Merry Pranks: Becoming a violist

May 12, 2017, 2:45 PM · Although I've been playing the viola for quite a while, and have previously blogged about it, there are stages to becoming a violist. I picked up the instrument as an adult after a long break from music, thinking that I might have an smoother re-entry into the stringed-instrument-playing world as a violist than a violinist.

Well, for my first ~9 years, that wasn't quite true. And maybe more to the point, my subconscious was telling me something: I wasn't ready to give up being a violinist yet. I learned some solo pieces on the viola, and even a concerto movement. But when I first tried to play the viola in an orchestra, I lasted for one rehearsal before I went scurrying back to the violin section. And chamber music? Nope. I played violin there too.

Another couple of years and a move to California later, though, things have changed. And I think that finally, I have come into my own as a violist. I have many people to thank for this: private teachers past and present, conductors who believed in me, and friends who were willing to let me play the viola in their chamber groups. But in order not to embarrass anyone, I will distill it down to two musicians who are both well known and both dead: Richard Strauss and Franz Schubert.

Last December I joined the Nova Vista Symphony for their Holiday Magic concert, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I had been missing holiday music as an essential part of the season. And after the concert as we were standing around at the reception eating peppermint bark, the Music Director asked me, "are you going to play the next concert? We're going to play Till."

"What's Till?" I asked.

"Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks. It's a tone poem by Richard Strauss."


"Oh cool!" I said, naievely. I mean, I like Strauss. Beautiful Blue Danube Strauss and Also Sprach Zarathustra Strauss. But who or what is Till Eulenspeigel?

dpag_2011_till_eulenspiegelTill Eulenspiegel is a prankster character from German folklore. He has been around in different guises since the Middle Ages, always upsetting the apple cart in one picaresque way or another. According to our conductor, this piece is the first to set laughter to music. There is a 7-note phrase that begins sounding like "ha-ha-ha" and this phrase is repeated throughout the work in different contexts by every section of the orchestra. Read these excellent program notes by Paul Thomason to learn more.

But like the eponymous stories, this piece is not just a fluffy musical joke. It has a dark side, and in the case of me and my viola, the dark side was the fiendish technical difficulty of the piece. Wandering in and out of treble clef, with unconventional harmonies, accidentals, and rhythm and tempo changes galore, this was the most difficult thing I had ever played on the viola. The horn solo at the beginning is much more famous, and famously challenging, than anything in the viola part. Every section had its share, and we were struggling. It wasn't clear to me, especially at the beginning of the rehearsal cycle, just who was being pranked here. The orchestra? Or maybe the audience who was going to have to listen to us play this?

TillEulenspiegelViolaPartFingered This wouldn't actually be so hard if I had an E-string . . .

Community orchestras have a long rehearsal cycle for a reason, and I've been in enough of them now to know that usually, towards the end of that cycle, a minor miracle can occur, and things start to fall into place. That happened. I figured out how to finger the most difficult section. The conductor chose a good tempo and I stopped worrying about it going too fast. I watched this recording with the synchronized score multiple times to figure out where my part fit in with the rest of the notes I was hearing.

At the same time I was also playing Schubert with another orchestra and doing some chamber music reading on weekends with friends. And here I was sitting principal viola. Freaking out was not an option.

In fact, the controlled chaos and jarring harmonizations of "Till" were given a stark counterpoint in the second movement of Schubert's cello quintet, which I performed a week later. I had performed the first movement in the fall with the South Bay Philharmonic's chamber group, and for the next concert we moved on to the next movement. Both elegiac and peaceful, this movement has been called "a hymn which floats above the mortal sphere." With no conductor to complain to (or about), it was solely the responsibility of the five of us for how it came out. And with a successful performance of the first movement under our belts, we approached this movement with more confidence and less rehearsal time. Gene Huang, the first violinist, also played the Mendelssohn violin concerto on the same program, a feat that I'm still a little in awe of.

I'm writing this blog a couple of months after the fact, with a different Schubert chamber piece in my head and under my fingers, anticipating another concert this evening. And as I write, I'm listening to our recording of the quintet. While I would not trade my violin experiences for anything, I couldn't be happier that I learned to play the viola, because it gave me the opportunity to play this music.


May 13, 2017 at 08:17 PM · You write so well and draw your readers into this interesting challenging personal journey. Viola is central: it carries both joy and tragedy, pulling the sound into the middle core, as the heart of the orchestra. Thank you for writing this and your part in a wonderful concert last night!


