Part of the string family, the viola can be thought of as the bigger cousin of the violin. Though practically identical, the sound of the viola is lower and less piercing than that of the violin. It is also constructed from various types of wood and is played by drawing a bow across its four strings (C, G, D, and A). There are generally 12 violists in a section.
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A clef is a symbol which appears at the beginning of a musical staff and tells a musician which note is found on where on the staff. Violinists generally read music in treble clef, and cellists in bass clef. Viola parts are generally written in alto clef, which indicates the middle C as the middle line of the staff. This is because its register sits between that of the violin, who plays in a higher register, and the cello, whose register is lower.
In the first two excerpts, the melodies played by the viola section are accompanied by the sound of plucked strings: In the Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók, the plucking sound is made by two harpists, whereas in the second excerpt from Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, the pizzicatos are played by the cello and bass section. The theme played by the violas in the first two excerpts is sweet and songlike, but is more aggressive in the third excerpt, from the Symphony No. 8 by Dmitri Shostakovich, the bows of the viola players seeming to bite into each note.
Concerto for Orchestra: IV. Intermezzo interrotto: Allegretto
Symphony No. 4, “Romantic”: II. Andante quasi allegretto
Symphony No. 8, “Stalingrad”: III. Allegro non troppo