in: Riemann Musik Lexikon , 13th updated new edition, ed. by Hugo Ruf. Schott Mainz 2012, Vol. 1 and Vol. 5, ISBN 978-3-7957-0006-5 .
  • David Dalton: The Art of Playing the Viola: Conversations with William Primrose , 1st Edition 2012, Provincial Library
  • Erich Valentin : Handbook of musical instrument science. Gustav Bosse, Regensburg 1954, pp. 137–141 and 426.

Web links

Wiktionary: Viola  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Viola (music)  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Erich Valentin : Handbuch der Musikinstrumentenkunde. Gustav Bosse, Regensburg 1954, pp. 139 and 429.
  2. Riemann Musik Lexikon 2012, Vol. 5, Article Viola and Violin .
  3. Erich Valentin : Handbuch der Musikinstrumentenkunde. Gustav Bosse, Regensburg 1954, p. 139.
  4. Erich Valentin : Handbuch der Musikinstrumentenkunde. Gustav Bosse, Regensburg 1954, p. 139.
  5. ^ To Imperfect Instrument: Jennifer Stumm , International Chair of Viola Studies at the Royal College of Music, London, on the shortcomings of the "compromise instrument" viola and the jokes about it