They are not just big violins

Violas may look like big violins, and certainly there are many similarities; some obvious, others less so. However, there is an important difference. Unlike the violin, there is no standard size or, indeed, shape for the viola...

Philip with his Pellegrina
Philip Heyman, principal viola of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, always ready to embrace innovation by playing a bizarre looking five-stringed 'Pellegrina' Viola Pomposa

Instrument makers certainly find their inspiration from the strangest sources - and viola quartets evidently have no shame when an opportunity (no matter how tasteless it may be) presents itself for plugging their CDs.

The vast majority of string students will commence the daunting task of tuition on junior sized instruments, then, on reaching adulthood, when finding they need a full sized instrument, discover that some violas may be too large or, occasionally, too small, thus necessitating selection of an instrument that they can accommodate in much the same way as purchasing a new suit. It has to fit well. And it is that which gives the viola its character. Or, to make a blunt comparison: a violin, be it good or bad, cheap or priceless, always sounds like a violin; likewise the cello. But a viola can sound like anything. It has, without a doubt, the greatest breadth of expression of all the stringed family.


 Archive Storyboard of deleted scene from the movie "The Addams Family", depicting Thing Addams on his (or her?) viola.

Viola music is written using the Alto Clef; a clef which strikes fear into the hearts of other instrumentalists, many conductors - and also recently converted violists. Although, when the going gets really tough (high, that is), they will lapse into the ubiquitous treble clef.

Whereas the violin reached the peak of perfection in the early eighteenth century, the viola continues to evolve. It will never be perfect like the violin, because its tuning and dimensions will never tally. Hence there will never be a standard viola sound. Yet it is this very imperfection that gives the viola its extraordinarily subtle, sonorous, and beguiling character.

TV presenter, John Noakes, demonstrating a viola he has just finished building.

Famous Violists                                                           
Who else plays the viola? How many names can you put to these faces? Click on the montage to see the answers.


Here are some of our bows


From bottom to top:  A. R. Bultitude, Eugene Sartory, Benoit Rolland, Victor Thomassin, James Tubbs, W. E. Hill & Sons, W. E. Hill & Sons, John Stagg, John Stagg.



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