History of the Viola's Role in Part-Writing for Chamber Music

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Carolyn Hunter
Music 700
November 1, 2009
Mini-Research Paper #2

History of the Viola’s Role in Part-Writing for Chamber Music

There is considerable debate amongst scholars as to whether the birth of the viola preceded or succeeded that of the violin. However, iconographic and documentary evidence indicate that the violin, viola, and cello most likely evolved together as a family of instruments very early in the sixteenth century and almost certainly in northern Italy.
Part-writing for the viola in chamber music has changed dramatically over time. By the end of the seventeenth century, while the violin had remained popular in chamber music, the viola was very much neglected. It was not until the end of the eighteenth …show more content…

The end of the eighteenth century marked a change in the treatment of the viola in chamber music. The change “came about partly because a basic concept of late eighteenth century chamber music was that a single player played each part (thus setting chamber music apart from the orchestra where each string part . . . was played by several players).”[2] A greater equality of part writing can be observed in the mature chamber music, especially string quartets, of Mozart and Beethoven. In Mozart’s last string quartet (K. 590, 1790), the part writing is equalized, and solos are given to the viola, with a considerable degree of virtuosity demanded of the instrument. In the passage below, the first violin states the melody and then two bars later the viola plays the same passage just an octave lower. Example 1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, String Quartet no. 23, k. 590, 1st Movement, mm. 51-54[3]
This example clearly demonstrates equal part-writing for the viola with that of the violin or the other instruments. In conclusion, it is difficult to answer the question as to why the viola fell out of favor in chamber music from the time period following its birth in the early sixteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century. One possible reason is that no parts of

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