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What Are Viola Sonatas?

Peter Hann
Peter Hann

Viola sonatas are musical works written for the viola and an accompanying instrument, often in three or four movements. The accompanying instrument is normally a piano, though a viola sonata could be written for a solo viola or a different accompanying instrument. Before the 20th century there were not many works written in the form of a viola sonata, though ancestors of the viola were used, including the viola de gamba in the Baroque era. From the first half of the 20th century the viola sonata was used rather more by composers, although it remained a relatively rare form of musical work.

There are very few examples of viola sonatas from the Classical and Romantic eras, though Johannes Brahms wrote two viola sonatas that were originally intended for the clarinet and Felix Mendelssohn wrote a relatively little known viola sonata when he was 15. Anton Rubinstein, another composer of the Romantic era, wrote a viola sonata in 1855. Other 19th century composers who wrote viola sonatas include Ludvig Norman and Mikhail Glinka, who left an unfinished work in this form.

Piano is usually the accompanying instrument for a viola sonata.
Piano is usually the accompanying instrument for a viola sonata.

In the 20th century, the viola sonata was used by a number of composers, including Paul Hindemith and Frederick Delius, producing a variety of moods and approaches. The last work of Dmitri Shostakovitch was a viola sonata. This was economical with notes and contained a reference to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in its third movement. The English composer York Bowen admired the tone of the viola and composed a number of works for the instrument, including two sonatas for viola and piano. What is considered one of the greatest works of the English composer Arnold Bax was a viola sonata written in the early 1920s, and he went on to write other works featuring the viola. Bax wrote a concert piece for viola and piano, a fantasy sonata for viola and harp. He also wrote a piece called Legend for Viola and Piano.

The viola is similar in shape to the violin, though a little larger, and occupies the middle position among the stringed instruments of the violin family, between the violin and cello. The tone of the instrument is thicker than that of the violin and the mood can be darker, often forming a good combination with the bassoon or the clarinet. The viola’s four strings are tuned at intervals of a perfect fifth and the range corresponds to the alto voice in the violin family.

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    • Piano is usually the accompanying instrument for a viola sonata.
      By: BlueSkyImages
      Piano is usually the accompanying instrument for a viola sonata.