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Life before Telemann: Andrew Justice discusses the untold riches of the Baroque viola repertoire.

When people ask me what I play and I tell them Baroque viola, it’s always interesting to see their reaction: casual listeners of classical music will often feign some polite understanding or appreciation, and a few will mention Brandenburg 6. Meanwhile, fellow musicians usually respond as if I had just admitted to being the world’s foremost authority on the music of Mozart’s lesser-known cousin Bill!

Yes: I am a “full-time” Baroque violist.

Of course, I don’t make a living solely off of being a Baroque violist (although I know of a select few who actually do): my day job is music librarianship, which enables me to be more selective with the performance opportunities I pursue– a very fortunate situation indeed.

How I became acquainted with the world of performance practice was pretty standard: my Master’s program required one term of Collegium Musicum. By the second or third class meeting, I realized that the techniques of earlier music caused me to play with less tension and the musical approaches to phrasing and ensemble performance were right up my alley.

Combining that with a growing sense of “how in the world am I going to make a living as a freelance performer and teacher” over the course of my Master’s program, I decided after graduation that I wanted to focus exclusively on performing earlier works using historical approaches. At the same time, my interest in music history and how it intermingles with those techniques motivated me to study musicology at the doctoral level.

Suffice it to say that it didn’t work: the predominant musicological attitude of “Publish or Perish,” and the ensuing lack of emphasis on teaching (and certainly performance,) disillusioned me right out my coursework after only one year. Fortunately, I eventually realized that what I really enjoyed about my year of musicology was all the time I spent in the music library, regardless of content or outcome.

So I ended up getting a job at the Cornell music library and completed a Master’s of Library Science from Syracuse (mostly online). I came to UNT in February 2007 as Music Librarian for Audio and Digital Services and was promoted to Associate Head Music Librarian in 2013; by the time you read this in early 2016, I will have taken up my new post as Head of the Music Library at the University of Southern California.

Working in a library is obviously a huge benefit to my performing career, and vice versa: I can easily find music to play or program and my various gigs introduce me to new repertoire, scholarly studies, recordings and other materials to seek out for my library’s collection.

It also enables me to observe certain trends among college music students, one of which I’ll begin to address with this blog post: the prevalent belief that viola music basically doesn’t exist before the Telemann concerto.

While it’s true that we count this piece as the earliest well-known example of solo writing for our instrument, it is probably not the first and definitely not the only extant resource for understanding the viola in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

First, it’s important to realize that how most of us are taught to think about viola repertoire tends to be a result of the late nineteenth- and twentieth-century “conservatory to concert hall” mindset, where one’s worth as a performer leans more toward how accurately you can play the Prelude and Fugue from the  Bach C-minor Solo Suite than how you contribute an excellent viola voice to Brahms’ Op. 51 Quartet of the same key.

I think this mentality is changing, but at a glacial rate: as long as we can trace our pedagogical tree back to Auer or Joachim or even Corelli, we will probably continue adhering to this solo-centric tradition…or at least until professional concert audiences are regularly outnumbered by the number of performers on stage.

So if the general idea of the viola “coming into its own” as a solo instrument doesn’t really exist until the Brahms sonatas (and even those are problematic: clarinet), how then does it make sense to retroactively impose a twentieth-century notion onto music of 200 or 300 years prior?

Clearly, Stamitz and Rolla didn’t approach the viola in the same manner as Dvořák or Hindemith. However, to go back even further in time from the first two means that one must redefine what a violist (and indeed, the other members of the violin family) actually was in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century string writing.

Our instrument family, alongside that of the viola da gamba, has an early history in the Renaissance-era courts of Italy as a quiet inner voice belonging in a chamber ensemble– the “musique de chambre”– played indoors, in contrast to the militaristic pomp of loud exterior ensembles which included shawms, brass, and drums.

As the seventeenth century developed, ensemble compositions appear by composers like Giovanni Paolo Cima, Dario Castello, and Giovanni Battista Fontana for interchangeable numbers and ranges of instruments…it’s not until later with Corelli and Vivaldi that our instrumental voices become codified into “The Orchestra”.

There is a fair amount of documentary evidence (treatises, employment records, etc.) to support the notion that, if a seventeenth-century violist was available to play a part (which may or may not have laid comfortably on the instrument, to say nothing of clef), they probably did so.

Scholars and performance practitioners alike mostly agree: they worked with what they had.

Exploring this repertoire, playing with ensembles in the alto/tenor role but also reading and transposing music clearly for soprano or bass voices (Uccellini sonatas work quite nicely, as does playing along with basso continuo lines), these are ways of wrapping one’s head around early Baroque string writing.

Moving into the eighteenth century, studying the dedicated viola lines of Corelli, Muffat, and Buxtehude opens up a world of how the “instrument of the middle” can actually drive the overall ensemble…and this is not to mention the orchestral music of Lully!

But seriously: spend some time listening to and studying the scores of Corelli’s Op. 6 concerti grossi, paying close attention to the viola line – it’s not a third violin and it’s not a little cello, the structure would simply fall apart without that voice and I believe it’s because those pieces were written by a string player who keenly understood how the different voices of the violin family did and could work.

The second major factor in this discussion is: how to find repertoire and resources, and I’ll lead off by saying that relying upon free online options like IMSLP is fine, but you’re only seeing part of the picture and you’re tacitly accepting editorial decisions which could be completely wrong.

Grove (also known as the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and/or Grove Music Online) should be a default resource for basically all of us. The articles in both the paper and online versions include comprehensive works lists and bibliographies, which nearly always outperform Wikipedia and other sources in their depth, breadth, and reliability. In the U.S., almost every library with a decent music collection should certainly allow you to access one or both versions.

In addition to Franz Zeyringer’s Literatur für Viola and the Primrose International Viola Archive at BYU, the most valuable resource I’ve found for Baroque- and Classical-era viola music is Michael Jappe’s Viola Bibliographie: das Repertoire für die historische Bratsche von 1649 bis nach 1800.

Organized alphabetically by composer, I usually start with the indexes which include subsections for Solo Viola, Violin-Viola Duos, Viola-Viola duos, etc. The entries for the compositions almost always include manuscript and publication information, as well as incipits; in the past 15 years, I have used this resource to find and program works at least 50 times.

Once you’ve found that something exists, then you need to figure out how to get your hands on it. After searching your local library catalog, you should definitely not forget about WorldCat, which is essentially the largest worldwide database for library holdings.

For any given item, WorldCat will sort the holding libraries so you can either plan a trip or make an Inter-Library Loan request – using the latter, be sure you note the OCLC number for the item, which will guarantee you get the right thing.

It’s extremely important to not give up on the research process, just because you can’t find a PDF of the piece for download within three minutes of searching. Current general thought tells us everything is digital, and that’s simply NOT true…especially when it comes to something as contentious (from a copyright standpoint) as music.

If you’re digging deeper than the Primrose or Katims editions of Bach suites (and you absolutely should, in my opinion) or that tired old Bärenreiter edition of Telemann, you’ll quickly start finding that it requires time spent in a library and/or employing some pretty serious critical thought.

But as the Italians and Spaniards say: vale la pena (it’s worth the pain). There is an entire galaxy of untapped material awaiting the violist who is curious about “life before Telemann”, and you don’t necessarily have to play with historical performance techniques to appreciate this repertoire.

Study scores/parts, listen to recordings, read about the people and places and trends; sink your teeth into it, and feel free to ask for a librarian’s help!


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