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History Of The Viola

We’ll hear a thousand years of rich, deep music and history. The history of the viola.

Garth Knox on the Medieval Fiddle (Dániel Vass / ECM Records)

Garth Knox on the Medieval Fiddle (Dániel Vass / ECM Records)

In the world of stringed instruments, the humble viola takes some hard knocks.  It’s not the virtuoso’s violin.  Not the soulful cello.  It’s in between.  A little gawky.  Earthy.  Hard to get just right.  “What is the range of a viola?” goes the old joke.  “As far as you can kick it.”

But the viola hangs in.  The “middle voice.”  It was there in medieval days, with praise and visions.  Dance.  And it’s there now, with a new sound.

This hour, On Point:  A thousand years of the earthy “middle voice” – the viola.

-Tom Ashbrook


Garth Knox, a prize-winning violist and composer. His new collection of works is: “Salterello.”

From Tom’s Reading List

Guardian “The viola is emerging from the shadows: Garth Knox’s utterly original recital combines its dusky tones in new music – by Kaija Saariaho (with electronics) and Knox himself (a flash of moody Piazzolla) – with music for the larger viola d’amore and medieval fiddle.”

NPR “A lot of babies were thrown out with the bath water,” he says in an interview with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel. “And I thought the viola d’amore was a particularly big baby that had been thrown away by mistake. I and others are trying to bring it back and show just how beautiful it can be.”

VIOLA JOKES: How do you keep your violin from getting stolen? Put it in a viola case. Check out more viola jokes here and post your favorites in the comments section here.


Viola Spaces no 6 – Harmonic horizon – Garth Knox


Kaija Saariaho’s “Vent nocturne,” for viola and electronics – performed by Garth Knox


Salterello #1 (14th Century Traditional)
Viola Spaces Movement #4, “Rapid Repeat” (2009 Garth Knox)
Ave, generosa (12th Century Hildegard von Bingen)
Pipe, Harp, and Fiddle (Traditional)
Music for a While (1692 Henry Purcell)
Concerto for viola d’amore in D minor, #1 (18th Century Antonio Vivaldi)
Black Brittany (early 19th Century Traditional)
Flow my Tears (16th Cenutry John Dowland)
Viola Spaces, #8 “Up, Down, Sideways, Round” (2009 Garth Knox)
Vent nocturne #2 (2007 Kaija Saariaho)
Fuga libre (2009 Garth Knox)
Salterello #2 (14th Century Traditional)

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  • Jasoturner

    I always found the viola to be more melodic and listenable than the violin, which is like the electric guitar of the orchestra for some reason.  Should be an interesting program that hopefully will cause folks to explore the instrument a bit more.

  • Anne

    What instrument is he playing in the picture? I’m counting 5 strings!

    • Adks12020

      It says medieval fiddle in the caption but I don’t know if that is a general description or the actual name.  You can add strings to just about any stringed instrument though.  I’ve seen guitars with 7 or 8 strings, 5 string electric mandolins, 5 or 6 stringed basses, etc.  It’s just about figuring out the proper string diameter and tension necessary to get the note you want.

  • Rebecca Clarke Society

    Composer/violist Rebecca Clarke was an important part of viola history when the instrument came into its own with solo literature in the early 20th century. http://www.rebeccaclarke.org

  • Alan in NH

    Can someone speak to the history of the string instruments in general? I’ve always assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that the viola was an enlarged violin intended to provide a sonority between violin and cello. Maybe not.

  • Ekalaminsky

    not on the topic, but 10 minutes ago you said that the transcript of the Wellesley High School address by David McCullough, Jr. was available on your site.

    I have searched for 10 minutes but cannot find it.  Can you help?

  • Roger

    Several years ago I heard an accomplished young street musician in Burlington, Vermont, playing the Bach cello suites on a viola, and thought it was the best use of the instrument I’d ever heard.  A wonderful compromise in pitch and timbre, it revealed new dimensions of the suites.  A revelation!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    Has Garth Knox ever played the Morin Khuur (Mongolian Horsehead Fiddle)?

  • Aaron

    To me the viola, despite it’s being one of the oldest still-used string instruments, has found its era in this age of atonal, earthy, organic music. We hear it all around us, not just in modern classical but in nearly every genre.

  • J__o__h__n

    Please stop the lame viola jokes.  Enough!

    • grannygear

      I second this plea!

