Like so many of us in Goa, my formal introduction to music learning was at the violin. All my major music achievements have been on this instrument. So why is it that, half a lifetime later, I find myself cradling its larger cousin, the viola, in my hands?
I became aware of the existence of violas and violists in Goa when I began playing in various string ensembles in my teens, and later with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra. But while I was aware of the differences (bigger, heavier instrument, tuned a fifth lower than a violin, read a different clef), somehow my curiosity did not extend to seriously trying out a viola myself, let alone taking it up.
But then in the 1990s I got employed in England, and a whole new world opened up. Orchestra rehearsals were much more intense and prolonged, and this is when I really got interested in the instrument. The choice of works (by Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Antonin Dvořák) also exposed me to the sheer chocolatey rich timbre of the instrument, and the lush writing for it in orchestral and chamber music.
Also, any observer of the classical music scene in India, especially when it comes to ensemble playing will soon note that there is a serious deficiency in the lower strings, both in number and quality. While pedagogy for cello is in a league by itself, it is quite possible to make the switch from violin to viola.
On one of my biannual return visits home, I dropped in at Furtados and bought myself a viola and took it back with me with the intention of learning to play it. But the demands of my medical career, and my violin playing in chamber groups and orchestras taking up the scant free time remaining, ensured that this happened at a plodding pace at best.
On returning to India, I auditioned in 2011 to play violin in an orchestra here. And when conductor Vijay Upadhyaya enquired if I’d be happy to take up the viola as there were no takers for those positions, I leapt at the chance. We had a concert in six weeks, and I knew it would give me the impetus I needed to really learn to read the alto clef and to find my way about the instrument.
Since then, my life has changed. Although I still get asked to play violin on occasion, I get called out much more as a violist when it comes to chamber and orchestral playing. That’s the wonderful thing about being a violist. You’re far more in demand than you would be as a violinist. Violinists are a dime a dozen.
Playing one of the solo viola parts in Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto at the 2013 Monte festival was a real turning point for me, a baptism with fire, my first ‘big’ viola achievement, considering I was just two years old on the instrument.
The viola and violists are the butt of many good-natured jokes, on account no doubt of the unwieldiness of the instrument, its deeper tone, the paucity of virtuoso writing for it, and the relatively simpler part writing for it in chamber and orchestral music compared to the violin.
But we are in extremely good company. You’d be surprised to learn how many great composers actually themselves preferred playing viola to violin in ensembles. Let’s start with the ‘big’ ones: Johann Sebastian Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote about his illustrious father: “As the greatest expert and judge of harmony, he liked best to play the viola, with appropriate loudness and softness”.
But there’s also Monteverdi, Johann Stamitz, Mendelssohn, the great violin virtuoso Paganini, Dvořák, Vaughan Williams, Eduardo Lalo, Ottorino Respighi, Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge, Carl Nielsen, all the way to Miklós Rósza and Kenji Bunch. Hindemith was a very respectable violist in his own right, besides being a composer.
My friend George Trautwein had introduced me in 1989 to the recordings of the viola greats from the past, Lionel Tertis and William Primrose. But in England, I was also exposed to some superlative viola playing by contemporary stalwarts. I was able to hear Yuri Bashmet, Rudolf Barshai and Pinchas Zukerman. I particularly remember the electrifying performance at the 2006 BBC Proms of Lawrence Power playing viola (who happened to be from the same town I was working in as GP by then) to Maxim Vengerov’s violin in the wonderful Sinfonia Concertante by Mozart. Power really demonstrated the ability of the viola to sing, the lushness of its tone. And the writing for it is just as challenging as for the violin. And why not? Mozart was master of both.
And although the repertoire for viola is not as copious as for its more histrionic (and highly strung?) cousin the violin, there are some sterling concertos and other works for viola and orchestra, notably by William Walton, Telemann, Bartók, Bruch, Bowen, Bainbridge, Casadesus, Hofmeister, Hindemith, Martinů, Milhaud, Musgrave, Penderecki, Piston, Pletnev, Rolla, for some strange reason all the Stamitzes (Anton, Carl and Johann). Berlioz’s Harold in Italy is a viola concerto in all but name. Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Quixote is scored for viola, cello and orchestra, with the cello representing the eponymous hero, and the combined forces of viola, tenor tuba and bass clarinet his comic sidekick Sancho Panza.
In so much ensemble writing in general, the viola far from being just another ‘layer’ in part-writing, is actually the glue that holds the composition together. Try listening to a Mozart string quartet or a Dvořák symphony without the viola line, and it becomes obvious. Dvořák and Vaughan Williams in particular wrote some wonderful orchestral parts for viola, and violists are eternally grateful for this.
And the vantage point in the orchestra is unique. The viola is close to the violins and the cellos, as well as to the woodwind and brass. I’ve learned so much about the genius of the great composers, their brilliant ensemble writing from this plum location.
The belief that only those who can’t cut it as violinists take up viola is so unjust. All the good violists in my circle are wonderful violinists as well. In fact, once you take up the viola, the violin seems like a facile instrument, as it suddenly feels so much smaller, and the shifts and stretches seem far easier. Paganini knew this well. So did so many other violin pedagogues like Max Rostal and Oscar Shumsky. The great living violinists Pinchas Zukerman, Shlomo Mintz and Maxim Vengerov play both with consummate ease, and have parallel careers as violists as well.
So come over, violin colleagues, to the Dark Side! A whole new world beckons.
(An edited version of this article was published on 2 November 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)