Endangered Instrument: Viola

We continued our endangered instruments series in 2018 with a focus on the viola. 

Violist and composer, Garth Knox, was in residence throughout the festival giving a number of performances including the UK Premiere of a work for viola d’amore by Oscar Strasnoy. The concert featuring Red Note Ensemble also included the Scottish Premiere of an RPS Award-winning work by James Dillon, Tanz/haus: triptych 2017.

Other viola highlights included: a new work for six violas from leading composer, Sally Beamish, who also performed in its World Premiere alongside other leading viola players including Garth Knox, Nic Pendlebury (Smith Quartet), and Stephen Upshaw; a new version of Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium by Nic Pendlebury where the forty vocal lines are replaced by forty electric violas and are played through individual speakers giving the listener

a unique aural perspective of the work and an awareness of the sheer beauty of the contrapuntal writing and its extraordinary spirituality; and a viola day with Garth Knox where viola players of all ages and standards are invited to take part in a multi-viola ensemble.

About the viola 

The viola is a type of stringed instrument that has existed for more than 350 years and some of the first violas ever made are still played today.

How does it make sound?

When a string is plucked or played with a bow, it vibrates. The hair on the bow is horsehair, which has lots of tiny hooks on each hair. These grab the string as they move over it and the friction causes the string to vibrate. This vibration travels through the bridge, then the soundpost which helps transmit the vibrations to the body of the instrument, or the “soundbox”. This resonates, and the vibrations travel through the air to your ear, where you hear them as a deep viola sound.

What is a viola made of?

Violas are still constructed in almost the same way they were in the beginning, and using the same materials.

A viola is usually made from two main types of wood: spruce for the front, and maple for the back, ribs (the sides of the viola) and scroll. The spruce top is very flexible but very strong, so acts as a good path for the vibrations, but can also take the great tension of the strings. The ribs are very thin, only around 1.2mm thick, and are bent into shape on a hot iron. 

Violin or viola?

The violin is more well-known than the viola, and the viola is often described as part of the “violin family”. However, it should REALLY be called the “viola family”! Here’s why...

The word “viola” comes from the latin word “vitula”, meaning “stringed instrument”. A violin is a “little viola”, and a cello, or violoncello, means “little big viola” (the “big viola” was a large instrument similar to today’s double bass). So, everything comes back to the viola! 

Unlike violins, which are almost always the same size (the soundbox is around 14 inches), violas can come in all shapes and sizes ; from a body length of 15 inches all the way up to 18 inches, usually played by viola players with quite long arms! Instrument makers often enjoy making violas because there is much more freedom to choose different sizes and designs. 

The viola is bigger than a violin, it has a larger air volume inside it and so has a deeper sound. The cello is even bigger, so has an even deeper sound, and the double bass has the lowest range of the string family.

Viola music is written in the alto clef, with the pitch of middle C being the middle line and the strings are tuned to (from top to bottom) A, D, G and C.