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The emperor is a violist

Luis Dias

I suppose I could call myself an accidental violist, and I am sure this is true for most musicians who play the viola in Goa and the rest of India.

My formal introduction to music learning was at the violin. All my major music achievements have been on this instrument. So why is it that, half a lifetime later, I found myself cradling its larger cousin, the viola, in my hands?

I became aware of the existence of violas and violists in Goa when I began playing in various string ensembles in my teens, and later with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra. But while I was aware of the differences (bigger, heavier instrument, tuned a fifth lower than a violin, read a different clef), somehow my curiosity did not extend to seriously trying out a viola myself, let alone taking it up.

But then in the 1990s I got employed in England, and a whole new world opened up. Orchestra rehearsals were much more intense and prolonged, and this is when I really got interested in the instrument. The choice of works (by Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Antonin Dvořák) also exposed me to the sheer rich timbre of the instrument, and the lush writing for it in orchestral and chamber music.

On one of my biannual return visits home, I dropped in at Furtados and bought myself a viola and took it back with me with the intention of learning to play it. But the demands of my medical career, and my violin playing in chamber groups and orchestras taking up the scant free time remaining, ensured that this happened at a plodding pace at best.

On returning to India, I auditioned in 2011 to play violin in an orchestra here. And when conductor Vijay Upadhyaya enquired if I’d be happy to take up the viola as there were no takers for those positions, I leapt at the chance. We had a concert in six weeks, and I knew it would give me the impetus I needed to really learn to read the alto clef and to find my way about the instrument.

Since then, my life has changed. Although I still get asked to play violin on occasion, I get called out much more as a violist when it comes to chamber and orchestral playing. That’s the wonderful thing about being a violist. You’re far more in demand than you would be as a violinist. Violinists are a dime a dozen.

The belief that only those who can’t cut it as violinists take up viola is so unjust. All the good violists in my circle are wonderful violinists as well. In fact, once you take up the viola, the violin seems like a facile instrument, as it suddenly feels so much smaller, and the shifts and stretches seem far easier. The great violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini knew this well. So did so many other violin pedagogues like Max Rostal and Oscar Shumsky. The great living violinists Pinchas Zukerman, Shlomo Mintz, and Maxim Vengerov play both with consummate ease, and have parallel careers as violists as well.

The viola and violists are the butt of many good-natured jokes (it is sometimes called ‘the Cinderella of the Orchestra’) on account no doubt of the unwieldiness of the instrument, its deeper tone (taking up the viola is often termed as “crossing over to the Dark Side”), the paucity of virtuoso writing for it, and the relatively simpler part writing for it in chamber and orchestral music compared to the violin.

Some of my favourite viola jokes: What’s the difference between a violist and a vacuum cleaner? You have to plug in a vacuum cleaner before it sucks!

What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians? A violist.

What’s the difference between a viola and a coffin? Coffins have dead people on the inside.

Why don’t violists play hide and seek? Because no-one would look for them.

How do you keep your violin from being stolen? Put it in a viola case.

But we are in extremely good company. You’d be surprised to learn how many great composers themselves preferred playing viola to violin in ensembles. Let’s start with the ‘big’ ones: Johann Sebastian Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote about his illustrious father: “As the greatest expert and judge of harmony, he liked best to play the viola, with appropriate loudness and softness”.

But there’s also Monteverdi, Johann Stamitz, Mendelssohn, Paganini, Dvořák, Vaughan Williams, Eduardo Lalo, Ottorino Respighi, Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge, Carl Nielsen, all the way to Miklós Rósza and Kenji Bunch. Hindemith was a very respectable violist in his own right, besides being a composer.

And just in case you needed further proof that the viola reigns supreme among instruments: it has recently come to light that Japan’s newest Emperor Naruhito also plays viola.

He succeeded to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1, 2019 following the abdication of his father, Emperor Akihito, making him Japan’s 126th emperor, according to the traditional order of succession.

He was born into an extremely musical family, with his father a cellist and his mother an extremely accomplished pianist.

He too began his introduction to music through the violin, while studying in Australia. But he decided to switch to viola, because he thought the violin “too much of a leader, too prominent” to suit his musical and personal tastes.

Naruhito once contributed an essay to a concert brochure in which he wrote:  “I’m starting to understand the role of viola, which doesn’t stand out, but (is needed because the) harmony becomes lonesome without it. … It’s a joy to have chosen the viola as a friend through which I could meet people and play music together.”

Toshio Shiraishi, a cellist and longtime friend of Naruhito through music, said in an interview that the Emperor’s choice of instrument, the viola, says a lot about the kind of man he is.

Naruhito is quite right when he refers to the viola’s vital contribution to the harmonic structure of a composition. In so much ensemble writing in general, the viola, far from being just another ‘layer’ in part-writing, is actually the glue that holds the composition together. Try listening to a Mozart string quartet or a Dvořák symphony without the viola line, and it becomes obvious. Dvořák and Vaughan Williams in particular wrote some wonderful orchestral parts for viola, and violists are eternally grateful for this.

And the vantage point in the orchestra is unique. The viola is close to the violins and the cellos, as well as to the woodwind and brass. I’ve learned so much about the genius of the great composers, their brilliant ensemble writing from this plum location.

Japan’s emperor sends out a powerful message through his viola of not needing to “stand out” or be “prominent” in order to make a vital difference. One couldn’t find a more meaningful contemporary champion of the instrument.

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