• Benedict Mason
  • Concerto for the Viola Section (1990)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the BBC

  • 3(pic)3(2ca)3(efl,2bcl)3(2cbn)4(2 hand horns c. 1800 crooked in G and Eb, D and E respectively: 2 Wtba in Bb and F)3(3flg)3(atbn)1(euph)6perc2hp.2pf(cel:DX72FD)str(12.10.14.8.6)(viola no.2 doubling viola d’amore)soloists seated in the orchestra
  • 25 min

Programme Note

Concerto For the Viola Section (accompanied by the rest of the orchestra)

BBC commission: World premiere

1. Moderato
2. Concertos
3. Allegro
4. Largo
5. Presto
6. Adagio


This large-scale BBC commission, composed in the spring of 1990, Is an extensive celebration of the viola’s role within the symphony orchestra. But Mason’s original intention had been a less specific one- to write a concerto for one of the largest sections of the orchestra- and he settled happily upon the violas by a process of natural selection. He considered the horns first, but rejected them as having too glamorous and stylised an orchestral history, while the percussion was dismissed because its past was not interesting enough. Left with the strings, the double basses were seen as presenting too many problems of texture and balance, and Mason considered that the cellos had already been given more than enough attention. That left the violas, which were, as he admits, ‘the section I wanted to write anyway’.

Yet Mason’s purpose in confronting such an unusual musical challenge was born less out of sheer technical bravura than from the desire to put his abiding interest in the history and development of orchestration into practice. He admits to spending lots of time ‘poring over and being inspired by orchestration books, and the rich and endless possibilities suggest therein… I’m fascinated, too, by the history of the orchestration textbook, by the comparative study of orchestration and the different ways different composers have approached the same problems, and by the comparative study of the rules (and the reason for those rules) which seem to be so precariously balanced between tightly controlled psychological, acoustical and aesthetic codes of practice.

It is al that orchestral history and practice- from Gluck and Spontini through Berlioz and Wagner to Tchaikovsky and Strauss- that has informed Mason’s writing in the concerto. The inner parts conventionally taken by the violas take on an entirely different aspect if viewed in isolation, and that led him on to consider the ideas of texture and timbre as solo properties in their own right, something that only becomes possible when the members of a whole orchestral section are treated as soloists. Placed right in the middle of the traditional string texture, the violas, often appear to synthesise the character of the orchestral lines above and below them, perhaps superimposing the pulse of the cellos or double bases upon a melodic contour from the violins, and borrowing a phrasing pattern from the wind.

In examining this traditional usage in his concerto, Mason says, ‘roles are reversed, background becomes foreground and interior becomes exterior’, and although the conventional seating plan of the strings is preserved, the audience will find their perspective shifting, almost as if they had been given seats within the orchestra or were listening to a multi-channel recording in which the viola track had been given extra prominence.
Yet the spotlight does not remain upon the violas throughout. Mason admits that ‘complexity, maximalism and extravagance are parts of my style… I’d rather be in a rainforest than in a bleak, lifeless patch of Forestry Commission on a Scottish hillside’. So there is reflected in virtuoso writing for horns and percussion in particular, and even a cadenza for the second violins at one point, while a parade of exotic visiting instruments furnishes an element of mystery and surprise. However, the piece has been designed for accepted doubling possibilities of the normal-sized symphony orchestra.

The second of the concerto’s six movements is itself called ‘Concertos’: it is preceded by a movement that Mason likens to a prelude, in which ‘windows’ through the textures gradually reveal the importance of the viola lines until the music boils over and becomes attached to the second by way of a percussion coda. The ‘Concertos’ are in fact miniaturised at each appearance. The first is a solo concerto in which the soloist, the character and style all change on each appearance. The second pits soloist (the first viola) against a chamber ensemble. The third sets a group of violas against a small orchestra, while the fourth features a solo viola d’amore, and includes a homage to Wagner’s Mastersingers, ‘an opera in which the violas are very important’. There is also a group concerto with different blocks of the orchestra answering each other antiphonally, a ‘tutti versus tutti’ in which all the violas are pitted against the rest of the orchestra, and a double concerto with the first and last violas accompanied by the rest of the section. Finally, after all these types have reappeared several times, there is a signing-off cadenza for second violins.

The third movement is a bright, ‘relentlessly A major-ish’ Allegro full of running Baroque figuration; it splits the violas into three blocks- front desks, middle and back- and separates out the principals of the other string sections also, while the fourth is a Largo featuring the violas muted in the highest reaches of their lowest string. The e fifth movement conjures up a Sibelius-like viola ostinato, whose lineage, Mason says, could be traced back through Wagner’s Siegfried and Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, the most celebrated of all solo viola concertos, appears again in the sixth and final movement, where cascades of divided violas pause briefly to recall the tolling bells of that work’s ‘Pilgrims’ March’.

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