Are you wondering which are the famous viola solos? Then you are on the right way because at least you are not one of those who ask “are there any viola solos?” (let alone famous ones…)
First of all we have to make this clear: what do you mean with viola solos?
A solo can be either a composition where only one performer plays (with nobody else around), or a composition where one or more performers play the most important role in a work, with some accompaniment (usually piano or orchestra). These are generally called sonata, or concerto.
Then there are some viola solos which are not sonatas or concertos but are solos within a major composition not intended for viola. For example, there are some famous viola solos in the opera and ballet repertoire, where the principal viola in the orchestra is required to play solo. There are also some quite famous viola solos in symphonic repertoire, where it is the whole viola section that plays the solo, that is, the main line.
As to orchestra solos, Berlioz, in the section about the viola of his Treatise on instrumentation and orchestration, pointed out the special characteristic of the viola sound and the best ways to use the violas to obtain very good effects, like using violas and cellos together as Beethoven did in his 5th Symphony.
Here you’ll find some works that are the most famous viola solos. This doesn’t at all mean they are the best ones or the only existing viola solos. Actually, the list of viola solos is much longer than most people would imagine (in fact, a gentleman called Franz Zeyringer made a hugely admirable job and compiled a whole book of viola compositions, Literatur für Viola. In case you fancy having a look at it, sometimes it is available for purchase here).
Here is our, let’s say, top 20 list (actually, a few more). You can read more about some works by clicking on the title or buy sheet music or CDs. The titles below are original for viola, also see all solos including transcriptions.
So, next time you listen to some of these famous orchestral compositions, you can pay a bit of extra attention to catch the viola (or violas)!
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"As the greatest expert and judge of harmony,
he liked best to play the viola,
with appropriate loudness and softness"
C.P.E. Bach about his father J.S. Bach