Article for the British Viola Society – The Latent Voice

Susie Meszaros and Stephen Coombs at 'Schubertfest', Royal College Music, Sept 2012 performing Schubert's Arpeggione sonata

Susie Meszaros and Stephen Coombs performing Schubert’s ‘Arpeggione’, RCM, part of Schubertfest, Sept. 2012

We all wince when reminded of Hans Keller’s contention that the profession of violist is a ‘phony’ one. It has been claimed that a violinist can take as little as twenty minutes to learn the clef and just two or three days to master the tone of the instrument. Flippant though it may be, there is truth in it. Like many players I started on violin (I still switch from one to the other) and got the hang of the clef the quick way: by transposing treble clef down a third. As for the tone, it was like meeting something familiar and I was immediately drawn into it.

the Chilingirian Quartet and Melissa Phelps play Schubert 2-cello Quintet, RCM Sept 2012What Keller meant was that the viola is just an offshoot of the violin and therefore there is no justification for specialisation.



“Oh my goodness! The little girl has grown a beard!”

One of the greatest violinists to turn his hand to the viola was Yehudi Menuhin. I first played my viola to him at the age of fifteen – until then I’d only played the violin. He found it so surprising he burst out: “Oh my goodness! The little girl has grown a beard!” He then gave me the first of many wonderful lessons on viola, culminating in a performance of Mozart’s G major Duo with him at the Wigmore Hall. (During the dress rehearsal his wife Diana shouted down from the back of the hall: “Yehudi! You’re too loud!” which pleased me greatly as I was quite tiny and likewise my viola.)

Susie Meszaros with Menuhin (part of magazine feature on the Menuhin school)

magazine photo illustrating article on Menuhin’s school, 1977

All great musicians are unique but there was something especially distinctive about Menuhin’s sound – quite apart from his interpretation – which made it instantly recognisable. In large part this was due to the accommodation of a long standing bow shake which expressed itself as his trademark exaggerated portato.

His own recording of the Walton viola concerto is sublime – my personal favourite of the work in fact – and it takes but a few bars to know it is unmistakably him, despite it being on a different instrument. Paradoxically, as he instinctively adjusts and adapts to the different  tonal demands of the viola, producing a very ‘violistic’ sound, yet this just reinforces and affirms that same personal voice.

The definition of ‘instrument’, musical or otherwise, is: a means, medium or agency. It is an enabler comprising a range of potentials and limitations according to it’s individual properties. Of course there are some very fine and valuable musical instruments out there, but largely as a result of this we have come to fetishise them, inflating the importance they play in the making of a sound. Conversely this diminishes our appreciation of the very material nature of sound itself, where it originates and to what degree we can manipulate and engineer it, transcending the limitations at the same time as utilising the potentials particular to that instrument. The object is not so much the physical instrument, then, as the sound itself which we mould and sculpt from our inner voice. Certainly this intense sense of tangibility applies to my own experience. Simply put, playing is like spinning a thread, and not just an imagined one – it is as palpable to me as an actual substance.

So where does that latent inner voice reside? Is it after all just in our imagination or somewhere more concrete?

Much interesting research has been conducted on the activity of the vocal chords when listening to music and, as I discovered in a paper by Björn Vickoff (Musicology and Film Studies) and Helge Malmgrem (Dept of Philosophy) and Göteborg University, Sweden,  the most striking evidence of this is that:

“Babies as young as thirty minutes old have been proven to imitate mouth movements..

 ..This sensitivity to voices should according to action-perception theory be due to our highly developed motor ability to produce vocal sounds (the condition for empathy). It explains the automated connection between a heard tone and the motor production of this tone. We can step up to the piano, play a tone and then immediately sing it. A choir leader can give the voices tone and the whole choir starts singing at command. Almost anyone can imagine a tone and then sing it. The explanation is that hearing it or imagining it is to rehearse the motor action latently without being aware of it.” (my emphasis)

Training makes the player as sensitive to the sound quality of the instrument as others are to voices

So the good news is that we are all musicians when we listen to music, whether we have ever touched an instrument or not ( often I’ve met people who modestly claim they love music but ‘know nothing about it’ – a notion I refute.)

Going back to Menuhin; that the cause of his exaggerated portato was the probable effect of stress rather than choice or an innate characteristic – nevertheless it saturated the fibres of his sound, affecting the colours and contours of his phrasing, influencing his concept of the music and in no way diminishing his powers. He remained one of the most memorable musicians of all time. I would argue that this lends weight to the idea that what we are expressively is indivisible from our physicality.

So when we choose a particular instrument we are really choosing something about ourselves. We search among these external qualities for a resonance with our internal ones, and in some of us this latent voice will best be realised on a viola rather than a violin. By following the reasoning that it is phony for a violist to specialise, surely it is as absurd for a violinist not to play viola, and the ‘professional violinist’ becomes equally phony. So, with all due respect, I don’t fully agree with Mr Keller on this one. He did say something about professional music critics however…..

(Article first written for the British Viola Society, June 2012, Susie Meszaros)