We talked to four members of the biggest orchestra in Munich about their instruments. In this interview, you can learn more about the Munich Philharmonic Konstantin Sellheim, his way to the viola and why there's no such thing as a viola joke.
“I found my way to the viola by rather conventional means – I have a background in violin, but from an early age I saw the viola as a separate instrument in its own right, with its own capabilities and an individual beauty of sound. I rarely pick up my violin these days. I wasn’t at all bad at the violin – I played all the virtuoso pieces you would imagine and studied with a professor at Hanover University of Music and Theatre. But I noticed that the lower register, the G string on the violin was particularly appealing to me. I really favoured it, and my professor noticed that at some point.
There is an old prejudice that viola players are simply frustrated violinists – with poorer technical skills, I mean. But in reality the two instruments, though similar in appearance and how they are played, are not really comparable. Sound is produced very differently on the viola – it is less about putting pressure on the string and more about the weight of the arm and your entire posture. The viola is larger and bulkier than the violin; you have to think about how you will create the sound. Vibrato on the viola is more audible than on a violin and it is more difficult to play really cleanly. The mistaken impression that the viola is not so important within the orchestra is strengthened by the fact that it is just a middle voice in the orchestra, so it does not really come to the fore as a profiled melody or an underpinning bass.
We violas are actually always at the centre of the harmony and have changing allies in both the melody and bass lines – a bit like the opportunist libero defender position in football.
Apart from in a few rare solos in pieces by Bruckner, Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich, it doesn’t really stand out. However, these middle filler voices are really important for the overall sound. For example, the viola complements the sound of the bass tone. We violas are actually always at the centre of the harmony and have changing allies in both the melody and bass lines – a bit like the opportunist libero defender position in football.
The importance of the viola changed in the twentieth century, and since at least the time of composer Paul Hindemith – himself a viola player – it has been emancipated from being merely an accompanying instrument to become one that plays a solo. That’s true in chamber music, but also solo concerts. You could say that the viola produces a sound of its own. My colleagues in the orchestra know that too, and they respect the instrument – on the other hand, we are self-deprecating enough to say that there are no viola jokes. It’s all true!”