There are so many composers whose last pieces were for the viola. Bartok died in the middle of writing his viola concerto. Shostakovich's last piece was his viola sonata. Bloch didn't finish his unaccompanied viola suite, and Reger had only begun his fourth solo suite. This leaves the composers' intentions as to even the actual notes unclear. (I've had composers joke with me that they didn't want to write a piece for viola because they were worried they'd die while writing it!)
Then there is a second category that creates confusion: transcriptions. Violists play more transcriptions because most of the biggest name composers from before the twentieth century didn't write much solo music for the viola--- and for the most casual of audiences, this is the music that's most popular. So we play Bach Cello (and Viola Pomposa) Suites, Bach Sonatas and Partitas and Paganini Caprices for violin, Schubert's Sonata for the Arpeggione, and Brahms' Clarinet Sonatas, just as a few examples from a much longer list.
As all of these pieces were written for other instruments, there is the issue of how much the material should be altered when transferred to the viola. In the case of the unaccompanied violin music, it can all just be played down a fifth (though I'm aware of simplified versions of some Paganini Caprices, I'm not aware of anyone doing that with the Sonatas and Partitas.) But it should be noted that the violin is the closest instrument to the viola.
When we get to the cello and arpeggione, other issues start to arise. The first four Bach Suites work 'as is' an octave up from the original, but no. 5 was actually written for lute so in order to preserve a remnant of that tuning, Bach had the A string tuned down to a G. If played on a viola in standard tuning, this necessitates a few changes to some chords. Much more problematic is the 6th Suite, written for a five-string viola pomposa. With the right viola and right acoustic, it *can* be played all up the octave, and I've done so a few times.... but it rarely is. (I'll admit that circumstances have to be *just right* for that to work; it is pushing things to the edge, as with the unarranged Paganini Caprices.) All other solutions for a four-string viola involve lowering octaves mid-movement here and there. Some versions stick with the original key of D, while some put the piece in G--- which, as long as you're going to alter the original material, might be the better solution.
So far I've discussed only *unaccompanied* music. In the case of the sonatas with piano, the piano parts are kept the same. For instruments whose range is below that of the viola's, this presents an insurmountable problem if your goal is to keep the original material entirely undisturbed. If you move everything up an octave, it won't relate in the same way to the piano part. If you only move up the sections that go below the range of the viola, then you've changed the shape of the solo line. Because of this, there are many versions of the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata, as everyone will come up with their own preferred solution. (There is even one I'm aware of that puts the entire piece in a different key.)
While Brahms himself did make arrangements of his Clarinet Sonatas for both violin and viola, we know he was not happy with how the viola arrangement (featuring a lot of lowered octaves) turned out. So you can hear many versions preserving either all or most of the material in the original clarinet octave, and you can hear many versions which keep much of the material lowered an octave with the argument that while it does change the shape of the line and how it relates to the piano part, it better fits the timbre of the viola.
Every viola and violist is different. I tend to prefer keeping as much of the original material as possible, which means playing high up on the viola. I know some think only the C string is what makes a viola different from a violin, but really all the strings have a different sound from the violin, and I quite like the sound of a viola A string high up (assuming it's the right instrument!)
Also, I knew much of this music before I ever took it up on viola. As a kid, I listened to my mother play the Arpeggione Sonata and the Sixth Suite on her cello--- and cellists usually play the material as is. For an audience already familiar with the music, the alterations will be obvious. However, many violists do learn this material on viola unaware of the changes in their editions and the other possibilities available to them.
I think another consideration is that some of this music isn't always used as concert music--- there are some Paganini Caprices that are more studies than concert pieces, and actually many wind and brass players play unaccompanied Bach as etudes. In these instances, obviously rewriting the material to fit the instrument defeats the purpose and challenge of learning it.
I think violinists and cellists don't struggle with these issues as much because transcriptions are not such a large part of their core repertoire and because for whatever reason not as many composers have died while writing their solo music! Because of this, violists have to be also to some extent composers---- because we're not just provided with a composer-sanctioned version of the notes to play from.Tweet
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