When was the viola invented? Nobody knows for sure the history of the viola. All we know is that it is an instrument that has evolved through centuries, and it was widely believed to have first developed from ancient bow and string instruments around 1500 in Italy. However, in a recent discovery of a large set of paintings on a hidden, or built over, ceiling of the Cathedral of Valencia, the viola de gamba was found featured. That set of paintings by Francesco Pagano and Paolo di San Leocadio was traced back to 1472. Below we’ll provide a brief overview of viola history.
The sound of the viola is rich and melancholy. If we were to understand the viola more through singing terms, the violin would be classified as the soprano, the cello as the bass, and the viola as the middle voices – the alto and tenor.
The Term ‘Viola’
Before the start of the 16th Century, the term ‘viola’ was already used to describe string instruments that bore similar characteristics of the violin family. Such instruments were grouped under two families: viola da braccio and viola da gamba. The viola da braccio was played on the arms, had low ribs, four strings across a curved bridge and a round back. The viola da gamba was played at the legs, had high ribs, five to seven strings across a flatter bridge and a flat back.
Essentially, the term ‘viola’ was used for all such instruments in Italy. For example: Violino (small viola); Violone (big viola/bass viola); Violoncello (smaller bass viola).
Famous Early Luthiers
Andrea Amati, the famous Italian luthier from the Cremona region, was one of the earliest creators of the modern violin family. He was a favorite of the King of France, King Charles IX, and was commissioned to produce 38 instruments (including cellos, violins, and violas) for the royal musicians in 1565. Most of the pieces were destroyed during the French Revolution, but fortunately, few survived, one of them being the viola. Andrea Amati’s legacy was continued by his sons, Antonio and Girolamo, grandson Nicolò and great-grandson Girolamo II.
Another great luthier was Gasparo da Salò from the Brescia region. His viola creations were held in higher regards than his violins.
Andrea Guarneri, one of Nicolò Amati’s apprentices, also came from a family of luthiers. By his time, the demand for violas had decreased and he mostly made small violas, one of which was owned and played by the legendary Scottish violist, William Primrose.
Another world famous Nicolò Amati apprentice is Antonio Stradivari. His instruments were bought by the Medici Family and played by Paganini.
16th & 17th Centuries
In 1597, a Venetian composer, Giovanni Gabrieli, wrote Sonata pian’e forte. In this piece, different parts were played by several instruments and interestingly, one part was specifically assigned to the viola.
During this time, the viola was mainly used in the orchestra and the opera. In the later period of the 17th Century came another form of composition – the Concerto Grosso. It was a form of Baroque concerto that consisted of a small group of solo instruments (called “concertino”) and a string orchestra (called “ripieno”). The viola was part of the ripieno. Famous Concerto Grossi composers included Vivaldi and Corelli.
Other mentions of the viola in this period:
- Viola sonata by Massimiliano Neri, 1651
- Symphonia Quarta for violin and viola by Nikolaus Kempis, 1644
- Sonata for viola by Carlo Antonio Marino, late 17th Century
- Ulysses’ homecoming by Claudio Monteverdi, an opera composer, wrote orchestra parts for the viola, 1641
- In the orchestra established by King Louis XIII (France) in 1626, the 24 Violons du Roy, the violas made up of half of the 24 instruments.
18th & 19th Centuries
At around 1750, the string ensemble changed from being a five-part ensemble to a four-part. The tenor viola had been eliminated. From the mid-18th Century onwards, the violoncello covered the lower middle (tenor) register.
The first known viola sonatas published in England in 1770 were written by William Flackton, a bookseller, publisher, organist and violist. He did this when he couldn’t find any viola solo publications available and thought it was a pity that this excellent instrument had been largely ignored.
Other influences of the viola in this period:
- Georg Philip Telemann, composer of Telemann Viola concerto
- Bach, composer of Brandenburg Concertos
- Johann Stamitz, writer of a viola concerto
- Karl and Anton Stamitz (Johann’s sons), performers and composers of viola concertos and sonatas
- Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, classical composers who treated viola music as more than just a filler in symphonies. This inspired more musicians to elevate the importance of the viola in their compositions as well. Mozart wrote an entire Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola
- Joseph Schubert, composer of a viola concerto
- Carl Maria von Weber, composer of viola for the orchestra and a viola solo in his opera, Freischutz
- Hector Berlioz, composer of Harold in Italy (with solo viola)
- Paganini, composer of Sonata per la Grand’ Viola
- Robert Schumann, composer of Fairy Tale Pictures
- Felix Mendelssohn, composer of Viola Sonata in C Minor
Modern Times (20th Century till Now)
The viola gained more fame and appreciation for its deeper timbre and more parts were dedicated to this instrument in compositions of this period. It was not uncommon to find viola concertos then. Two names that boosted the viola to further recognition in the modern times are Lionel Tertis and William Primrose. The Lionel Tertis International Viola Festival & Competition was established to honor the former while the Primrose International Viola Archive was set up to commemorate the latter.
The viola has gone through many modifications throughout the centuries. Musicians loved its melancholy sounds. However, its dimensions (with a body around 48 cm long) could sometimes be too much to bear. In the 1930s, Lionel Tertis collaborated with violin-maker Arthur Richardson and created the Tertis model, a beautiful viola with a 43 cm-long body that produced a warm, rich sound.