The evolution of a muffled minority: viola players throughout history

Viola player Antoine Tamestit
© Julien Mignot

Viola players are to violinists what Belgians are to French: (very pleasant) neighbours which we love to make fun of. There are quite a few jokes going around which spread a persistent rumour: viola players can’t play in tune, or, to approach the issue from another perspective, the viola is a naturally off-key instrument. Nowadays, there are plenty of reasons to doubt this childish jibe. Thanks to virtuoso soloists and amazing orchestra musicians, the viola has plenty of champion. Why, then, do these jokes remain so popular?

Let’s go back in time. A possible answer comes from an ancient essay, written by flautist Johann Joachim Quantz in 1752. Writing in French, Quantz doesn’t use the modern term “alto” (which didn’t enter common usage until the second half of the 19th century) but there is no doubt that it is this instrument that he is talking about: Full story.

Tristan Labouret (Bachtrack) / September 2, 2019

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