Understanding the Role of the Viola in Classical Music

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

What’s the difference between a violin and a viola in classical music? Size — the violas slightly bigger. But from the audience, seeing this subtle size difference isn’t easy. The sound of the viola is distinctive, however. Compared to the violin, the sound is breathier and throatier. The high notes on a viola sound less effortless than on a violin, and the low notes are powerful and rich.

The viola is the most difficult string instrument to play. Because the instrument is bigger than a violin, the player’s fingers must stretch farther between notes. The contortions that a violist must go through to play are unbelievable; the game of Twister is intensified.

Violists spend the vast majority of their time in the orchestra playing accompaniments to the violins’ melodies. As a result, concertos for the viola are rare, and violists who can play them are even rarer. (Joke! It’s a joke!) Here are some of them:

  • Paul Hindemith: Trauermusik (Music of Mourning) for solo viola and strings

  • Georg Philipp Telemann: Viola Concerto in G major

  • William Walton: Viola Concerto

Here are some very nice viola sonatas:

  • Hindemith: Sonata for Viola and Piano, opus 25, no. 1

  • Johann Hummel: Sonata in E-flat major, opus 5, no. 3

Finally, you can hear the gorgeous, throaty quality of this instrument used to great advantage in the following orchestral works, which feature extended, beautiful viola solos:

  • Hector Berlioz: Harold in Italy

  • Richard Strauss: Don Quixote