During these early centuries a typical four-part ensemble would use violas to take both the alto and tenor registers, with some five-part ensembles requiring three violas. Whereas by the early part of the 18th century a typical four part ensemble would use just a single viola to take the middle ground.
The need for an improved instrument was more astutely observed in the later part of the century by violist Hermann Ritter (1849-1929), who developed, his large 'viola alta', initially made in collaboration with luthier Karl Adam Horlein (1829-1902) of Wurzburg, with a body length of some 19in.
Between 1550 and 1700, luthiers would make both "tenor" and "alto" violas. The tenor and alto instruments were usually tuned like the modern instrument (C-G-D-A) but the tenor instruments were longer.
Although the viola is probably the oldest instrument of the quartet, it has been the longest in coming into its own; and one feels, in reviewing its history in chamber music, that, unlike that of the violin and 'cello, it is, indeed, its life history. Many efforts have, it is true, have been made to establish it as a solo instrument, but these have been of recent years only; so, although it has always appeared in democratic numbers in the orchestra, its chief scope of utterance as a personal entity has been, and still is in chamber music, and the quartet in particular.
The viola is larger than the violin and is tuned a fifth lower. It plays an extremely important role in the orchestra, and is known as the alto voice of the string section. Mozart was particularly fond of the viola, writing viola parts that demonstrate its unique and rather special sound.
Viola parts were usually kept within the limits of the first position, and only occasionally strayed beyond the upper E which lies within reach of the fourth finger on the A string, while the melodic use of violoncellos, and a tendency to let them sometimes join in the passage-work of the upper strings, freely took the parts for these instruments up to as high as an octave above the sound of their highest string.
The viola varied greatly in size, and probably in tuning: pitch in the 16th century was so variable that the tuning of a stringed instrument often began with screwing up the top string as 'high as it can bear' (Agricola, 1528), and tuning the other strings or instruments downwards from this rather arbitrary top not.
The fingering on the viola is much wider spaced than the violin's. The viola is the middle voice of the viol family. Violas are the alto voice in a symphony. The viola usually plays the inner harmonies. The cleff that violas read in is known as alto cleff. The viola is the only instrument that reads alto cleff. The viola has four strings that are tuned in perfect fifths. The four strings are A, being the highest pitched string, D, G, and C, being the lowest pitched string. The viola is held on the shoulder. The viola can also be played with a bow orcan be plucked to produce sound.
The viola, unlike the violin, has had a large development period, with few guidelines in place regarding the size of the instrument. This is because the lower range of the instrument requires a larger sound box to create the same tones as a violin, however the size needed to create these standardized tones would make the instrument too big to play.
Viola: This instrument looks like the twin brother of the violin, but it's a bit bigger with a slightly lower sound. You probably could not tell the difference between the violin and viola unless you put them side by side.