Saturday, 20 June 2015


“The difference between a violin and a viola is that a viola burns longer.” - Victor Borge

Viola jokes are a category of jokes directed against violas and viola players. The jokes are thought to have originated from the 18th century when the part of the viola was very uncomplicated and often just a filler part, thus attracting musicians who were not usually very talented either musically or intellectually. Another reason is that viola players were often previously violinists who were not particularly talented and are therefore asked to play the viola, as violin parts are often more demanding. This led to a generally lower standard of violists, which meant that jokes were made about them.

In Italy in the early 1700s, the following story occurred and it is thought that it was the origin of many viola jokes despite being a true story: The violinist Francesco Geminiani arrived in London in 1714, one of the many expatriate musicians who settled in England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. As a young man Geminiani was appointed head of the orchestra in Naples, where according to English music historian Charles Burney he was “so wild and unsteady a timist, that instead of regulating and conducting the band, he threw it into confusion”, and was demoted to playing the viola.

The jokes come in many different forms. Some of them are only understandable to musicians and people acquainted with musical terms, while others are meant to be understood for everyone, regardless of their musical knowledge. Some jokes make fun of the viola itself while others make fun of violists, while some jokes are in fact directed the opposite direction, effectively jokes to musicians who tell viola jokes.

Jokes aside, the viola is a beautiful instrument. It is generally strung with heavier strings than the violin. This, combined with its larger size and lower pitch range, results in a deeper and mellower tone. However, the thicker strings also mean that the viola speaks more slowly. Practically speaking, if a violist and violinist are playing together, the violist must begin moving the bow a fraction of a second sooner than the violinist. The thicker strings also mean that more weight must be applied with the bow to make them speak. The sound of the viola is a beautiful alto, rich and sweet like caramel.

Music that is written for the viola differs from that of most other instruments, in that it primarily uses the alto clef, which is otherwise rarely used. Viola music employs the treble clef when there are substantial sections of music written in a higher register. The viola occasionally has a major role in orchestral music. In the earlier part of the 20th century, more composers began to write for the viola, encouraged by the emergence of specialised soloists such as Lionel Tertis. Englishmen Arthur Bliss, York Bowen, Benjamin Dale, and Ralph Vaughan Williams all wrote chamber and concert works for Tertis. William Walton, Bohuslav Martinů and Béla Bartók wrote well-known viola concertos. Paul Hindemith wrote a substantial amount of music for viola. In the latter part of the 20th century a substantial repertoire was produced for the viola.

Here is a lovely concerto for viola. It is Carl Stamitz’s “Viola Concerto in D major”, Op.1, with soloist Ulrich Koch, accompanied by the Collegium Aureum. Carl Philipp Stamitz (Czech: Karel Stamic; baptised 8 May 1745 – 9 November 1801), who changed his given name from Karl, was a German composer of partial Czech ancestry. He was the most prominent representative of the second generation of the Mannheim School. He was the eldest son of Johann Stamitz, a violinist and composer of the early classical era. Born in Mannheim, he received lessons from his father and Christian Cannabich, his father’s successor as leader of the Mannheim orchestra.

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