May 14, 2017 at 12:09 AM · Good going, Karen! Although I played violin with a Scottish fiddle ensemble, my biggest thrill was (and still is) playing quartets as the violist. I'd love to play quintets but they'd have to be two-viola quintets. :-)

I'm glad the Nova Vista Symphony is working out.

May 14, 2017 at 12:11 AM · Karen Allendoerfer, welcome to the magic world of viola playing!

The image you posted with the wandering in and out of treble clef does look like a "viola player prank". It would make much more sense to notate the whole section in the treble clef. There is no reason to notate part of it in the alto clef. Did Richard Strauss really notate it that way and then the publisher didn't dare to publish it in a more sensible way, or was it the publisher that for some strange reason published it that way? Anyway, it is a weird way of making changes in clefs.

I am a viola player myself as well as a composer. When I studied instrumentation I learned that excessive clef changes simply makes it harder for the musician, adding unnecessary extra problems. And as a viola player I certainly prefer sensible clef changes when it is possible.

Anyway the music is absolutely great I must say.

May 14, 2017 at 12:28 AM · Lars, yeah, I don't know how Strauss notated it. What makes it so confusing is that it looks like it's going lower in pitch when it's actually staying the same or going higher. Even the pro viola coach that the orchestra hired for a sectional rehearsal thought this section was a bear. This was one of the times that I was certainly happy to have a violin background. Treble clef scares me much less than ledger lines!

May 14, 2017 at 12:34 AM · Francesca, yes, I am really coming to love quartets as the violist! And I'm probably going to play in a 2-viola quintet this summer.

Last night we had a performance of the first movement of Schubert No 14 "Death and the Maiden." (One of our cellists from this quintet couldn't make it this time so we were a quartet for this performance.) I had not fully appreciated Schubert until I played the viola. According to wikipedia, Schubert himself played the viola part in the premiere of Death and the Maiden, so I think he must have had a soft spot for viola and violists. And Mozart was a violist so he wrote good viola parts too.

May 14, 2017 at 01:23 AM · I really liked your video!

May 14, 2017 at 01:30 AM · Thanks John!

May 14, 2017 at 05:43 PM · Karen, you'll find that lots of composers were partial to the viola, including mozart. I just read that Paganini fell in love with the viola when he bought a Strad viola. The story of his commissioning of "Harold in Italy" (and dissatisfaction with it) is well known but it didn't impress me until I read about what influenced the commission.

BTW I didn't realize "Death and the Maiden" was a _quintet_! Arnold Steinhardt wrote in great detail about the Guarneri playing it and he never once mentioned that it was a quintet.

May 14, 2017 at 05:50 PM · And the Schubert--it's my life's dream to play it!

May 14, 2017 at 06:36 PM · Death and the Maiden is indeed a quartet. It's Schubert No. 14.

Sorry, the way I have been writing about all this is confusing. The group started as a quintet, playing Schubert's cello quintet in C major, Op. 163. This Schubert video here is the 2nd movement of that piece, with 2 cellos. I linked to our performance of the first movement above. We have only performed 2 movements so far, one per concert. These concerts were the Fall and Winter concerts of the South Bay Philharmonic. The videos take a while to get processed and posted.

For the concert I just had on Friday, the Spring Concert (which I will blog about shortly when the video is ready) one of the cellists couldn't make it so we couldn't just move on and play the 3rd movement of the cello quintet which was the original plan. Instead we decided to do a movement of the quartet No. 14 "Death and the Maiden." It will take a while, probably another 2 years, to get through both the quintet and the quartet, at the rate of one movement per concert.

May 15, 2017 at 03:45 PM · No, the D minor string quartet, D. 810, popularly known as "Death and the Maiden," has no opus number, but is referred to as quartet no. 14 in some publications. Opus numbers are intended to give a chronological view of a composer's output, and fail spectacularly at that role with Schubert, because most of his compositions have no opus number assigned, and the ones that do are all over the map in the chronology. This is why Otto Deutsch's D. numbers are generally used to uniquely identify Schubert compositions.

Quartet in A minor, "Rosamunde" op. 29, D. 804 was written in 1824, a mature work of great depth

Quartet in D minor, "D&tM" D. 810 was written in 1824, again, a mature work of great depth

Quartet in E-flat major, op. 125/1, D. 87 was written in 1813! Charming, but not at all in the same league as his work of a decade later

Quartet in B-flat major, op. 168, D. 112 was written in 1816. Contrary to what you might think from the opus number (in Schubert's case, the highest opus number is op. 173/6), another early work

Even with composers like Brahms, the opus number can be misleading. Take for example the well-known Piano trio op. 8 of Brahms. Op. 8 was assigned its op. number when Brahms was 20 or so, shortly after his famous meeting with Robert Schumann, but the work almost always heard as op. 8 was extensively reworked in the final years of his life, some 45 years later! Works written contemporaneously to that revised version have opus numbers of 110.

