How the Viola Got Its Name
As we found out the other day, the nomenclature of musical instruments can sometimes be logical, sometimes a real head-scratcher. While many instruments are named for their size, materials or method of playing, others are known simply by their modifiers, prefixes or suffixes. Tell an Italian, for instance, that you're about to hear a trio of piccolo, cello and piano (are you reading, composer friends?), and they'd wonder what you were talking about. A "small," a "diminutive suffix" and a "quiet?" What on earth are those?
Then there's the viola. Such a simple name, such a complicated story. Go back about 600 or more years, you see, and the word "viola" or "viol" from the old French viele, meant just about any bowed string instrument. And by the way, that old French word, through a different historical route, also gave us "fiddle," the country cousin to the more urbane violin.
(Photo: My friend Alice Robbins playing a really big viol.)
Then in about 1500, two distinct families of bowed string instruments emerged from the musical morass to occupy dominant positions in European music for the next 200 years. To make a long story short, the older family is known in our current parlance by the old word "viol." The members of the viol family are characterized by their sloping shoulders, flat backs, frets, and usually six or more strings tuned in fourths (i.e., each string four notes up the scale from the previous one). The viols are usually played vertically, resting on the lap or held between the legs, and with the palm of the player's bow hand facing outward. Like many other vestiges of earlie musicke , viols have made a comeback in recent decades after centuries of silence. You'll encounter them today most often in one of two settings. One is as a consort (i.e., ensemble) of four-to-six viols of various sizes, from treble to bass. The other is in the rich, mostly-French repertoire for the viola da gamba, or "leg viol" (see question 8 of my earlier quiz), the viol with roughly the same range as our cello. Heck, they even made a movie about some famous gamba virtuosi. Actually, you'll encounter a member of the viol family any time you see an orchestra or a jazz group. For that big ol' doghouse of an instrument, known variously as the double bass, the string bass or just bass, with its sloping shoulders, tuning in fourths, and bow usually held palms out, is a descendant of the ancient violone or bass viol.
The new family, known in current parlance as "violin" (from violino , meaning "small viol") has squared shoulders, shaped back, no frets, and four strings tuned in fifths. The smaller members of the violin family are anchored against the player's torso or under his chin, and with the palm of the player's bow hand facing inward or down. In addition to the violin itself, the viola and the cello (short for violoncello or "small violone") are members of the violin family, which by the mid-18th century had basically put the viols out of business.
(Photos: A viola made in 2008 by Northampton luthier Marten Cornelissen, as advertised on the website of Albuquerque's Robertson & Sons.)
The thing about the term "viola," however, is that it was used through the 16th and early 17th centuries, with modification, for members of both the viol and violin families. We've heard already about the viola da gamba, a leading member of the viol clan. But then, from the rival violins, emerged the viola da braccio (sometimes viola da brazzo) or "arm viola," meaning the new kind of instrument held on the arm and resting against the body. This is where the Germans get their word for the viola, bratsche. And then we got such short-lived, occasionally-revived mutants as the viola d'amore, viola pomposa and viola da spalla. Will the real viola please stand up?
It did, eventually, by sometime in mid-17th century England, early enough to be clearly labeled simply as "viola" in the original editions of some works by George Frideric Handel. By then, "viola" indicated the alto-range member of the string section, positioned in pitch between the violin and the cello. In France, accordingly, the viola is known simply as the alto, whereas the Dutch call it the altviool or "alto viola." This new alto viola came to be preferred to the larger string instrument known in some earlier English scores as "tenor," and which were even longer, and more damaging to the player's orthopedic health, than the current viola.
So, take comfort, violists. In the string quartet, whereas the names of the other instruments require modifications — the "little viola" in the case of the violin, or the "small large viola" in the case of the (violon)cello, your instrument is the one true viola. All other string instruments, bow down before you!
(Top Photo: The viola in the hands of one of its greatest performers, William Primrose.)