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The Glass Slipper

Lionel Tertis and Ralph Vaughn Williams
Lionel Tertis and Ralph Vaughn Williams

The glass slipper fits – at last!

The last time a viola player made the headlines was when she pelted ‘reality’ TV entrepreneur Simon Cowell with eggs during the June 2013 live screening of the final of Britain’s Got Talent. Natalie Holt had been engaged as a string quartet member accompanying the acts but had been asked to mime playing her instrument.

Violists don’t get pushed around . . .

In much earlier times, though, their profile was much less up-front. In the first half of the 19th century Hector Berlioz bemoaned the fact that the viola was the ‘Cinderella of the orchestra’ – prompting the analogy that the violin and cello must be its Ugly Sisters – but acknowledged that, in the ensembles of the French composer’s day, the viola was often looked upon as the last resort of failed violinists.

The instrument was for long degraded and dismissed as the neglected middle child of the violin family, suitable only for accompaniment and burdened with tiresome and puerile ‘viola jokes’ – ‘Q: How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune? A: The bow is moving.’ etc, etc – but for those with hands-on experience of the instrument which first took form in the early 16th century its rich mellow tone had immediate appeal. Over the years craftsmen continued to modify and refine the viola’s subtle qualities, while composers seized the opportunity to introduce a new texture to their works.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart enjoyed playing the viola and pioneered its use. His ground-breaking ‘Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola in E flat, K364’, makes resourceful use of it in a solo and orchestral setting. The viola figures in so many of his chamber pieces, including six quintets, each of which includes a pair of violas.

Violin wizard Nicolò Paganini was fascinated by the viola and proudly showcased it in his ‘Sonata for Grand ’Viola & Orchestra’, performed on his Stradivarius instrument at London’s Covent Garden Theatre in April 1834.

Antonín Dvořák cut his teeth on the viola, playing it in a dance band as well as a classical orchestra, but in many quarters the Cinderella tag remained a persistent slur.

A fairy godmother’s influence or not, fortune began to favour the viola in the 20th century with several virtuoso practitioners opening the ears of many to its delights. Prominent among these was Germany’s Paul Hindemith whose ‘Trauermusik’ for viola and strings, sketched and orchestrated at the BBC in 1936 within hours of King George V’s sudden death, was broadcast to the nation in homage with great emotional impact.

West Hartlepool-born Lionel Tertis (1876-1975), one of Britain’s pioneering violists, whose autobiography ‘Cinderella No More’ was a proud rebuttal of Berlioz’s despairing cry, took up the cudgels to defend his beloved instrument and considerably enhanced performance technique through his many concerts and tutorials.  Composers such as Béla Bartók, Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich and William Walton also enlivened the instrument’s repertoire.

Fortunately, for our present century there’s no shortage of viola enthusiasts. British composers Mark-Anthony Turnage in 2001, and James MacMillan in 2013, were inspired to write viola concertos. In ‘Viola, Viola’, George Benjamin is able to transform the instrument’s role from what he terms a ‘melancholy voice hidden in the shadows’ into something ‘fiery and energetic’; and Sally Beamish – one of our most exciting exponents of the viola as a solo and concerto instrument – has highlighted its fun side in her punchy ‘Bratchwork’.

Flying eggs aside, there’s no fairy-tale ending, because the story is ever evolving. But thanks to enlightened composers and dedicated players, the viola’s handsome prince has come at last and, to the joy of all, discovers that for this Cinderella the glass slipper fits perfectly.


About the author

Richard C. Yates

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