‘On Playing the Viola,’ Radio 3 series The Essay, July 2008

For Radio 3 The Essay

The first money I ever earned was in Westminster Abbey. I was seventeen and got five pounds for playing viola in a Bach Brandenburg Concerto. I started to look quite differently at this fragile, heavy thing which I’d been responsible for since I was thirteen, lugging it onto the bus, the tube and for a half-hour walk to school.

The viola, the middle member of the violin family, has things in common with each of its more glamorous siblings, the violin and cello. It hasn’t got the brilliance of the violin, the power of the cello. You hold it under the chin like a violin, but it’s much bigger. There’s no standard size – violas are anarchic. They are a fifth lower than the fiddle, duskier, heavier in feel as well as look. They have the same strings as a cello but an octave higher – and are much smaller.

So viola is about being between. Being outshone, being inside and covert. It is the supporter, the harmonizer. Smokier, muted and mellow beside the flash and glory of the fiddle. Softer and shyer, more internal, than the confident bass baritone of a cello.

In the orchestra you hear the top violins, and the cello, male to the fiddle’s female, dark to the violin light.

In a string quartet, a viola answers both – intermittently. The shadower, the answerer.

One important thing, then, about viola is being shy.

Which at thirteen, when I began it, I was. Very.

In orchestras, the viola is despised by the more upmarket strings. Viola jokes are invented by violinists. Here are the clichés.

Viola players play out of tune and can’t count, so they are never in the right place. Since they dcan’t count they don’t keep time: several violas playing in unison is a contradiction in terms. Anyway they are so timid they prefer not to be heard, especially in a solo passage and if they have to be heard they never use the whole bow to make a good loud sound.

So you get jokes like this –

– Why do viola players stand for ages outside their own houses?

– They can’t find the key and never know when to come in.

– How was counterpoint invented?

– By 2 viola players playing the same tune.

How do you get a viola section to play spiccato?

(Spiccato is little short soft bumpy bow, like staccato but softer.)

– Write a long note and put “solo” above it.

But there’s much more to the viola than violinists’ clichés. Above all, the string quartet, which Haydn pioneered.

Haydn was a viola player, and viola has been instrument of choice for any composer who played a stringed instrument, because it is all about listening. Playing viola in an orchestra is standing in the heart of the rustling forest.

CPE Bach said his father Johann Sebastian “heard the slightest wrong note, even in the largest combination. As the greatest expert and judge of harmony, he liked best to play the viola.”

Bach was followed by composer musicians through succeeding centuries. Schubert played viola in family quartets, Dvorak was a professional viola player, Beethoven, Mendelssohn,. Britten, Frank Bridge, Hindemith and Vaughan Williams all played viola. Jimi Hendrix began his musical career on it.

The viola entered the nineteenth century mainly as a responsive, supporting voice. The violin has a history of showing off, otherwise known as virtuoso. The viola cannot rise above an orchestra – and yet from 1740, people like Telemann did write viola concertos. And in 1833 Paganini, apotheosis of show-off glitter, bought a Strad viola and asked Berlioz to write a viola concerto.

When he saw what Berlioz did first he backed off. There was too much orchestra! Why all these rests?! He wanted to be playing all the time, as in a violin concerto.

Paganini dropped out but Berlioz went on and wrote Harold In Italy.

“I wanted to make the viola a melancholy dreamer in the manner of Byron’s Childe-Harold,” he said. It is an extraordinary, very literary bit of music. His viola soloist, who represents Harold’s character, repeats its opening phrase hesitantly, gaining confidence until the melody spills out. It is a dramatic, darkly responsive voice: the quintessential romantic hero.

The first performance was in 1834. When Paganini heard it, in 1838, he dragged Berlioz up on stage, knelt, kissed his hand – and then sent him 20,000 francs.

In dragging the viola into the virtuoso stage, Berlioz was responding to the zeitgeist – the Romantic spotlight on the inner self. The self-obsessed twentieth century added to that with viola concertos from Bartok and Walton, and Britten’s unaccompanied solos.

But the viola doesn’t need limelight. It has other things to do, like relating. And the great genius who showed the world how to love the viola as it should be loved, and taught us its wonderful possibilities of relationship, was Mozart.

Mozart too played viola. His own is on show in the house where he was born. He wrote fabulous viola parts in chamber music, the Trio for clarinet, viola and piano, the quartets, and extraordinary quintets in which he used two violas (not, like other composers, two cellos), where the first viola is as flamboyant and wild as the first fiddle. And in his Sinfonia Concertante the violin and viola soloists stand alone like Tony and Maria on a darkened stage with other people dancing all round them as they make love through the different moods of the succeeding movements.