May 15, 2017 at 04:46 PM · That was a wonderful blog post, but I have to confess that as soon as I saw the words, "stages to becoming a violist," my first though was "denial, anger, bargaining ..."

May 15, 2017 at 05:28 PM · Bill, thanks for that detailed explanation.

I have an ancient Kalmus edition of Schubert Quartets that I inherited. On the back of the music, it says "1947 Outstanding Classic Chamber Works" and lists some prices, including entire sets of string quartets for $4.00 each and Bach Organ Works in 9 volumes for $2.25 each.

The Death and the Maiden Quartet is actually listed in this volume of mine as "Opus Posth. D Minor." The cellist who suggested we play it called it No. 14, which made it easy to find on YouTube, but which I confused with Opus. I changed it to "No." above in the comments.

But while we're on the subject do you know why the Trout Quintet is called that?

Paul--LOL! I think I've managed to find my way to acceptance :-)

May 16, 2017 at 05:42 AM · The piano quintet in A major, D. 667 is called the "Trout" because Schubert used as the theme of the variations movement his song "Die Forelle" D. 550.

Schubert borrowed from himself in this fashion at least 4 times that I can think of:

"Death and the Maiden," quartet D. 810 borrows from the lied by the same name, D. 531

the Trout quintet

the C major fantasy for violin and piano, D. 934 uses his lied "Sei mir gegrüsst" D. 741

the Wanderer fantasy for piano, D. 667 uses his lied "Der Wanderer" D. 489

He stole from the best :-)

The C major fantasy is for the violin what the Wanderer fantasy is for the piano - the most difficult of Schubert's works - though the piano part for the C major fantasy is probably second only to the Wanderer fantasy in difficulty! The lied and its variations are presented in A-flat major. The 19th century virtuoso August Wilhelmj prepared an edition of the work which seems very similar to Schubert's until you get to that section, which he felt would be better in A major! My favorite performance is by Josef Gingold and Robert Walter, available on YouTube.

May 16, 2017 at 07:52 PM · I feel your pain regarding gratuitous clef changes. I can handle it, but while doing so part of my mind is saying, "Why?" What's even more puzzling are the pieces where one section has the clef changes, while an identical reprise further on doesn't. What are these people thinking? (Or are they thinking?)

As for chamber music, our quartet already has a violist, so I get to recalibrate my fingers and play second violin...

May 17, 2017 at 06:56 PM · Karen - as someone who took up viola a few years ago after years of violin, your wonderful blog (as usual) speaks to me and is an inspiration. I am glad to hear that there is hope for me. Viola is my preference now for chamber music, but I am not ready yet to play it in my orchestra, although I have had some overtures from the viola section principal. I look forward to many good years of playing both instruments.

May 17, 2017 at 07:18 PM · Tom, yes, it was surprising to me that it took longer to feel comfortable playing viola in orchestra than it did with solo or chamber works.

Sometimes I love playing it in orchestra, but for reasons I wouldn't necessarily have expected: 1. Sitting right in front of the conductor and in the middle of things. 2. being close to the cellos and the woodwinds. 3. Players in viola sections are usually very down to earth and friendly; 4. It's nice to be needed, which you often are as a violist; 5. You contribute to the richness and fullness of the orchestra's sound. 6. The last one, the fact that once you finally feel comfortable reading the clef quickly you don't have to practice as much as you do on a violin I part, is a mixed blessing. Some viola parts are boring and/or weird to practice at home on your own, so you have to find ways to make your practice time more interesting. I find that playing along with recordings is almost essential for practicing many viola orchestral parts without losing my mind.

May 17, 2017 at 07:49 PM · Karen - with regard to your second reason, I still recall that one reason I was glad to switch from violin 2 to violin 1 many years ago was so that I would not have the piccolo player right next to me. Your suggestion for practicing viola orch parts with a recording is a good one which I will keep in mind if I decide to go that route.

May 18, 2017 at 07:40 PM · Practising with a recording is definitely a good thing. After a while you can even hear the viola part in the recording. And after all, being heard is one of the things we violists desperately long for...

May 19, 2017 at 04:08 AM · After my recent concert, a member of the audience told me, approvingly, that he could hear the viola section. I made sure that was a good thing, and he said it was.

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