Arts and Entertainment

Oscillations, Onions, and the Most Overlooked Instrument in the Orchestra: The Viola

An exploration of the viola’s role in the music world—and the jokes that come with it.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Jocelyn Yu

What’s the difference between an onion and a viola? Nobody cries when you cut up a viola. It is hard to come across a group of classical musicians who are not guilty of cracking jokes at the viola’s expense. Whether it’s claiming violas are useless or calling its players unskilled, the instrument and its musicians are rarely spared from ridicule. Outside the music world, few people know the basics about the viola, much less the history of its butt-of-the-joke status.

The viola’s subpar reputation has had a long-standing history in the music world, dating back to the early 1700s. Due to its tenor role in music ensembles, the viola is primarily used as an accompanying line, playing simple harmonies unlike their melodic violin counterparts. Until the 20th century, when viola-specific parts became more advanced, many violists were actually ex-violinists who had learned to play the viola, given that it was easier to get a job as a violist because of its rarity. This transition was smooth for some musicians, but despite the music seeming technically simpler to play, the viola was no cakewalk. It is larger and therefore more cumbersome than a violin, especially when the traditional strings of livestock intestines were used, and it also reads music in a different clef. Therefore, the assumed easy switch from violin to viola was actually akin to picking up a new language. 

Even in the modern music world, violas remain overlooked. In an orchestra, the violins often carry the melody, with the cello and double bass providing a musical pulse. The viola falls into the cracks between these dominant instruments, its range oscillating between those of the violin and bass line, making it difficult for it to have its own distinct voice. In terms of solo repertoire, viola sonatas and concertos are not as ubiquitous as those for violins and cellos. Pieces such as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor and the Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor—violin and cello staples—are well known even by musicians who do not specialize in these instruments, while viola sonatas are often unknown and overlooked, especially by musicians outside the viola discipline.

This attitude is embodied by TwoSet Violin, a famous violinist YouTube duo, that often makes quips about violas being subpar in comparison to other string family instruments. Common jokes such as “How are a viola case and a court case similar? Everyone is relieved when the case is closed” and “How is lightning like a violist’s fingers? Neither one strikes in the same place twice” arose as a consequence of the viola’s poor reputation. Freshman Ennya Liang, the principal violist in the Stuyvesant Symphonic Orchestra, explained that the viola stigma is exacerbated by the viola jokes constantly made by TwoSet Violin. “It’s like a vicious cycle,” Liang said. “It is pretty common to make jokes about violists’ inabilities to play certain strokes, or play in time, or play at all!” 

Despite the disrespect the viola faces, its reedy, rich sound and unique range make it an essential addition to any orchestra or chamber music group, completing the musical balance. “[The] viola is very important in the orchestra because it fills so many roles,” senior, violinist, and violist Isaac Lageschulte said. “They span the range of the violin and cello, connecting the two.”

Even with the key role the viola plays, orchestras have become too comfortable with dismissing the viola, regarding it as the violin’s ugly stepsister. It is true that composers give most leftover notes in their pieces to the viola, but its role as a cooperative gap-filler remains essential to creating a full composition, such as Antonín Dvořák’s “American” string quartet, whose opening line is played by the viola. Additionally, a piano quartet (composed of a violin, a viola, a cello, and a piano) takes the standard formation of a piano trio (a violin, a cello, and a piano) and adds the warm resonance of the viola to fill the sound of the ensemble. It is difficult to imagine a dramatic piece such as the fourth movement of the Brahms Piano Quartet in G Minor without the viola to complete the musical balance. 

Luckily, the viola has garnered more respect over its time as a common orchestral instrument, championed as a solo instrument by William Primrose in the mid-20th century. For the first time in history, he approached the viola as a melodic line, sometimes transcribing virtuosic violin repertoire for the viola and showcasing his facility on the instrument. This proved to the music community that the viola could expand its horizons beyond its previously assumed limitations. Following in Primrose’s footsteps, famous contemporary composers like Béla Bartók and Edward Walton began writing viola concertos, showcasing respect for the instrument in a high-profile setting. These pieces brought the viola to center stage, leading to its heightened popularity and respect amongst a new generation of classical musicians. 

In the face of ridicule, modern violists play on, getting justice for the all-too underrated instrument while indulging themselves in some good old viola jokes. By letting the viola’s music speak for itself, the viola will hopefully become more celebrated and prove that it can be a star to all those in the musical world and beyond.