The viola is similar to the violin in shape and sound but is much larger and has lower-pitched strings. It is still played on the left shoulder just like the violin and played with a bow. The general voice lies between the violin and the cello. It normally plays the harmony line in most ensemble pieces, particularly in pieces for string quartet and orchestra, using the alto clef, which is only really used for this instrument and no others. It will also play in the treble clef for higher parts of music. Although the viola has been around for hundreds of years, it is only recently from the twentieth-century onwards that the instrument became recognised as a solo instrument in its own right. This was wholly due to the emergence of virtuoso violists such as Lionel Tertis and William Primrose and nowadays there are numerous international soloists presenting the instrument.
The viola itself is an instrument which has never really been perfected in terms of the dimensions. Being so much bigger than the violin, yet still played on the performer’s shoulder, it must be big enough for a large powerful sound, yet small enough for the player to reach the notes on the fingerboard with ease. The larger options, commonly known as the tenor viola, is more often cut down by players since it was not practical to play such a large instrument. For the ideal tone and sound production, the instrument should be one and half times larger than the violin, but to play it still on the shoulder would be impossible at this size. This is likely why it has taken so long to become an established recognised solo instrument.
Beginning its life around the same time as the violin, it was made in two sizes, the alto and the tenor. It has its origins in the viol, a six-stringed instrument. First seen in Italy and one of the first original violas was made by Antonio Amati, as part of 36 instruments commissioned by King Charles IX. Gasparo de Salo was also an influential maker, and many modern viola makers copy his design these days. The development of the modern Tourte bow, chin rest and shoulder rest is the same as the violin, however, Lionel Tertis attempted to resolve the issue of dimension on the viola by creating a viola called the Tertis model. It was large enough in dimension to produce the correct tone, but had a cut-out on the right side of the body to allow the performer ease of access to the upper parts of the fingerboard.