For some time, the viola was an oft-neglected string instrument. The New York Times describes its once-desultory reputation in a great obituary on Emanuel Vardi, a premier violist who died late last month at 95:
In the public imagination, as Mr. Vardi was painfully aware, the viola was considered merely a humble alto cog in the vast orchestral machine. As a solo instrument it was long overshadowed by its soprano sibling, the violin, with its glittering trove of repertory, and more recently by its tenor one, the cello, with its dark brown, floor-shaking sonorities.
For a violist even contemplating a solo career, the paucity of literature was a perennial stumbling block. When Mr. Vardi began his work the very idea of a solo viola recital was unorthodox: finding enough worthwhile material to fill two hours seemed practically impossible.
Vardi changed that with a four-point strategy:
First, he adapted violin and cello literature for his instrument, a time-honored strategy by which violists have added arrows to their quivers.
An especially noteworthy achievement was his recording in the 1960s of Paganini’s 24 caprices for solo violin. On the violin, they are merely demonically difficult. On the viola, where the distance between notes is larger and the response time of the strings slower, they are harder still. [EMAN ed. note: I find this accomplishment nothing short of astounding, being a former violinist who tried and failed to master Paganini compositions, in addition to the ridiculously challenging Dance of the Goblins by Bazzini.]
Second, he haunted archives in search of forgotten compositions — unearthing, for instance, a sonata by Alessandro Rolla (1757-1841), Paganini’s teacher and a composer of many works for viola.
Third, he solicited new music from contemporary composers, giving premieres of pieces by Henry Brant, Michael Colgrass, Alan Hovhaness, Alan Shulman and others.
Finally, he composed solo viola works, among them “Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Paganini.”
Partly through Mr. Vardi’s efforts, the viola emerged from the shadows, with solo recitals now a routine feature of classical concert programming.
Vardi's personal website contains a few more intriguing details:
During World War II, Vardi joined the U.S. Navy Band. At one point, Eleanor Roosevelt heard Vardi and whisked him to the White House to play viola for FDR. In 1942, Vardi was named Recitalist of the Year by New York’s music critics. He is one of only two violists in the world to have given a solo recital at Carnegie Hall.
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He had a long solo career and recorded and performed with some of the most stellar names in classical music – Itzhak Perlman, Arthur Rubenstein, Van Cliburn, Vladimir Horowitz, and American popular music – Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Barbra Streisand.
Why and when did Vardi become entranced with the viola in the first place? The Times alludes to a seminal experience while he was in musical training, but the details are a bit fuzzy: "[Vardi] entered the Institute of Musical Art, a forerunner of the Juilliard School, as a violin student at 12, and studied there until he was about 20. Around that time he heard a recording by Primrose, had a conversion experience and took up the viola."
Whatever the draw was three-quarters of a century ago, a whole section of the orchestra and legions of violists the world over appreciate his efforts.
P.S. Don't believe the Times or me about Paganini? Listen to this: