Danetkas – Music Stories

Viola picture

“A man played only one note during the entire concert, the audience came on purpose to see him play”

Episode 6 - One Note Concert – Viola, the big violin (ft. Hiwote Tadesse)

Short Summary

The episode opens with an intriguing historical anecdote involving the King of England and composer Henry Purcell, who crafted a mesmerizing piece requiring the king to play just one note on the viola.

As the discussion unfolds, special guest Hiwote Tadesse, a talented violist from Zagreb, Croatia, shares her perspective on the viola’s role in classical music. Delving into her personal experiences and the intricacies of orchestral dynamics, Hiwote sheds light on the challenges and joys of being a violist.

From the evolution of viola education to the complexities of orchestral bowing techniques, the conversation offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of this often underappreciated instrument.

The episode concludes with musical excerpts, including pieces by Henry Purcell and Hector Berlioz, showcasing the viola’s rich and diverse repertoire.

Hello and welcome to the Danetka’s podcast! I’m your host Francisco Chaves, and today I am delighted to tell you we have a special guest. This guest I will introduce later in the episode and we will discuss the Danetka of today with this special guest. The Danetka of today is called “One Note Concert”.

A man played only one note during the entire concert, the audience came on purpose to see him play. I will now describe the picture. As you know, every Danetka comes with accompanied with a picture, and this picture shows a person carrying an instrument and a bow. The instrument seems like a kind of violin but a bit bigger and he carries it in a weird way.

So why did the man play only one note? Who was the man, and why did the audience come to see him play? Do you have any thoughts already? I will now start by reading the rigolettos, the secret hints. We have four hints. The first one says: “I play one note, they play more.” This is a very helpful hint I think because it shows that even though it’s a one-note concert, other people played more notes; only this man played one note, so a very helpful first rigoletto. Second one: “Let me play. It’s an order.” So someone ordered to play. Who gives orders? Do you have any thoughts? Third Rigoletto: At least today all he wanted was music. Last time, he ordered a sculpture in his honor. So today this person wanted music, but last time he ordered a sculpture.


Who orders sculptures?

Fourth Rigoletto: “I didn’t know being a musician was that easy.” Do you have any guesses to what might have happened? Feel free to pause and figure out for yourself the Danetka. I will now read the answer:

“One Note Concert.”

The King of England ordered English composer Henry Purcell to write a piece where he could take part. It was a big challenge as the King was not a musician. Purcell came up with a genius idea. He wrote an orchestral piece where the King had to repeat the same note on the viola many times always with the same simple rhythm. Everybody came to see the King play. Musicologists still debate why Purcell wrote this piece, “Fantasia upon One Note,” with only one note in the viola part. Let’s now listen to this masterwork by Purcell, the “Fantasia upon Note” and then I will introduce our special guest.

We will listen to the “Hespèrion XX” ensemble directed by Jordi Saval.

F: I would now like to introduce my special guest, Hiwote Tadesse. She’s a violist in Zagreb, Croatia, and we’ll talk a bit about the viola, this fascinating instrument. Hello Hiwotte.

H: Hi

F: How are you doing?

H: Good, nice to be here and talk a bit about the instrument and everything it has to offer. Some cool stories.

F: So what do you think about this story, about the king playing Purcell’s Fantasia only doing one note the entire time?

H: I mean, I would do this concert. No problem. Seems like a very well-paid gig. (laughs)

F: With a lot of attendance. (laughs)

H: Yeah. (laughs)

F: So you wouldn’t mind playing one note the entire concert? Sounds good, sounds relaxing.

H: Sounds good. Yeah, finally, you know, you can chill. (laughs)

F: So, let’s talk a bit about the viola, like did you start playing the viola, or did you start with another instrument?

H: Oh well, back in my day, which was in the beginning of the 2000s, there wasn’t really a school for little violists, you know? You had to start on the violin. So, I did not even know if the viola was a thing and then my teacher, she was actually a viola player. And when it was time to head to High School, Musical High School, she suggested I played the viola and I didn’t care much about the violin, so it was basically, you know, why not? Let’s try something else. And good thing I did, because when I started playing it, I finally discovered everything that I love about music. It was as if I found my voice, you know? And then I really started practicing a lot and researching the sound. You know, it was just like a very inspiring moment for me, this switch that I made when I was, I think, 13 or 14. And ever since then, I’ve been playing the viola.

F: And now, you basically do your… your living playing the viola in the orchestra.

H: Yes, I work in the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra where I am the principal violist of the orchestra, which means basically I have to lead the section,

F: Ok

H: Which is made of around an average 10 or 12 players. And basically, I am responsible for the communication between leaders, writing bowings, up, down, up, down. And…

F: Maybe…

H: Tell me.

F: We can clarify for our listeners, what does… because I know what it means to write the bowings, but maybe for our listeners, what does it mean to write the bowings? Basically, you all have to bow the same way.

