When Brahms gave the violas the spotlight (and the violins a day off)

January 8, 2014
Photo: Girl with viola

What's the difference between a viola and a trampoline?

You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.

What's the difference between a viola and a coffin?

The coffin has the dead person on the inside.

Johannes Brahms, though, was dead serious about the lovely viola and he respectfully gave the instrument a very special place in the repertory.

When he composed his two masterful string quintets late in life, Brahms added an extra part for the viola, instead of using another cello. (This wasn't unheard of. While Boccherini and Schubert famously opted for the extra cello in their quintets, Mendelssohn, Dvorak and, most famously, Mozart all opted for the second viola.)

And when he composed his “Orchestral Serenade No. 2,” the composer  found something so special about the viola that he sent all the violins packing. He added extra violas in their stead. 

No joke.

Without the high, silvery voice of the violin, the music in “Orchestral Serenade No. 2” emerges with a darker, richer, somewhat autumnal timbre.


You can also hear the difference in this unique Brahms "un-violin" Serenade No. 2 when we play it on Thursday at the bottom of the 2 p.m. hour on CPR Classical.  Listen online at cprclassical.org.

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