The modern viola, a bowed box-lute chordophone, is the alto member of the violin family of string instruments (see violin and violoncello) that was developed in Western Europe. See the separate entry for Baroque viola for a summary of the social uses and associations during the early centuries of the viola’s development; the modern viola pictured and discussed here was in existence from around 1800. By the turn of the 19th century a modest repertoire of solo (unaccompanied, sonata and concerto) literature existed for the viola, and this literature increased only slightly in the 19th century but more robustly in the 20th century. The viola has been a mainstay both of the orchestra and of chamber music (see String Chamber Ensembles and Piano and String Chamber Ensembles) throughout the history of those idioms. The performance of this 'classical' repertoire is today most concentrated in tertiary educational institutions around the world, which typically include in their faculty a professor of viola and offer degrees in viola performance at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Professional violists find employment in orchestras, chamber ensembles, freelancing in the commercial music industry (performing and recording), and studio teaching. A very few professional violists in any generation attain international recognition and perform recitals and concerto engagements with symphony orchestras throughout the cosmopolitan world. Historically, in Europe of the 19th century and anywhere in the world where Europeans were introducing themselves (through trade or imperial conquest) and their cultural habits, the viola was played both by highly trained professionals and by amateurs. However, unlike with the violin, musicians from genres outside of the classical music establishment and from music cultures around the world have never adapted the viola to their own sensibilities and traditions.
The resonator of the viola is a curvaceous, somewhat figure-8 shaped wooden box consisting of arched top (‘belly’) and bottom plates glued to a narrow side band (‘ribs’). The ribs, constructed from six curved strips of thinly-shaven maple, are reinforced internally at their four corners (where they come to points) and at their top and bottom with blocks--the top block is used to anchor the neck to the resonator, the bottom one to anchor the end-pin, which has to withstand the full force of the instrument’s string tension. The belly is made of thinly-shaven spruce, the back plate and ribs of maple. Two stylized f-shaped soundholes (‘f-holes’) are cut into the belly. Several coats of varnish are applied to the resonator exterior. The neck (including the pegbox and scroll) is fashioned from a piece of maple the bottom end of which is joined to the top internal block of the resonator. An arched, slightly angled, fretless fingerboard of ebony wood is glued to the topside of the neck and extends several inches over, but without touching, the resonator belly. At the top end of the fingerboard is a horizontally positioned nut of ebony wood. The pegbox has four laterally mounted wooden tuning pegs, two per side. The scroll at the top end of the neck is purely ornamental. The three lowest-pitched strings are wire-wound with cores of either gut, metal, or synthetic material, the topmost string is steel wire. The bottom end of each string is tied to one end of an ebony wood tailpiece, which in turn is tied to the endpin that is anchored in the resonator ribs. The strings then run over and make contact with a high, thin and arched bridge, which is a separate component that stands on the resonator belly and that is held in place by the downward force of the string tension. The strings then ride over the full length of the fingerboard, make contact with the slightly higher nut, and are then wound around the tuning pegs with which their tension can be controlled. An additional fine-tuning device for the highest string is located where that string is connected to the tailpiece. Each string has the same active vibrational length (the distance between the bridge and the nut) of 14.8 inches. They are set into vibration with rosined horsehair stretched the length of an in-curved wooden bow. The energy of the vibrating strings is transferred to the resonator through the bridge, an action that is enhanced by a soundpost and a bass-bar inside the resonator (the former is wedged between the two resonator plates below one of the bridge’s feet, the latter is glued to the bottom side of the belly, runs nearly the entire length of the resonator, and passes beneath the other foot of the bridge). A removable chinrest is attached to the bottom end of the resonator, to the left side of the tailpiece.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
In the performance of classical music the viola is held roughly horizontally with the bottom end of the resonator (as viewed in the picture at the left) pinched lightly between the player's left shoulder and chin so that the belly of the resonator is facing upwards. The performer uses the fingertips of her/his left hand to alter the vibrating length of a string by pressing them against the fingerboard, thus producing numerous pitches on any given string. By lightly touching, instead of pressing, the strings at specific points, the harmonics of a string's fundamental pitch are produced. The strings are set into vibration in one of two ways: bowing or plucking. Rubbing the rosined horsehair of the bow, held at its frog end with a special right hand grip, at a roughly perpendicular angle to the length of the string excites it into the desired mode of vibration. Alternatively, one or two fingers of the right hand can pluck the strings to set them into vibration (called pizzicato). The basic timbre of the instrument, which is not as brilliant as that of the violin, can be subdued by placing a comb-shaped mute over the instrument's bridge. The standard tuning of the four strings is: C3 - G3 - D4 - A4 (an interval sequence of P5 - P5 - P5). The highest practical note producible on most viola fingerboards is A6, giving the instrument a nearly four-octave range of C3 to A6. Higher pitches can be produced by either pressure stopping the A-string beyond the fingerboard or by producing harmonics on the A-string. Parts for the viola are typically notated at pitch in the alto clef. Because the fingerboard of the instrument has no frets, the performer can produce either chromatic intervals or microtonal ones over the viola's entire range. This design feature also makes the performance of subtle and bold ornamentations and sliding pitch inflections possible. Additionally, there are several effects producible with the bow. Finally, two strings can be sounded simultaneously. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on the viola.
Origins/History/EvolutionAround 1800 a number of changes were being made to the viola design of the preceding 250 years (see Baroque viola). Three interdependent modifications taking place around that time were of primary importance to the emergence of the modern violin: string design and strength, neck dimensions and angle, bridge height and shape, and bass-bar and soundpost bolstering. Stronger wire wound strings (gut core wound with silver thread), already in use for the C- and G-strings, were being used for the D- and A-strings. The additional tension necessary to tune these strings put excessive strain on the neck, so makers started throwing back the neck (giving it a greater downward angle from the resonator to the scroll) to add structural strength. A consequence of the new neck angle is that the resonator-end of the fingerboard was higher than before, necessitating a higher and slightly more arched bridge. As string tension increased the downward pressure of the bridge on the resonator belly, the soundpost and bass-bar were made more robust. A louder instrument resulted from these changes, one that was capable of keeping up with the expanding size of orchestras and performance spaces during the 19th century and beyond. Starting around 1820 the chin rest became a standard add-on feature to the viola.
Bibliographic CitationsBoyden, David D., and Ann M. Woodward. 1984. “Viola,” NGDMI v.3: 753-759.
“Instruments.” Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments