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What Are the Different Types of Viola Music?

By Peter Hann
Updated May 23, 2024
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The viola is a stringed instrument slightly larger than the violin. The instrument plays the role of the alto member of the violin family, situated between the cello and the violin and with a richer, darker tone than the violin. The viola features in orchestras and string ensembles, and some music has been written for the viola as a solo instrument, especially from the 20th century onward. The viola also plays a part in folk music and is often found in folk bands in Hungary and Romania. Some jazz and blues musicians also have used the viola, and the instrument sometimes plays a part in contemporary pop music.

In the Baroque Period, Georg Philipp Telemann wrote some viola music, including some well known viola concertos. The viola features prominently in the sixth Brandenburg Concerto by Johann Sebastian Bach. In the Classical Period, solo passages for viola appeared in the string quartets of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Later, Johannes Brahms wrote works that highlighted the role of the viola and transcribed two clarinet sonatas for the viola.

A greater amount of viola music was written in the 20th century. Works for the viola as a solo instrument include viola concertos by Bela Bartok and William Walton. New combinations of instruments appeared with the viola, such as Claude Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. The viola sometimes had a prominent role in purely orchestral works, such as the Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar.

Paul Hindemith was a composer who also played the viola, and his works include viola music such as sonatas for solo viola and some works for viola and orchestra. Hindemith also wrote a scherzo for viola and cello. Another viola player who also composed viola music was Rebecca Clarke, though her musical output was relatively small. Her work includes some pieces for viola and piano, the Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for viola and clarinet, Lullaby and Grotesque for viola and cello.

The viola also is present in traditional and modern folk music, though it is not as popular as the violin in these genres. The viola is often found in traditional folk string bands in Hungary and Romania. In modern folk music, the viola features as an instrument in the compositions and performances of Helen Bell. U.S. musician Mary Ramsey played the viola for the alternative band 10,000 Maniacs as recently as 2011 and also has played the instrument as part of the pop duo John & Mary, a pop duo formed with John Lombardo, and in the group called John & Mary and the Valkyries.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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