Nigel Keay's Contemporary Viola Home Page

Page d'accueil  


The following article was first published in the Australian & New Zealand Viola Society Journal



The Elegy in, and out of, the Viola Literature

Paul Groh


Like many teenagers, I enjoyed shocking my elders.  So when I was about sixteen, and mindful of the frenzy that attended the premiere of The Rite of Spring, I thought it would be fun to play Stravinsky’s Elegy for solo viola as an Offertory in church and see what would happen.  While my performance didn’t spark a riot – the congregation at Zion Church was far too dignified for that – still, it didn’t go over well.  The younger people snickered and called the piece “Allergy”; while the adults, more polite, responded with that most back-handed of compliments: “It must be awfully hard to make that thing sound good.”

The elegy – not to be confused with the eulogy, or the allergy for that matter – was originally a form of Greek lyric poetry, later adopted enthusiastically by Roman poets such as Ovid and Catullus, expressing lamentation and mourning.  It was composed using the elegiac couplet, which consists of a line of dactylic hexameter followed by one of dactylic pentameter (as distinguished from the heroic couplet, used in epic poetry, in which both lines are hexametric).  An example of an elegiac couplet, just off the top of my head, follows:

Kookaburras cackle madly in my garden
In the evening when the darkness gathers.

Some of the Romantic poets, notably Coleridge, felt that the elegiac form was better suited to love poetry; but since the 18th century the elegy has been defined as a poem or musical work, in any form or metre, or lack thereof, dealing with the subject of grief and loss.  Well known examples of elegies in verse and song include Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and either version of Elton John’s Candle in the Wind.

To say that the elegy figures prominently in the viola literature is like saying that there are a lot of cane toads in Queensland.  A cursory survey uncovered no less than 200 – yes, that’s two hundred – works for the viola called Elegy or some variant thereof.  This figure does not include the plethora of viola pieces bearing such cheery titles as Lament, Lamentation, Requiem, In Memoriam, Threnody, Funerailles, Epitaph, and Dirge.

The earliest elegies written expressly for the viola are the three (opp. 29, 73, and 92), dating back to the 1830s or earlier, by Jacques-Feriol Mazas, who is best known to us today for his two charming volumes of etudes.  Viola elegies from the 19th century are rare – either that, or the bad ones have been deservedly forgotten – but they include two of the most beautiful works in our repertoire, the elegies of Henri Vieuxtemps (1854) and Alexander Glazunov (1894).  In fact, one online poll ranked the Glazunov Elegy as one of the 100 all-time greatest works of classical music, ahead of all the Brahms symphonies and Wagner operas; truly a landmark in music appreciation.

Sometimes another musical form may assume the tone or function of an elegy, and there are many such examples for the viola.  Manlio Martini has written both a Momento elegiaco (1969) and a Tema elegiaco (1985); there is a Pezzo elegiaco (1966) by Vaclav Felix, a Fantasia elegiaca (1940) by Josef Jonsson, a Poeme elegiaque by Emile Damais, a Chant elegiaque (1919) by Otto Freudenthal, an Elegisches Lied (1944) by Victor Legley, and an Elegische Suite (1995) by Gunnar de Frumerie.  There are elegiac sonatas by both Nikolai Sidelnikov and Max Meyer-Olbersleben (1926), an Elegiac Tone Poem (1946) by John Laurence Seymour, and a Concerto elegiaco (1950) by the delightfully named Argentine composer Washington Castro.  We have a Weihnachtselegie (1939) – Christmas elegy! – by Silvester Hipmann, as well as an Elegie Hebraique by S. W. Elkind.  There’s even an Elegiac Blues (2006) by Paul Patterson.

