Friday, February 10, 2017

Viola and Orchestra

No. 240 of the ongoing  ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


This week’s Blog and Podcast consider a trio of works intended for viola soloist and orchestra. The viola is, after all, the violin’s richer and mellower toned sibling yet its repertoire as a solo instrument is rather modest when compared to its little brother.

Some composers have written works for both instruments; Sir William Walton for example has composed concertos for both the violin and the viola. In a not-too-surprising twist of events, some well-known violiniss like Pinchas Zukerman, are established at playing either instrument as soloist, a trend that has included among others Maxim Vengerov and James Ehnes.

Sir William’s viola concerto did not make the cut this week, but we are reminded of the fact Paul Hindemith, himself a violist, premiered the work on 3 October 1929. Years later, on 19 January 1936, Hindemith travelled to London, intending to play his own viola concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. However, just before midnight on 20 January, King George V died. The concert was cancelled, but event organizers still wanted Hindemith's involvement in any music that was broadcast in its place.

Unable to agree on a suitable replacement piece, Hindemith took on the challenge of writing an entirely new piece - the following day, from 11 am to 5 pm, Hindemith sat in a BBC office and wrote Trauermusik from scratch (in all fairness, the work does borrow some material from his Marthis der Maler symphony and the afore-mentioned viola concerto), in homage to the late king. It was written for viola and string orchestra and was performed that evening in a live broadcast from a BBC radio studio, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting and the composer as soloist.

The Swiss philanthropist and music patron Werner Reinhart later told Gertrud Hindemith "there was something Mozartian" about her husband’s writing Trauermusik in half a day, and premiering it the same day. "I know no one else today who could do that", he said.

The large work featured in today’s podcast was written by Hector Berlioz for another rather famous violinist who enjoyed playing the viola: Niccolò Paganini. The two first met in1833, three years after the premiere of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. Paganini had acquired a superb viola, a Stradivarius—"But I have no suitable music. Would you like to write a solo for viola? You are the only one I can trust for this task."

When Paganini saw early sketches of the piece - Harold in Italy after Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron - with all the rests in the viola part, he told Berlioz it would not do, and that he expected to be playing continuously. They then parted, with Paganini disappointed. Harold was premiered on 23 November 1834 to much acclaim. Nearly four years later; Paganini finally heard the work he had commissioned; he was so overwhelmed by it that, following the performance, he dragged Berlioz onto the stage and there knelt and kissed his hand before a wildly cheering audience and applauding musicians In the version I programmed today, the viola soloist is Mr. Zukerman.

To complete the podcast, I chose James Ehnes (playing the viola) in a “potpourri” for viola and orchestra by Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

I think you will love this music too!