To be frank, there has never been much love for the viola (or violists). As an erstwhile violist I would get two types of reactions about my instrument of choice: from non-musicians, “what’s a viola?” and from musicians… well just Google “viola jokes” and it will return some real doozies:
How do you keep your violin from getting stolen?
Put it in a viola case.
Why don’t violists play hide and seek?
Because no one will look for them.
What do you call the cadenza in a viola concerto?
How is a symphony viola section like the Beatles?
Neither has played together for years.
Why is a viola like a grenade?
When you hear it, it’s too late!
The Grove Music Online entry on the viola cites that the “instrument of the middle” even back in 1752 was, as noted by J.J. Quantz (Versuch, 1752), perceived as
“…of little importance in the musical establishment. The reason may well be that it is often played by persons who are either still beginners in the ensemble or have no particular gifts with which to distinguish themselves on the violin, or that the instrument yields all too few advantages to its players, so that able people are not easily persuaded to take it up. I maintain, however, that if the entire accompaniment is to be without defect, the violist must be just as able as the second violinist.”
I get it; the viola does look a lot like a violin, a viola solo is rare, the parts written for it are often deemed as mundane accompaniments, and many transposed pieces for the viola are awkwardly executed. I will admit that I did not dream of becoming a violist at first; in fact the only reason I made the transition was because my string ensemble desperately needed viola players. However, I quickly fell in love with its darker and richer tones, a quality which has been increasingly appreciated by composers, performers, and audiences.
For the first 250 or so years of its existence, solo viola compositions were few and far between. However a notable increase was seen in the 19th century with famed pieces such as The Viola Concerto in D by Carl Stamitz. The 20th century also saw an increase in solo pieces which may have been inspired by a wave of world class violists such as Paul Hindemith or William Primrose. More recently, conductor John Williams premiered his Concerto for Viola and Orchestra in 2007, and Nicholas Hersh arranged and conducted Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody for Orchestra and Solo Viola for the Indiana University Studio Orchestra.
With an array of beloved string quartets and quintets, the viola is “most at home” with chamber music. It is through this type of music that the viola (and violist) is often used to the fullest. Many works by “classical” greats such as Beethoven and Shostakovich reveal the viola’s register and timbre in both solo and polyphonic contexts. Duets are another arena that violists revel in. For example, Halvorsen’s Passcaglia for Violin and Viola (based on a theme by Handel) has become one of the more celebrated works in the viola’s repertoire. It was famously performed by Itzhak Perlman (violin) and Pinchas Zukerman (viola) in 1997, which you can see in the video below. Note the witty repartee between Perlman and Zukerman at the beginning of the video, with Zukerman proclaiming “a violin is easy to play. But a viola is something special!”
One time, during a string ensemble rehearsal of Bach’s Air on a G String, our teacher said, “I just want to hear the viola part on its own, as it is the most beautiful part of the piece.” After we gladly performed our part for our fellow players, rehearsal resumed with the next piece, one in which the viola section served as accompaniment, playing yet another banal alto part (choral singers will understand). But that’s okay, if violists are anything we’re team players.