Often an elegy may be paired with another piece of contrasting character.  There’s an Elegy and Capriccio (1978) by Johan Kvandal, Elegie und Etude (1954) by Andreas Volpert, Elegy and Dedication (1953) by M. Israfil-Sade, Elegie und Ballade (1972) by Gerhard Schumann, Elegy and Rondo (1979) by Stanley Weiner, Elegy and Paean (1948) by Roy Harris, Elegy and Credo (1951) by Ellis Kohs, and even an Elegy and Tango (2006) by Matthew Kaner.  Probably the first viola elegy composed by an Australian is Arthur Benjamin’s Elegy, Waltz and Toccata (1945) for viola and piano, later orchestrated by the composer, and known as either a sonata or a concerto respectively.  This challenging work, written for William Primrose, has been unfairly neglected like most of Benjamin’s music except for the Jamaican Rumba; the original version was recently recorded by Esther van Stralen for Tall Poppies and deserves a wider hearing.

War, of course, is an occasion for widespread mourning, and in wartime production quotas of viola elegies are increased accordingly.  Herbert Howells, a classmate of Benjamin’s at the Royal College of Music, composed his Elegy in C, op. 15, for solo viola with string quartet and orchestra, in memory of his friend the violist Francis Purcell Warren, who was killed at Mons in 1917.  This moving work has been recorded several times in recent years, notably by Helen Callus with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in 2005.  Anthony Cheung has written an Elegy for the Victims of Nanjing (1997), and Roberto Molinelli’s Elegy for Manhattan (2001), for viola and cello solo with orchestra, is one of the many recent American works inspired by the 9/11 tragedy. 

Some viola elegies have been written for famous people.  The day before Paul Hindemith was slated to perform the UK premiere of Der Schwanendreher with the BBC, King George V died, and a special memorial concert was programmed in its place.  Adrian Boult, who was to conduct the concert, still wanted Hindemith to take part and asked him to compose and perform a new work especially for the occasion.  After some six hours of what Hindemith later described as “somewhat hasty mourning”, the result was the Trauermusik (1936) for viola and strings, perhaps the best known of all viola elegies, and the first (being the easiest) of Hindemith’s many viola works that most of us learn to play.  In four short movements, played without pause, the Trauermusik passes through the stages of grief, nostalgia, anger, and acceptance, concluding with a reworking of Bach’s chorale to Psalm 100, Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit.

Hindemith himself is the subject of a viola elegy, the Threnos (1964) for viola and piano by Klaus Stahmer.  Viola elegies in memory of Dmitri Shostakovich have been written by both Michael Kugel (1988) and Steven R. Gerber (1991) – not the same Steve Gerber who created the Howard the Duck comic books.

Marta Ptaszynska’s Elegia: In memoriam Pope John Paul II for solo viola was premiered by Michael Hall at the International Viola Congress in Reykjavik in 2005.  Slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is remembered with the solo viola Elegy (1995) by Christopher Lee – not the actor who played Dracula and Frankenstein's monster in the old Hammer Films series.

Philip Koplow’s Elegy (1968) for viola and very large orchestra, including a quartet of saxophones, is dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, who was assassinated on the composer’s twenty-fifth birthday.  Mahalia Jackson, who sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” as an elegy at Dr. King’s funeral, is commemorated with a viola elegy of her own, the Requiem for Mahalia (1972) for viola, piano and tape by Richard Cook.  And the title track from Jackie Leven’s studio album Elegy for Johnny Cash (2005) includes a solo break by Greek violist Mixalis Kataxanis, a unique tribute to the Man in Black.

Film composer Richard Rodney Bennett, brother to the Robert Russell Bennett whose show tune medleys have tormented generations of community orchestras, has written the lovely Elegy for Caroline Lamb (1975), using music taken from his score to the 1972 film Lady Caroline Lamb.  Lady Caroline, a novelist best remembered for carrying on a very public affair with Lord Byron while married to the future Lord Melbourne, sounds as though she would make a better subject for an opera than an elegy; but Bennett’s piece is sublime, notable for its delicate use of harp and harpsichord in the orchestral accompaniment.  Another film composer, Ennio Morricone, has written an Elegia per viola (1972), a solo piece derived from his score to the film Violenza: Quinto Potere.  I’m not familiar with this work, but if it’s anything like Morricone’s Spaghetti Western scores, I think I’ll give it a miss.

