The Difference Between a Composer Who Writes Viola Music and a 'Violist-Composer'

Originally posted on 1/10/20 as 'Artist-in-Residence' for the American Viola Society:


No, there's no punchline. It can sometimes be tricky to define where the line is, and in a sense, there's a low bar to claiming any of it. Once you've played Twinkle, Twinkle on a viola, you're a violist.... and once you've written one short tune, you're a composer. I suppose once you've written your own variations on Twinkle for viola, you're now a violist-composer, and if your mother gave you five bucks to do it, you're professional, too. This is taking all of this in its most literal sense, though, which is getting away from the distinction, fuzzy as it may be, that is generally made. 

General composers are usually piano players. This makes them more adept at easily writing sonatas, which really are piano pieces--- even those with an extra line added for a viola or some other 'solo' instrument. (Older sonatas, such as the Mozart 'violin sonatas', were more accurately described by their composers as sonatas for piano--- *with violin accompaniment*) Because it's easier to play multiple lines on a piano and work out chords etc., general composers also write symphonies---- and therefore concertos, which to a large extent are symphonies with an extra line for a solo viola (or other non-viola solo instrument). 

Once you replace the piano with something else as the composer's main instrument, you often get what's called a performer-composer. I think Fritz Kreisler is a great example of this. As much as he wrote for violin, he didn't write a sonata or a true, full-length concerto. When performer-composers do write concertos or sonatas, often the focus is more squarely on the solo instrument and the accompaniment truly accompanies rather than 'collaborates with'. 

My impression is that there are a lot more violist-composers now than there were when I was a kid (1980s). I think we're coming out of a period of intense specialization for performers. (Don't forget: to specialize is to know more and more about less and less!) Back in Paganini's times, everyone was writing their own music, playing several instruments etc. Then things narrowed. Most of the well-known soloists of the 20th Century didn't write music and were playing cadenzas written by instrumentalists from the previous century. In the first half of last century, making transcriptions was still popular, but by the end that had diminished, too. Now I sense the pendulum has started to swing back toward the middle and performers are being more creative again. 

Performer-composers don't entirely fit comfortably into the system, at least yet, where people think of performers and composers as separate entities. Generally, we don't study with other performer-composers either; we study both subjects separately. As a teenager I studied composition with Richard Lane (1933-2004) and viola with Emanuel Vardi (1917-2011). Richard Lane was a pianist and certainly a general composer--- he wrote well over five-hundred works for every possible instrumentation---- but his favorite string instrument was the viola. He wrote three viola sonatas (the final one I premiered and recorded with pianist Betty Rosenblum) and a large body of chamber pieces featuring the viola. And although Emanuel Vardi was involved in every sort of solo playing, he took a great interest in viola recitals and that repertoire. (He also composed a few recital pieces for viola.) 

They were both on the same page musically, sort of a mid-20th Century American version of Romanticism (Richard Lane had a picture of Rachmaninoff next to his piano), and so it's not so surprising that I would end up concentrating on writing music that could be played on viola recitals. I have always enjoyed and admired Michael Kimber's compositions and felt there were certain similarities between what he and I were doing; only a couple years ago did I read a bio of his that stated he had also studied with Richard Lane as a teenager! 

My ninth album of chamber music for strings just came out a couple months ago. I worked out some of the material entirely on the viola, and for some pieces I also found the keyboard quite useful. Not everything that sounds good on a keyboard will transfer to strings (and vice-versa.) The two instruments are very different in color and the ability (or lack thereof) to sustain notes and use vibrato etc. I always recommend to my composition students to write a lot of chamber music that they can either play themselves or that they can get played. This will give them feedback as to what works and what doesn't. Writing smaller chamber pieces is also fussier. If something is a little off (something would be better in a different octave or some chord should be voiced differently), it can stick out a lot more than if it were buried in a larger orchestra piece. 

Some famous historical violist-composers include Carl Stamitz, Alessandro Rolla, and Paul Hindemith.... but Hindemith also belongs in the category of 'general composers who played the viola', which also includes Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Glinka. Probably the latter category still leads to more fame! (The thing I hate about making these lists is that I have left off many names that should be there as well, so my apologies in advance! Please feel free to add names in the comments.) 

See you next Friday for a blog post about.... the Violacentric religion! 

Best, Scott

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