That’s the thing. The viola stands for making music with other people. Making love, if you like.

At 13, I knew none of this. You never know how learning something – a language, an instrument, a sport, a game – is going to affect your life.

In fact, it was surprising it didn’t happen to me sooner. My parents met through music. My mother played clarinet and piano, my father was a cellist from a musical family in the Schubertian tradition. His grandfather was a concert pianist at the Leipzig Conservatoire and then came to York where he played with the York symphony orchestra. His son, my grandfather, was headmaster of Carlisle Grammar school and made the boys, masters and his own family learn string instruments. My dad and his brother William continued that tradition in their own families.

I was the oldest of five. I learned piano doggedly till I was 13 when my dad came to a school concert and the music teacher told him the orchestra needed violas.

My musical life was decided. A man of deep conviction, my dad decided, as his father had before him, that all his children would learn stringed instruments.

For me, the viola, or my first brother the cello. Playing quartets in town, my dad met a young violinist and asked her to teach his three youngest.

That, as far as I know, was how Sheila Nelson began her teaching career. Every Sunday, our house was filled with Sheila teaching children violin and string quartets. These days, in sheet music shops, Sheila Nelson fills a longer shelf than Beethoven. Much later, I learned a lot from listening to Sheila teach my daughter, until my daughter kicked me out of lessons and forbade me to accompany her practising.

My uncle, a viola player in the BBC Concert Orchestra, was also an inspired teacher. At his 80th birthday there were hundreds of us, family, other amateurs and professionals, all playing Strauss’s Metamorphosen.

Because I started viola late, I grew up slightly at an angle to the wonderful and generous international community of chamber music players, where amateur and professional overlap, where children are taught, violins lent, music lent. The world of the music stand and treasured music parts. But in my twenties, doing academic research and writing poems, I went round Europe with my viola, phoning people in Prague, Berlin, Paris or Crete, wherever I was, who belonged to the International Amateur Chamber Music Players Association, to play with them.

These days, I’ve transferred this sense of community to the international community of poets. With poets too, your relation to your instrument is the first thing. Through that, you get together with other people who play the same tune. When I researched a book on wild tigers. I did a poetry reading in the country I was researching, before I went into the forest, to get a different sense of the place where the tigers lived. There are poets everywhere. Sumatra, Vladivostock, Trivandrum, Shanghai – I read in them all. As violas relate to other instruments, so poets relate to what they see and feel Ok with other poets doing the same.

Up to Westminster Abbey, what the viola meant was practising – and guilt when I didn’t. The music, I took for granted. I didn’t realize what I was being given. There was that boring, guilt inducing thing, practicing, which children hate – but you have to do, to get good enough to play.

I never did enough. But even so, the point of music for me ever since has been doing it with other people.

In Westminster Abbey however, the viola also became a way of doing what I’d never done before: earn money.

These days, what I earn money for is writing. But in a way it is the viola still. The inner voice. Something thing you carry round with you, heavy, awkward, fragile. A thing on which strings sometimes break and you have to wrestle with the tuning. It will behave differently in different places according to temperature and damp. It marks you out, not in a particularly comfortable way, and you worry about it all the time because it’s valuable.

That’s writing for you.

But I had another musical identity, not recognized in my chamber music focussed household.

My heart, if I had really followed and understood it, was in singing and that, of course, fed into writing too.

The person who helped me, to whom I am eternally grateful, was the Jamaican piano teacher I had when I was 7. Her name was Olive Lewin. I don’t think I had her for long. She went back to Jamaica where she is now an eminent ethno-musicologist. She bribed me to practise piano by promising that she’d accompany me at the end of the lesson on anything I chose from the Penguin Song Book. I practised those alright! and still know them, still sing them when I meet other fok who know them too. I also sang in choirs. I first heard Emma Kirkby’s voice in an Oxford chapel, and looked in amazement at the small, redhaired girl beside me. Living in Crete I sang in the Heraklion town choir. The women wore long serge skirts and we had to sing Handel’s Messiah in Greek, in a heat wave of 90 degrees, at the temperature of roasting chicken. I’ve never seen so many women take their clothes off so fast, afterwards.

So, if you transferred my musical life to my writing, I’m schizophrenic. My singing voice is high: I take the top part, very different from the inner voice of the viola. But that’s writing too. Listening to the middle of the forest, the viola voice of the inner self, is vital. But so is bringing it out, and putting your head above the parapet to sing the top line.