H: Yeah, I could explain it best with a story. So, when I was a child, my grandpa was obsessed with watching, you know, like the Vienna Philharmonic concerts on New Year’s, and he would always say, “Oh my God, how can they play on the same part of the bow? It’s so impressive, like 100 people playing exactly on the same part of the bow. How do they do it?” you know. And basically, my job now is to make that happen.

F: Yes.

H: So, I need to really observe how the first stand of the first violins plays. And basically, there are two options: the bow can either go up or down and we have specific markings for that. That’s for direction. Then, if we’re talking about articulation, then I also just observe if he’s playing really long notes, short notes, how much bow he’s using, and I’m just trying to copy it at, you know, at the spot. And if we have something with other groups, so with cellos or with double basses or with the second violins, then I would speak directly to the leaders of the section, and we would kind of make a compromise.

F: Is that a big topic in the orchestra? Like, if people disagree on the bowing, do you get angry and anxious? Is there big drama in the orchestra about the bowing? Actually, if you disagree with your colleagues?

H: Well, honestly, no, not really. Sometimes I feel like I’m very like strong. I have a strong opinion about this bowing. I’m not really easy on changing it. Then there are two options. The first option is just let the conductor decide, like in a match, you know? Somebody has to decide. Sometimes you can’t let the players decide.

F: Yes.

H: And the second option is like, I don’t know, to give in, because we had a really great teacher in Maastricht. He was the chamber music teacher, Henk Guittart, who played his whole life in a quartet and he said that you are the best musician when you can actually work for the ideas of other musicians around you, when you can take them as whole heartily as you would take your own idea. So sometimes I take this approach.

F: That’s very good, so you have to really adapt yourself to other musicians, basically.

H: Yeah.

F: sorry, I didn’t want to interrupt you, because I just wanted to enter into details about the bowings because like, many people, don’t know what is, what is actually, like, what it involves to write a bowing for the orchestra, right?

H: Of course, yeah.

F: And let’s say about this story about the fact that the viola has simple parts or easier parts. Do you feel that there is like an evolution in the repertoire, that the viola music becoming increasingly hard or not that much?

H: I do think that there is a certain trend that goes in this direction, but I think it feels with, I feel like it happens with all of the instruments. The viola’s story is kind of specific in this way because in the early days, so let’s say in the Renaissance and the early Baroque periods and also in French Baroque music, you would actually have two viola parts. And also, like the middle parts were often considered the most important parts. F: Not the basso.

H: So yeah, like some sources would say that the, what in England they would call the mean, is what actually makes the music come together. And you had different two sizes of violas, you had a small-size viola and a large-size viola. And then like with the evolution of, I don’t know, the trio sonata, which is basically a piece of music that usually doesn’t require a middle voice, and with the whole movement of the Classical period where you don’t have a lot of polyphony anymore, then the music kind of gets easier on us. I would put “easier” really in brackets because still, what you have to do there is pretty hard, which we can talk about later, why easy parts are sometimes really hard to play. And then progressively, we have in the Romantic periods until now, really difficult music written for orchestral viola sections. Just last week, we played an incredibly hard piece, Sibelius Third Symphony. Any violist , if you haven’t played this yet, be warned.

F: (laughs) Ok.

H: (laughs) Yeah, they’re really tricky bits and pieces. Of course, this week, we’re playing Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra

F: Oh, I love that. Oh my God.

H: it’s great.

F: And Bartok has great stuff for viola, right?

H: Yes, he has a Viola Concerto that he actually was writing on his deathbed and actually didn’t finish in the end. Many composers died composing for the viola, so composers, be warned.

F: So I shouldn’t start writing a viola concerto right now? (laughs)

H: Yeah, better not. (laughs)

F: We will now take a small break from the interview to listen to this Viola Concerto from Bartok that Hiwote just mentioned. We will listen to Hiwote herself playing the Viola Concerto from Bela Bartok.



F: And I find it very interesting that you said that in England the middle part was the most important because as a guitarist, I played like this early Baroque Renaissance music we had what we called the basso continuo, and we would read just the bass line, and then we would have the melody and I remember when I was playing that repertoire, there was no middle voice, but maybe the traditions differ from country to country.

H: Well, the thing is, there were several debates… Like who was first, so was it the violin or was it the viola, you know? And one of the biggest arguments for viola being the first instrument from which the other instruments came to be about was the fact that the tenor part was so important. I forgot all of the sources, but that was one of the key elements. Unfortunately, neither is true. So, it was not the chicken or the egg; it was basically a first instrument that was the source for all of the other string instruments, which, yeah, it’s called “lira da braccio,” and it’s kind of like an ancestor to everybody. So nobody can claim, “Oh, we were first!”

F: And this lira da braccio, you would play with the bow?

H: Yes, yes.

F: okay. And why do you think then easy parts are hard to play? What makes easy parts hard to play?

