What Are the Different Types of Viola Solos?

Angela Farrer

The different types of viola solos are certain classical pieces such as suites and some folk pieces such as waltzes, minuets, and processionals. Viola players often have a narrow range of choices available for solo music, although some famous pieces written for violins or cellos can be adapted for this mid-toned member of the stringed family. Some modern viola solos are performed as part of a concerto in which a violinist and a violist share the principal melody. The viola has traditionally been a source of simpler backing harmonies for an orchestra, and some composers assign only bass line notes to the viola section to make room for the more intricate melodies in the two violin sections. Despite these limitations, well-played viola solos can provide a richly-toned listening experience.

Viola solos may be found in Bach's Baroque-era viola adaptations.
Viola solos may be found in Bach's Baroque-era viola adaptations.

Some classical composers have claimed that writing solo music for the viola is more of a challenge due to the instrument's technique that noticeably differs from that of the violin. Viola players often use more short and abrupt bow strokes called spiccato strokes that lift off the strings. This technique creates a sound and rhythm that is distinctive from the longer and smoother legato bow movements that are more prevalent in violin bowing techniques. One of the most famous options for viola solos is a series of suites that Johann Sebastian Bach originally wrote for the cello rather than the violin or viola. These suites are often noted as the first significant musical departures from the simple bass parts that violas had previously played.

Viola solos date back to the 17th or 18th century.
Viola solos date back to the 17th or 18th century.

In addition to Bach's Baroque-era viola adaptations, a number of viola solos can be found in some folk music traditions such as Celtic and English country dances. George Frederic Handel wrote several folk dance pieces called gigues, which some music historians believe he adapted from earlier English jig songs. Many gigues written as viola solos are known for their upbeat and lively tempos. Another type of folk music viola solo is a minuet played a slower pace, and this kind of piece is sometimes selected as a wedding march for weddings with authentic English or Celtic themes.

Traditional English and Scottish country dance troupes sometimes perform to solo viola music as well. Some pieces of this Scottish dance music can be played as viola solos or duets depending on musician availability. Many of these dance pieces date back to the 17th or 18th century and are still considered creative choices for solo viola musicians.

Some of Handel's work, folk dance pieces called gigues, featured viola solos.
Some of Handel's work, folk dance pieces called gigues, featured viola solos.

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Discussion Comments


@irontoenail - Your teacher was probably thinking in the long run, if he was going to try and make a classical musician out of you. That's unlikely to happen now if you've left high school.

There's no reason that you can't play the violin now, rather than the viola. Since there aren't that many viola solos, you might be better off with the violin as you'll be able to play solo pieces of music at home (or in a studio at least) that sound good by themselves, rather than ones that only sound complete with a group.

But listen to some violin and viola music online and see which you prefer.

I think learning a musical instrument is a very worthy pursuit later in life but you should do something that you'll enjoy.

I remember when I was in high school we had a rather famous (although I had never heard of him!) violin teacher come to live in our area and our school arranged for him to be available for lessons.

I tried going to one or two lessons. He never even let me play the instrument, he just tried to teach me how to hold it. He did tell me though that I was probably more suited to the viola then the violin, because of the size and shape of my hands and shoulder I guess.

I think that's probably more true then he realized, since it says here that the viola is rarely used for solos, but is usually just the backing instrument. I would have been much happier backing up other people than taking the spotlight myself back then.

As it was, I already had too many classes so I only spent one or two on the violin. But one day maybe I'll give the viola a shot.

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