One of the most celebrated elegies of recent years is Charles Dodge’s Viola Elegy (1987) for viola with computer processing.  Critic Ingram Marshall, without a trace of irony, calls it “Dodge’s most lyrical and beautiful composition to date.  It was composed using an algorithm based on principles of Benoit Mandelbrot’s fractal geometry.”  Like all the most beautifully lyrical music, I suppose, but then I’m no mathematician.  Dodge, whose son Baird is a violist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, dedicated his elegy to the memory of composer Morton Feldman, who, although not a violist himself, composed no less than four works bearing the title The Viola in My Life.  Feldman’s music is characterised by its extreme length and lack of dynamic contrast; his second string quartet, in a single movement, lasts for six hours and never rises above pianissimo.  Such astonishing self-indulgence makes me wish he had kept the viola out of his life altogether.

Many viola elegies are obscure, having been composed for a specific occasion and later forgotten.  The youngest composer listed in Franz Zeyringer’s Literatur für Viola (1985), a certain Paul Groh, is credited with an Elegie in modo di canto gregoriano (1976).  I only performed it once, as part of a presentation on the use of plainsong in classical music for my high school humanities class, and it was well received by my classmates and teachers.  (I wasn’t especially keen on shocking my elders when they were grading me.)  I’m a little embarrassed to remember the piece now, as it was artistically dishonest: I had little business composing an elegy at an age when I had suffered no personal loss other than that of one dog and three parakeets; and as a Protestant, my familiarity with Gregorian chant was limited to its use in orchestral works such as the Sinfonie Fantastique and Pini di Roma, along with movies like The Sound of Music and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  I had nothing personal or meaningful to express in the idiom, and I’m not sorry that I discarded the manuscript, along with nearly all of my other compositions, before moving to Australia.  Unless the copies I gave to Zeyringer and my viola teacher still survive somewhere, the piece itself simply doesn’t exist any more.  Maybe somebody will write an elegy for it.

A number of well-known composers, including Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, Elliot Carter, and Peter Sculthorpe, have written elegies for the viola.  These, however, while occasionally performed in recitals, can hardly be considered among the composers’ more significant works.  Personally I find Britten’s solo viola Elegy (1930), like that of Stravinsky (1944), to be aimless and unsatisfying, just as Sculthorpe’s (2005) is overlong and monotonous.  Of course, we don’t play these elegies because they’re great works; we play them because Peter Grimes and The Firebird and Kakadu are.  Perhaps we should reconsider whether that’s a good enough reason.

Over the years the viola has taken on the role of mourner-in-chief among musical instruments.  Composers tend to reach for the viola as they would reach for a handkerchief or an antidepressant, when they have a feeling of sorrow or anguish to express.  Some would say that the tone of the viola is uniquely suited to such sentiments: dark, brooding, somber, doleful, melancholy, and all the other clichés that may be found in any orchestration textbook.  The opinion of Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, in his notes to Kim Kashkashian’s recording of Hindemith’s Trauermusik, is typical: “The muted, veiled, melancholy timbre of the viola is more limited in tone than the more versatile and changeable ranges of the cello and the violin.  The viola, an instrument in the shadow, is logically the instrument of choice in rendering a mood of dusky dimness.  It is a subtle and discreet medium for music of mourning.  The few viola concertos of music history all convey a mood of resignation or melancholy.”