H: The thing is, as viola players, we’re often entrusted with, let’s say, the keeping of tempo. You have a certain passage and it seems kind of simple, but until you realize that there are a bunch of other groups that you are kind of responsible for and you’re the heart of. And you know, symphony orchestra is very big, spread out, and it’s not always that easy to hear, even, you know, or to make what you’re doing audible and visible. And that’s where we come in. We are kind of the glue between the… between different groups. I have the feeling that often this is our job, you know. Or to, with some, I don’t know, some accompaniment, to make it as beautiful and inviting for the soul as to, then, that he or she can then build up on this, you know. It’s a lot of adjusting and then also like not giving back. Yeah, it’s kind of like a play of constantly,

F: Okay. You’re in the middle, exactly.

H: We’re the stuffing.

F: The stuffing of the cake. Okay. And do you think that there is a lack of violist or do you think that there is a lot of competition because actually the orchestra has more violins than violas, but there are also more violin players than viola players? What do you think about the ratio? Do you have a lot of viola students in the music schools, in the conservatories? Well, in Croatia, the situation is kind of that there are really not that many good violists. We’re always looking for more, even though the situation is really improving. If we’re thinking like 20 years back, 30 years back. But… I don’t know, I think it’s going in a really good direction. I’m just thinking about the recent auditions we had, and like, we hired a violist, but we didn’t hire a violin player, you know? So it’s, yeah, it’s hard to say. And it also really depends on the years. Some years, there are five great viola players coming out of the academy, and then for 10 years, there’s nobody, you know? It’s like…

F: okay, it’s very irregular,

H: yeah, that’s basically the problem, I would say.

F: And how does actually viola education changed throughout the years?

H: Well, since I was in school, they started having also kids enrolling on day one on the viola. They found the instruments and all the gear, and it’s so cute to see, so you can do that. And of course, if you just start as an adult, if you’re interested, sure, you can also play the viola instantly. But, you know, generally, viola education wasn’t that good until, I would say, the middle of the 20th century because, like, even Berlioz was complaining in his diaries that it’s just unbelievable that there is no viola professor at the university or the French or Paris Conservatory, you know?

F: Oh, wow, that’s very interesting.

H: Okay, that’s in Berlioz’s time, you know, like… Ok…

F: Okay, just to add a contextual note to Hiwotte’s words: Berlioz was a French composer born in 1803, so in the 19th century. Paris has been, as many of you know, the capital of the arts and an important artistic center. So, after the viola has been played for hundreds of years, to not have a viola professor in one of the most artistic cities in the world seems unbelievable.

H: So I think we’ve come a long way, and there were several important figures that actually made the viola “Cinderella no more”. We have two big giants, Lionel Tertis,

F: Tertis.

H: He was an English violist and a teacher who raised the number of great violists who then, like, spread the word, and William Primrose, who was just superlative player. And also, like people were experimenting with the different sizes of the instruments. Lionel Tertis has his viola model which was slightly bigger in size, and in general, like, there are many, many different versions of the instrument just like circulating around. There was this guy in Germany called Herman Ritter who had a large viola, I think he called it “viola alta”, and Wagner, when he first heard it, he just immediately invited him to his festival, inviting him to play principal violist, and Ritter also actually teach a lot of students in Germany. So you see, there were some individuals who really made it happen for us.

F: So It’s not really the composers like writing repertoire, because they wrote, it’s really the players that spread out the instrument and the value of the instrument, the players.

H: Yes, especially Paganini, for example, for two years, he almost gave up the violin completely and he was playing the viola. And he was the one who came to Berlioz and said, like, “I have this amazing Stradivari viola, but I have no music to play on it,” you know? So he asked him, like, “Could you please compose something?” And then he wrote “Harold in Italy,” which unfortunately Paganini didn’t want to play because he said there were too many rests, there’s nothing to do. (laughs) And then Berlioz just told him, “Okay, then you can just write your own concerto”, which he kind of did later. (laughs)

F: Paganini wrote a viola concerto?

H: Yeah, it’s called, I think, “Gran Sonata.”. No. “Sonata for Grand Viola”.  it’s also… it’s pretty difficult. He had this huge instrument. They say his hand was like completely elongated, so he could play it and he had really long hands.

F: Ok.

H: Yeah, I mean, Paganini. But in general, the great story about this “Harold in Italy,” which is maybe the most performed concerto, is that in three years’ time, Paganini heard it and he was so moved by it that he kneeled before Berlioz and kissed his hand and said it was the most amazing thing he ever heard, you know. So like, he sent him a letter the day after with some cash, which Berlioz apparently really needed because he was sick and in financial struggle, so, yeah, a nice story actually.

F: That’s a very nice story. I think we talked a lot. It was very interesting Hiwote. I learned a lot.

H: Ok, that’s good, I guess.

F: So even if the listeners don’t like it, for me it was already worth it. So thank you. Thank you Hiwote.

H: No problem.

F: And I wish you big success in Zagreb and all over the world.

H: Thank you. Thank you.

F: To finish the episode we will now listen to the piece that Hiwote was talking about. Viola Concerto from Berlioz: “Harold in Italy”. We will listen to a small excerpt. Sir Colin Davis is conducting the Philarmonia orchestra and on the viola is Baron Yehudi Menuhin. Thank you and see you on the next Danetkas episode.