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The Key to a Generous Gift

It is no doubt widely known that, compared to that available to violinists, the repertoire of the solo viola player (how telling that there is no single-word noun for this species of musician) is somewhat attenuated. Violin-playing cynics might postulate that this is because their viola-playing counterparts cannot be trusted with the great works, and I have no wish to question their wisdom. A fairer explanation is probably that the range of the viola is better suited to ensemble music and is not flattered by the show-stopping demands of the violin concerto corpus. We do however have some gems, and one of these is Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G Major. Whether Telemann was moved to compose this work of glorious pastoral innocence by pity for the neglected viola player we cannot be sure. Hard-hearted though is the viola player who feels patronised by such a generous gift to his repertoire, for Telemann’s work comprises four movements of such simple pleasure that it is impossible to feel for it anything but the deepest goodwill.

There are several aspects to Telemann’s achievement, but it is worth considering briefly one of the less obvious ones, and that is key. Because the lesson of most Western music is that the listener should not get too attached to hearing something in any one key, because it will turn up in a completely different one soon enough, it might seem counter-intuitive that the composer’s choice of tonality can have any great bearing on musical outcomes. Yet the fact that we can identify composers as having a propensity to write in certain keys would suggest that tonality is far from arbitrary. Bach for instance had a fondness for B Minor, while Elgar’s liking for E Minor has retrospectively imbued that key with a distinctly English flavour. Beethoven meanwhile had keys for different occasions: C Minor (the “fist-shaking“ key) for works of drama and emotional intensity, E Flat Major (the “heroic” key) for moments of grandeur, and F Major for more relaxing occasions. Much of the delight to be obtained from Telemann’s Viola Concerto can be traced back to its G Major tonality. For G Major is a key of quiet confidence, a key which is at once undemonstrative and satisfyingly uncomplicated, like a loyal friend whose affection need not be expressly acknowledged, and as such literally goes without saying. In this sense it is perfectly suited for the viola, but in it the viola player also finds practical advantages: the fact that the lowest three strings of the viola represent the subdominant, the tonic and the dominant of G Major presents the viola player with the perfect opportunity to show off the sonorous beauty of his lower register with relative economy of effort.

It is no surprise then that Telemann’s Viola Concerto is so popular among viola players; it is a pleasure both to play and to listen to. And, as the cynical violinist might say, it is not as if we have much else to play.

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