This is my first post at violinist.com. I've been happy to see a strong viola presence on violinist.com, as I think there is more that unites us than divides us!
One such area I'd like to focus on in this post is etudes. Though there are very fine viola-specific etudes by Campagnoli, Fuchs, etc., they are often used in conjunction with the core etude repertoire: Wohlfahrt, Kayser, Kreutzer, Rode, Gavinies, Paganini etc., which is the exact same repertoire violinists use.
I would argue that these are not even transcriptions when played on the viola. In the more than five hundred years the viola has been around, it has only been possible to get a degree in viola performance in the past one hundred. The standard route was to learn first the violin and then switch later. Certain well-known viola teachers in the 20th century wouldn't accept students who didn't have solid training on the violin first.
In recent times there are many examples of successful violists who have started on the viola, of course, but the violin technical repertoire is still used, just a fifth lower. Paganini used his caprices as etudes; other violinists would take hotel rooms next to his, and they could hear him quietly playing through them. When Paganini played the viola, it seems highly unlikely to me that he warmed up on different material, which he never published. It seems most logical to me that he played his caprices, just a fifth lower. It is for this reason I don't view them as transcriptions and believe viola players have just as much right to them as violinists.
A controversial statement, but in my view the technique-- using the word in a broad sense--- for the violin and the viola is entirely the same. Vibrato is vibrato. You might alter your vibrato when going from the violin to the viola, but it is still basically the same thing. Certain techniques might even be altered in going from a bright, responsive viola to a darker, less-responsive one. Adjustments will always be made, still the basic techniques are all the same.
Then there is the issue of practicality. Many violinists switch to viola, and many people who play primarily one instrument will also teach the other. To focus only on viola etudes would seem to me to be shutting a lot of doors. Furthermore, students switch teachers. I think it's great that there's a fairly standardized progression of material that can be continued with someone else.
A great etude is in certain ways the opposite of a great show piece. Novacek's Perpetual Motion is an example of a great show piece. It sounds harder than it is. The composer cleverly kept going back to open strings for the low notes. Compare that to Paganini's 12th Caprice, where the low note you keep going back to is the first finger in half-position, making the upper notes a reach of a tenth and at times even a twelfth. Think how much easier that would be down a half-step! To a non-string player, the huge difference in difficulty isn't entirely obvious. But for the string player, there is great value in that caprice precisely because it's so difficult!
There is some overlap between etudes and show pieces that should be acknowledged. About a third of the Paganini Caprices are popular as show pieces. Before Ruggiero Ricci made the first complete recording on violin of all 24 Caprices, and before Emanuel Vardi (with whom I studied) made the first complete recording of them on viola (both mid 20th Century releases), simplifications were common to turn specific caprices into show pieces. Today this is less so, though it still happens from time to time.
As technical studies, the simplifications make no sense. A study in fingered octaves in high registers (Paganini 3), loses its raison d'etre when simplified to octaves with 1 and 4 in the lower positions with only the lower note trilled. Changing 4-octave arpeggios into 3-octave ones, tenths into thirds, fingered octaves into regular octaves etc. may make sense in the transcription of pure concert music, but in technical material, this of course removes the challenges, defeating the purpose of the study.
The greatest overlap is of course in the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, which is valuable entirely as pure music and as material for technical development. Jascha Heifetz called the Sonatas and Partitas 'the bible' (and the only known solo performance he gave on viola was of the Chaconne from the 2nd Partita.) Others including Oistrakh referred to the Paganini Caprices as 'the bible', while Menuhin was most diplomatic when he called Bach the Old Testament and Paganini the New!
As a composer, it's great to have all of these techniques available. I've used double-octave trills in my writing, unisons, tenths, and all sorts of difficult techniques found in our etudes. It allows more possibilities for different colors and effects. Though I also play the violin, the viola has been my central focus both as a performer and composer. As a composer I see great differences between the viola and violin, but as a performer I wouldn't want to see those differences exaggerated. The etudes of the violin repertoire are just as much for violists, and in my opinion it should (and will) stay that way.
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