Wouldn't the glut of violin and cello concertos from the Baroque and Classical eras motivate composers to compose Viola Concertos? Isn't adding to the deluge of violin and cello concertos more grueling and troublesome? Why not choose the easier option of contributing to the dearth of viola concertos?

Composers of at least one cello concerto and at least one violin concerto, but no viola concerto:

Barber, Beethoven, Berio, Dvorak, Philip Glass, Haydn, Ligeti, Hindemith (I'm uncertain), Lutosławski, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, Prokofiev, Rautavaara, Saint-Saëns, Schoenberg, Schumann, Shostakovich.

Composers of at least one famous violin concerto, but no viola or cello concertos:


Don't hesitate to edit this post to add or remove composers, esp. if I'm wrong.

  • 1
    You could remove Penderecki from that first list - culture.pl/en/work/viola-concerto-krzysztof-penderecki Jun 18 '21 at 3:35
  • 1
    @DawoodibnKareem thanks! done. in the future, just edit my post.
    – user26407
    Jun 18 '21 at 5:24
  • @user52144, just fyi, most people are quite adverse to editing other people's posts; some seem to like to do it for typos, but it's still rather seldom in my experience.
    – AnoE
    Jun 18 '21 at 9:10
  • Bruch doesn't deserve to be on that list. He wrote the lovely op. 85 Romanze for Viola and Orchestra, and I have just discovered also Op. 88 Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Orchestra (which I have never heard)
    – nigel222
    Jun 18 '21 at 10:52
  • Cue the mit.edu/~jcb/jokes/viola.html Jun 18 '21 at 14:54

Various reasons.

  • The viola is acoustically less well-designed than the violin. It sounds a fifth below the violin and has the same proportions, so it would have to be 50% larger; but because you couldn't easily handle such an instrument on your shoulder, it is in fact only 15-20% larger, and the rest of the difference must be made up by heavier strings, lower tension etc. These adjustments lead to a different, less brilliant sound, and through much of the classical and romantic eras, composers hadn't learnt to appreciate this sound. A viola solo would have been considered uncouth, much like we still consider a bass tuba solo as somewhat humorous.

  • The viola was harder to play in a dexterous way, and viola players were generally less capable than violinists. They were, in fact, often rejects from violin classes. The lack of viola solo literature is partly a consequence of the lack of capable violists.

  • Also, the typical orchestra has many more violin than viola seats, further contributing to a dearth of violists.

  • Contrariwise, the absolute deluge of violin works contributed to a deluge of aspiring violinists and vice versa, in a self-reinforcing cycle. (Many longstanding trends in the arts and elsewhere are due at least party to self-stabilizing fashions like this, rather than to rational reasons only. In some styles of early baroque music, it was in fact more common to have several viola parts and one violin part.)

  • 2
    As a(n out of practice) violist, I'm biased, but I certainly appreciate the sound of a viola! I never did quite know why it was so different from a violin, but I chose to play viola because I liked its sound better.
    – Hearth
    Jun 17 '21 at 15:48
  • 2
    Would you happen to have references for further learning about how the viola is acoustically less-well designed to the violin? Jun 17 '21 at 16:27
  • 17
    Or as they often joke: Violins are not actually that much smaller than violas. It just looks that way because violinists' heads are so much larger... Jun 17 '21 at 19:46
  • 1
    @Tyrannosaur The Wikipedia entry for viola has a lot of good information on that.
    – Graham
    Jun 17 '21 at 20:29
  • 6
    As a tubist, I feel like I should be offended at the assertion that tuba solos are considered humorous, but as a human being with a sense of humor I must concede that they are indeed quite funny. Jun 18 '21 at 6:19

The reason is that composers also knew about dress makers, and how similar they were in temperament to violists. . .

The difference being that dress makers always tuck up their frills!

All jokes aside, you're losing a lot of agility and expressiveness in exchange for just a few deeper notes at the bottom end. It's nice to fill in an orchestra, but what would it really add to a solo performance?


High pitch "voices" (or, better, voices with higher harmonics that are more predominant) are normally more "interesting" to the average listener.

It's more or less the same thing as "fast is more than slow". A fast driver usually gets more attention than a cautious driver, no matter which one is "best".

We're normally more "captured" by physical extremities, as they are the easiest way to recognize something.

Within the same family of instruments (or even the same instruments, like saxophones[1]), we're usually more captured by higher pitches/harmonics.

We can see a similar pattern in human voices: there are more arias for sopranos and tenores than for altos or basses (though, a bass/baritone voice is usually more peculiar - hence, interesting in its way). And it's no mistery that castratos were a common occurrence in the past, due to the high-pitched and "angelic" (as in more "consistent" harmonics) sound of their voices.

Now, one could argue that, given the above, cellos shouldn't have that attention. But you should also consider other aspects: while cello is very similar to a Violin (or a Viola) in construction and physical emission, its technique, size and range are very different. They are the "tenor" to singing as "sopranos" are. Within their "group", they are more "interesting" (and much closer to human voice, which is an important aspect). Also, the very technical and physical nature of a doublebass create serious obstacles in playing virtuoso parts or making higher pitched sounds that are gladly perceived by the normal listener, as opposed to cellos.

Obviously, there are other aspects to consider too (as others already pointed out), including the recursivity of being considered a "minor" instrument: a composer usually tends to write for "major" (popular) instruments, which automatically increases the "minority" consideration for the others. They also usually know less about those instruments for the same reason, so they hardly choose to write for them.

Finally, Viola (as much as Alto in voices) is probably the less considered voice: it's not "on top" among its "siblings", and it's not even any of the extremities. This obviously results (and has resulted) in minor interest of players in improving their virtuoso abilities, as ~80% of Viola parts are technically not that challenging (or "interesting") as Violin parts usually are[2].
Which recalls the above recursion: players are not "that good", so why should a composer put any efforts on that? (rethorical question).

But that's the good of it: there are very few Viola specific compositions, concertos or solos, as opposed to Violin, which makes them even more interesting. They are rare gems.
For instance, after years of listening to Cello/Violin concerts and sonatas, I discovered the first Viola Sonata from Hindemith, and I instantly fell in love with it.

[1] Soprano Sax is usually considered much harder to play than Alto, as the smaller reed creates more tuning difficulties. While the same could be told about vocal chords, the difference is being "born with an instrument" (as in voice) and learning to master it.
[2] Obviously, I'm not considering 2nd Violin parts, since they're still Violins. And, obviously again, I'm not ignoring them just because they're second. ;-)


Almost everyone who plays viola started out on the violin, for the obvious reason that the violin is smaller and easier for a child. Not every violinist can play the viola, but every violist can play the violin.

One could also ask: why are there so many well-known solo vocal works for soprano, and not so many for alto? Even though there are many well-known and successful mezzo-sopranos, altos and contraltos, sopranos seem to get more of the solo work.

(Is this true? I did a quick survey at the Carnegie Hall web site, looking at four months, September through December 2018, and found six recitals by sopranos, two by mezzo-sopranos, and none by contraltos, so probably yes, it's true.)

There must be tens of thousands of violin concertos, but there are quite a few viola concertos by, among others, Berlioz, Bartok, Walton, Milhaud, Piston, Penderecki, Schnittke, and Hindemith. If you want to program a viola concerto, my friend Charles Pikler has dozens of them memorized.

If you want to write a concerto that will get played, write a viola concerto instead of a violin concerto. Less competition there.

  • 1
    No - you start small kids on 1/2 or 1/4 size violins, and there are the same for violas. Jun 18 '21 at 14:55
  • But how many violists started out on viola, not violin? Jun 19 '21 at 20:48

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy