The viola is the stereotypical underdog of the string family. The occasional butt of lighthearted jokes, in the orchestra it often escapes the limelight. When the first violins claim the melody and soar into the sonic stratosphere, the violas provide a mellow and essential inner voice.
But this is only half the story. The viola comes with its own distinct voice and persona, and when it takes center stage, it has a lot to say. It’s the viola that boldly and spiritedly opens Antonin Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96, nicknamed the “American.” This is the piece Dvorak wrote in the Bohemian immigrant town of Spillville, Iowa during the summer of 1893. (The “New World” Symphony was completed the same year). In the final bars of the “American” Quartet‘s final movement, listen to the way the viola heroically holds its own with the first violin in this emphatically exuberant back and forth dialogue:
Interestingly, Dvorak spent his early years playing the viola in Bohemian dance bands, eventually becoming principal violist of the Czech Opera Orchestra. You can hear the complete “American” String Quartet here.
- Find the Cleveland Quartet’s recording, featured above: Amazon