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Orchestral Tales: the viola

Paolo Pietropaolo

If you take the most famous solos for a given instrument of the orchestra, you’ll find a vivid character emerges — a character with a magical story to tell. That’s the idea behind Orchestral Tales, Season 3 of the award-winning Signature Series.

To hear the viola’s tale, click on the Soundcloud play button below. Follow along with the pop-up comments to find out what composition is playing, or scroll down for a complete list.

Read more about the viola’s characteristics below.


Orchestral section:


Patron instrument of:

Introverts, pacifists, composers.

Viola-like fictional characters:

- Samwell Tarly, from Game of Thrones.
- Detective Lester Freamon, from The Wire.

1 viola clip to watch before you die:

This is the sound of $45 million:

3 immortal viola moments in pop culture:

1. The haunting lament of John Cale’s electric viola in “Venus in Furs” by the Velvet Underground.

2. The Beatles, “Hello, Goodbye” (featuring two violas played by Kenneth Essex and Leo Birnbaum).

3. Jake the Dog on the animated series Adventure Time has many magical powers, including playing the viola.

1 reason to play the viola:

It’s the instrument closest in register to the human voice.

Famous violists you should know about:

- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Ludwig van Beethoven
- Joseph Haydn
- Franz Schubert
- Antonín Dvořák
- Benjamin Britten
- Jimi Hendrix
- Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist of Radiohead

Pieces heard in The Viola’s Tale (in order of first appearance):

- Beethoven: Symphony No. 7, second movement
- Mahler: Symphony No. 1, fourth movement
- Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5, first movement
- Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante, second movement
- Alberto Ginastera: Variaciones concertantes
- Brahms: A German Requiem, first movement
- Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6, first movement
- Weber: “Einst träumte”, from Der Freischütz
- Britten: Passacaglia from Peter Grimes
- Berlioz: Harold in Italy, first movement
- Ernest Bloch: Suite Hébraïque, first movement
- Elgar: “Variation X: Dorabella”, from Enigma Variations
- Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela

Special thanks to Larry Blackman, longtime violist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

Meet all of the instruments.