JS Bach’s Influence on the Viola throughout the Baroque Era

by Meredith Kufchak

During the Baroque Period, the viola da braccio rose in popularity and began to blossom into the versatile instrument that it is today.  Although the viola had existed since the 16th century, it was mainly used as a supporting instrument to accompany vocalists or other instruments. Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the first composers to write a significant composition featuring the viola. J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 transformed the role of the viola in Baroque music from a background harmony instrument into one that was capable of virtuosity by disregarding and inverting the prevalent instrumental hierarchy.

The majority of early viola parts were written for tenor violas, which were larger than a modern viola but still played on the shoulder, making them incredibly awkward and uncomfortable to play. Because of this, the popularity of tenor violas decreased and, although the large violas were produced throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, they eventually fell out of favor.1 The viola’s large, awkward size made it difficult to play, so composers were not inclined to write difficult parts for the viola. For these reasons, the viola’s role in music was either to play the harmony or to double the continuo.

The event that most constricted the growth of the viola as a solo instrument was the creation of the trio sonata, which was standardized by Corelli. Trio sonatas were most often composed for two violins with continuo, or two oboes, flutes, or cornets. This meant that the most popular form of chamber music in the Baroque period excluded the viola and also that composers failed to see the viola as a solo instrument. Another popular genre of music in early eighteenth-century Italy was the concerto grosso, which was standardized by Corelli and Vivaldi. The concerto grosso is scored for two groups of instruments, the concertino and the ripieno. The concertino was the small group of soloists, and the ripieno was the orchestral group that supported the soloists and sometimes doubled their parts to play as a full orchestral group. The instrumentation of Corelli’s concerti grossi was most often two violins, cello, and keyboard for the concertino, and two violins, viola, cello, and continuo for the ripieno. Before Corelli, it was typical to have two viola parts in the ripieno. However, the transition from five-part harmony to four-part harmony again diminished the demand for violists.

There are very few examples of solo works for the viola because they were not in high demand, but there are a few examples from the middle of the seventeenth century. The Florentine organist Nicholaus à Kempis published a Sonata for Violin and Viola in 1644. The Venetian organist Massimiliano Neri published a Viola Sonata in 1651. Another Sonata for Viola by Carlo Antonio Marino appeared late in the seventeenth century. In the second half of the century, there is evidence that some German trio sonatas did include a part for the viola and even that in the traditional trio sonata for two violins, it was preferred if the second violin part was instead played by a viola.2 In addition, Daniel Speer composed two trio sonatas for two violas and continuo in 1697 that he intended to be played by amateur violists. Opera arias were occasionally accompanied by a solo viola in late seventeenth-century Venice and early eighteenth-century Hamburg.3 Handel did this in his opera Almira, composed in 1705. The first ensemble piece with viola as part of the concertino was Locatelli’s concerto grosso in 1721.

J. S. Bach was among the first composers to realize the full potential of the viola.4 As an accomplished musician, Bach played the violin, viola, and most famously the organ. He was employed as a professional violinist and violist by the Duke of Weimar but left the position within a year to become a composer and organist for the church in Arnstadt. As a proficient violist, he understood the full technical capabilities of the viola and could see that it had potential beyond that of a harmony instrument. In addition, the viola was Bach’s favorite instrument to play in chamber music, because he enjoyed playing in the center of the harmony.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (BWV 1051) was written around the year 1718 and is thought to be the earliest of the Brandenburg Concertos.5 The instrumentation of the piece is two violas da braccio, two violas da gamba, violoncello, and “violone e cembalo” for the continuo. This instrumentation was unique for the time period, because in this Brandenburg concerto, the two violas have the melodic and most challenging parts. Although Bach does not designate a concertino or ripieno, the way the parts function is that the two violas da braccio and the violoncello have the important melodic and thematic material.6 However, Bach most likely did not intend for the work to be played like Vivaldi’s ripieno concertos were sometimes performed, with a small group of soloists alternating playing with the full orchestra. He more likely intended for it to be performed in a chamber-music style with one player to a part.7 It is also important to recognize that this is not a concerto for two violas. Rather, Bach titles the work Concerto 6to à due Viole da Braccio, due Viole da Gamba, Violoncello, Violone è Cembalo.8

The question remains then: Why did Bach choose the instrumentation that he did, with the violas da gamba in a more subordinate role to the violas da braccio? Up to this point in the history of music, the viola was a harmony instrument, while the gambas were more respected, playing a broad range from continuo to solo pieces, including playing in the concertino of concertos.9  Gamba players were often very skilled technically, so they played difficult parts. Bach himself wrote a viola da gamba sonata. The violoncello had also acquired more status as a solo instrument by the end of the seventeenth century and had been included in the concertino of concertos. The violin was immensely popular at the time, so it seems odd that out of all the instruments that are included in his Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, Bach gives the most important parts to the two violas da braccio and does not include any violins at all. He also gives the violas da gamba and violoncello a supporting role to the violas da braccio. This was an unusual voicing, because it flipped the instrumental hierarchy upside down and took out violins completely. He gave the instruments known for their solo capabilities and virtuosity an accompaniment role, and gave the violas da braccio, the least respected of all the instruments, the important solo roles.

