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 century, when Mozart and Beethoven promoted the viola to a position of equality with the second violin and the cello in the string quartet, that the viola was given more interesting soloistic part-writing to play. The question then is: why did the viola fall out of favor in chamber music from the time period following its birth to the end of the seventeenth century? At the end of the sixteenth century, the viola was deemed the instrument of the middle, being used for both the alto and tenor registers. In five-part ensemble writing, three violas were used for the inner voices. However, after 1600, when part-writing changed from five-part to four-part harmony, essentially eliminating one of the viola’s lines, violas gradually fell out of demand. The emergence of the trio sonata as the most popular form of chamber music in the seventeenth century excluded the viola completely, as it generally featured two violins and continuo. In his book, The History of the Viola, Riley states: The omission of the viola from the trio sonata was an unfortunate development that retarded the progress of this instrument in many ways. Not only was the viola usually excluded from the most popular and most prevalent form of instrumental...
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