The viola is a string instrument played with a bow.
The strings are usually tuned to the notes C3, G3, D4, and A4.
The viola is similar in material and construction to the violin.
It is slightly larger than a violin and has a lower and deeper sound.
A viola’s body is between 2.5 cm (1 in) and 10 cm (4 in) longer than the body of a violin which is between 38 and 46 cm (15 and 18 in).
Although the violin and viola have 3 strings tuned the same, the tone quality or sound color is rather different, although some musicians and non players may find it difficult to tell the difference.
The history of the viola is closely linked to the development of the other instruments in the violin family, which were first made in northern Italy between 1530 and 1550.
Originally the viola was wider, larger, and the bow was curved and slightly shorter.
The names of all stringed instruments are derived from the term “viola” – in the 16th and 17th centuries it described two families of stringed instruments, the viola da braccio and the viola da gamba. The appellations da braccio and da gamba have two meanings – on the one hand they describe the playing position. Da braccio is Italian for “played on the arm” and refers to the horizontal playing position. Da gamba means “played at the leg” and refers to the vertical playing position.
Prior to the 18th century, violas had no uniform size.
The viola d’amore is a viol-violin hybrid played like a violin. It is of 18th-century origin, has six or seven melody strings and several sympathetic strings, and is unfretted.
One of the most notable makers of violas of the twentieth century was Englishman A. E. Smith, whose violas are sought after and highly valued.
In early orchestral music, the viola part was usually limited to filling in harmonies, with very little melodic material assigned to it.
The viola plays an important role in chamber music. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart succeeded in liberating the viola somewhat when he wrote his six string quintets, which are widely considered to include some of his greatest works.
Cecil Forsyth in his book “Orchestration” states that:”The viola has perhaps suffered the ups and downs of musical treatment more than any other stringed instrument. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, it held much the same position in the orchestra that the first and second violins occupy today. The violin with its higher pitch and its more exquisite tone-color, was continually ‘knocking at the door’, and the viola found itself servant where once it had been master.”
Among the great composers, several preferred the viola to the violin when playing in ensembles, the most noted being J.S. Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
From his earliest works Johannes Brahms wrote music that features the viola prominently. His first published piece of chamber music, the sextet for strings Opus 18 contains what amounts to a solo part for the first viola.
The viola occasionally plays a major, soloistic role in orchestral music. Examples include the symphonic poem, “Don Quixote”, by Richard Strauss, and the symphony/concerto, “Harold en Italie”, by Hector Berlioz.
The viola is sometimes used in contemporary popular music, mostly in the avant-garde.
Jazz music has also seen its share of violists, from those used in string sections in the early 1900s to a handful of quartets and soloists emerging in from the 1960s onward.
The viola is also an important accompaniment instrument in Hungarian and Romanian folk string band music, especially in Transylvania.
A person who plays the viola is called a violist or a viola player.
While it may appear to be similar to the violin’s, the technique required for playing viola has many important differences. The most notable of these spring from the size of the viola, making it more physically demanding to play than the smaller, lighter violin.
The modern symphony orchestra contains from 6 to 10 violas.
The viola is an integral member of the string quartet and larger chamber music ensembles.
The largest viola ensemble consisted of 321 players and was achieved by the Portuguese Viola Association at the Sala Suggia concert hall of the Casa de Musica in Porto, Portugal, on 19 March 2011. The ensemble played “Dance of the Mirlitons” by Tchaikovsky and “Bratchy Mambo” by Jean-Loup Lecomte.
The largest viola caipira ensemble consists of 661 people, achieved by Viola de Nóis Produções Ltda (Brazil) in Uberlândia, Minas Gerais, Brazil, on 28 October 2017.
The most expensive viola in the world, the Stradivarius MacDonald Viola, made in 1719 and one of only 10 surviving violas made by the famous master Luthier. It was recently sold for $45 million.
The person that makes and repairs violas is called a luthier.