The most likely explanation for why Bach chose the specific instrumentation is that he was simply writing for the musicians that were available.10 The Brandenburg Concertos were performed at the court of Prince Leopold of Köthen, who was Bach’s employer at the time. The prince preferred to play the viola da gamba, so when he played he would take the first seat and the court viola da gamba player, Christian Ferdinand Abel, would move to the second seat. Bach would have played the viola part as his preferred instrument, and the principal violinist, Joseph Spieβ, would have played the second viola part because it is unlikely that the court violists were capable of playing the difficult part. The cellist Christian Bernhard Linigke was also a very capable musician. This reasoning provides an explanation for the unique instrumentation and the roles that each instrument takes. Bach and the best violinist would play the virtuosic parts, as well as the cellist; the same cellist for whom Bach wrote the famous six cello suites. Prince Leopold was not as skilled a musician, so Bach wrote a less demanding part for the gambas. This idea that Bach wrote for the instrumentation that was available to him at a specific time is also consistent with the remaining five Brandenburg Concertos.11

Bach may have been after convenience when he chose the instrumentation of his Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, but the untraditional swap of roles between solo instruments and accompaniment instruments still had significant implications. It is not simply that Bach wrote virtuosic viola parts, or that he wrote simple accompanimental viola da gamba parts, because this had been done before, both by Bach and other composers. Rather, the significance is that he uses these two techniques simultaneously, upsetting the conventional roles of the gambas being superior to the violas da braccio.12  It was common for both the gambas and the violas da braccio to play ripieno roles, or for the gambas to play in the concertino while the violas played the ripieno, but it was very uncommon for the violas to play the concertino while the gambas played simple ripieno parts. He placed the violas da braccio above the violas da gamba in terms of importance and difficulty of parts.

Bach was not the only Baroque composer who wrote virtuosic music for the viola; although it could be argued that his Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 is the greatest masterpiece of the music written for violas in the Baroque period. Telemann was another prolific composer during the Baroque era who took a special interest in the viola. He wrote several trio sonatas for violin, viola, and continuo; a viola concerto; a concerto for two violas; and works for viola and keyboard. Vivaldi composed six viola d’amore concertos during his life. The next great composer for viola was Karl Stamitz, who wrote several viola concertos, the most famous of which is his Concerto in D Major for Viola and Orchestra, published in 1774, which brings us into the Classical era.13

J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 greatly influenced the role of the viola in the Baroque era by creating virtuosic melody parts that allowed violists and composers to realize the full potential of the instrument. He put the violas in a solo role above the violas da gamba and the violoncello, both of which were more traditionally solo instruments while the viola was seen as solely an accompaniment and harmony instrument. Bach’s concerto was a step toward the viola becoming a solo instrument, and although the viola was not instantly a successful solo instrument, more and more composers began to write virtuosic viola parts and solo pieces. Today the viola is no longer seen as simply a harmony instrument, but an instrument capable of great virtuosity.


1. Robin Stowell, The Early Violin and Viola: A Practical Guide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 34.

2. Maurice W. Riley, The History of the Viola (Ann Arbor: Braun-Brumfield, 1980), 105.

3. Wolfgang Hirschmann, preface to Telemann Concerto in G Major for Viola, Strings, and Basso continuo (Basel: Bärenreiter Kassel, 2002), 7.

4. Riley, The History of the Viola, 111.

5. Michael Thomas Roeder, A History of the Concerto (Portland: Amadeus Press, 1994), 95.

6. Norman Carrell, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (London: Scholarly Press, Inc., 1978), 110.

7. Arthur Hutchings, The Baroque Concerto (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978), 234.

8. Malcolm Boyd, Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 91.

9. Michael Marissen, The Social and Religious Designs of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University press, 1995), 56.

10. Boyd, Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos, 35.

11. Friedrich Smend, Bach in Köthen, trans. John Page (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985), 40.

12. Marissen, Social and Religious Designs, 57.

13. Riley, The History of the Viola, 120.

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