  • Greyman

    What is most responsible for the “gritty/muddy” sound of the instrument: the relative roughness of the horsehair, the composition of the strings (nylon ever used?), or the unique interaction of bow and strings?

    • Goodman156

      The size and string-length of the viola and the relative thickness of the strings – as compared with a violin or a cello.  The fact that the viola is strung one octave above a cello, but is far smaller than half the size of the cello, is why the sound is somewhat “stunted”..

      A viola player and lover

      • Greyman

        Grazie! and keep up the good work: this program well shows your instrument’s ability to keep the ears awake.

  • D Mahany

    How do you tell when the stage for the orchestra is perfectly flat?  The viola players drool out of both sides of their mouths.

  • James in Boston

    Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the famed soprano, was a violist for years before moving to voice full time. She loved the instrument and always felt that her singing was better because she played it. Didn’t miss the viola jokes though.

  • David Martin

    I only wish my father was alive to hear this show.  He played viola for years in the Queens College Community Orchestra, conducted by Boris Schwartz, and with many quartets in our living room.  So I have fond memories for the instrument.  But the jokes are good too, and no violas were damaged in their telling.

  • Thomas Cooper

    Being both a Violinist and a Violist, I find that both instruments are lovely. Looking at it from an orchestral perspective, the viola repertoire is often more evolved as you move through the ages. A viola part for a Haydn symphony is sight-readable whereas a viola part for Mahler Symphony is arguable just as evolved as a violin or cello part. 
    In terms of the viola sound, I find that a good viola/violist will sound like a cello/cellist. A great viola/violist will sound like a great viols/violist. 

  • Thomas Cooper

    To add on, here is a quote from Zukerman, who is both a violinist and a violist:

    “The violin is easy, its nothing. The viola? That is something”

  • Goodman156

    The music thus far has been interesting, but this is not music which shows the viola off in any way - Mr. Garth Knox is playing almost completely in the upper register of the viola.  If you want to hear the viola at its best, have him play the BACH CELLO SUITES, anything by Ernest Bloch, or something by Scott Slapin, a young American violist and composer for the viola and strings.  This music doesn’t show off the modern viola, with it’s strength and power, moodiness, and deep bass sound.  Mr. Knox is actually making the viola sound just like another violin, IMHO, and I have been a violist for over 30 years.

  • DMC

    Kim Kashkashian. hopefully, y’all know of her:


    and she is no stranger to NPR:



    David Michael Curry

    (improvisational, noise, and rock viola)

  • http://twitter.com/bettywiderski Betty Widerski

    I’ll have to catch the show tonight.  But FYI viola is also a rising star in modern rock bands: in Boston, violist Rachel Jayson plays with Streamcrunk band Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys:

    and torture chamber pop band Jaggery:

    In NYC, Martha Mooke does live electronic looping:
    and appears with the Scorchio Electric Quartet:

    And me :-)

    • Andres

      Let us not forget that the Velvet Underground features a viola, 
       John Cale,

  • Margarita Assael

    I started out with violin then moved on to cello and “viola” fits me just right!  I LOVE VIOLA!!!!!  

  • Andrea

    Before judging the viola from this show (not helpful for the viola world).. PLEASE listen to Helen Callus’ (Walton Viola Concerto).. Beauty and depth are the reasons Zuckerman’s comment is so wonderful!!!

  • Violyst

    Please don’t assume violas usually sound as bad as he makes his. It’s really a beautiful instrument; Knox just plays bad music on it.

    • http://invincibleviolinist.com/ Invincible Violinist

      That’s just mean, uncalled for and ultimately off base.

    • Kalindi

      just because he’s brave enough to experiment with the limits of his instrument doesn’t make him bad. he’s perfectly capable of playing all the traditional rep, he chooses to do this because he’s capable of this as well. not many people are. i admire him. and i think this music is beautiful, just not in the same way that you might be used to hearing. you just have to open yourself to the possibility and appreciate new experiences. 

  • Ghgeiger

    Gordon – violist after my hands got to big for the violin.
    How come no one mentions Berlioz’ Harold in Italy? Probably the most beautiful music ever written for the viola.

    • mike

      Because it’s not that good.

  • potter

    Thank you for this show. A nice change. After, I bought Walton’s Concerto for Viola. 

  • Harry

    where is David McCullough commencment address you said is available?

  • mike

    Everybody listen to Tabea Zimmermann play Bartok, it’s orgasmic. Also, I really like Yuri Bashmet’s edition of the Shostakovich Viola sonata.

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