Not Quite Cinderella: The Viola in Late-Georgian Britain
Britain during the late Georgian era was fertile ground for the viola as a serious chamber and solo instrument – and witnessed a flourishing in standards of playing and making, writes Kevin MacDonald
Some time in the late 1760s, William Flackton strolled into ‘all the Music Shops in London’ enquiring about viola sonatas, but ‘none were to be found, neither was it known by them that any were ever published’. Thus states the preface of Flackton’s original 1770 edition of his own tenor solos (viola sonatas), an important landmark in the development of the viola as a solo instrument, at the beginning of a decade that would witness the turning of the tide for the once-termed ‘Cinderella’ of stringed instruments.
The galant period and subsequent age of revolution saw a proliferation of new forms of chamber music – quartets and string duos in particular – which began to foreground the tenor (as the viola was then termed in the anglophone world). There is also much more solo music for the violist from this period than is commonly played in concert today – with pieces beyond the familiar duos and Sinfonia concertante of Mozart being largely confined to examinations, auditions or near obscurity. The rich works of Stamitz, Rolla and Hoffmeister, among others, come to mind. In the later Georgian era, both local Britons and continental expatriates played an important part in the gradual emergence of the viola, in terms of music and lutherie…