This narrow-minded and, frankly, insulting attitude is unfortunately so widespread that it needs to be addressed.  First, there are more than a few viola concertos, and the good ones convey a variety of moods and emotions.  If the viola is still “an instrument in the shadow,” it is only because of unimaginative composers who keep putting us there. The viola has as broad an expressive range as any instrument; in fact, given its affinity to the range and quality of the human voice, probably more so.  Is the tone of the viola really as limited, as dreary and mournful, as everyone says it is – or it that merely a reflection of the nature of the music that is written for us?  Chicken?  Egg?  Nobody ever commented on my sorrowful, melancholy tone when I was playing “Flop Eared Mule” and “Boil Them Cabbage Down” at fiddle jamborees; in fact, many people preferred the sound of the viola over the more strident and piercing tone of the violin.

In children’s stories where musical instruments are personified, the viola is invariably cast as a gloomy, lugubrious pessimist, reminiscent of the character Glum (“We’ll never make it!”) in the old Adventures of Gulliver cartoons, or the prophet Jeremiah on one of his bad days.  The viola in Ernest LaPrade’s classic Alice in Orchestralia (1925) does nothing but sulk and complain until the cello snaps: “You haven’t the spirit of an asthmatic mouth organ!”  We’re not like that.  We’re not like that at all.  Most of us have a lively sense of humour.  We have to, in order to deal with both this sort of bigotry and the depressing tone of so much of the music in our literature.    

Elegies are difficult to program on recitals.  Opening with one sets a dour tone for the entire concert, and to finish with one can only be a terrible letdown for everybody.  An elegy therefore has to be sandwiched between two other works of contrasting character – and while there are obviously such works in the viola literature, I’m not sure that they outnumber elegies by a ratio of two to one.  That leaves us with the purpose for which the elegy was originally devised: the funeral or memorial service.  If there is any context in which our extensive body of viola elegies would be appropriate, that is surely it.  Or is it?

I played another elegy at Zion Church, years after my unsuccessful performance of the Stravinsky.  I originally took up the viola after hearing an older boy named John Prahl play “O Holy Night” on the violin at a Christmas Eve service when I was eight years old.  John gave me lessons in the summer when he was home from university, and later became music director at both Zion and my high school.  He was an inspiration and a mentor who became a colleague and a friend; and after he died of brain cancer in 1994, just 42 years old, I offered to play “O Holy Night” at Zion on Christmas Eve as a tribute to him.  I put a great deal of thought and care into the interpretation, and the tearful and heartfelt thanks from John’s family and many friends were very moving indeed.

However, “O Holy Night” was not composed as an elegy.  It’s not about death, but birth; not mourning, but the thrill of hope as the weary world rejoices.  Nowadays more and more people see the funeral as an occasion, not to mourn over a life that has been lost, but to celebrate a life that has been completed.  This is an altogether healthier and more natural way of facing death, and I must say I’m all for it.  When my cousin Matt passed away, also of brain cancer, at the age of 35, he left instructions that swing music was to be played at his funeral – Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, all that jazz.  It was the music that he loved best in life.  If I had tried to perform a viola elegy, my Uncle Joe and Aunt Margaret would have been furious.     

I’ve played the viola at many funerals and memorials, but I’ve never played an elegy written expressly for the instrument at such an occasion.  Generally I’ll play a hymn or a favourite song, anything from “Auld Lang Syne” to Rick Price’s “Heaven Knows”.  While I’ve played the Hindemith Meditation at a couple of services, I’ve never done the Trauermusik because (1) it’s too long and (2) I like the Meditation better.  For occasional music of any kind, you can’t go wrong with unaccompanied Bach:  I played the Sarabande from the E flat Cello Suite at my mother-in-law’s funeral in 2002, just as Gillian Ansett played the Sarabande from the C major suite at Sir Edmund Hillary’s funeral earlier this year.  And Bach, in his vast and variegated output of music for strings, never composed a single elegy for the viola.

Yet they keep right on coming.  Of the 200-odd viola elegies in my survey, over twenty were written in the past decade.  A young Venezuelan composer named R. A. Winkelmann wrote two elegies for viola and piano, both in G minor, on consecutive days in July 2001.  A new one from a composer friend in Sydney just arrived in last week’s post.  Enough.  I’m drowning in a sea of tears.

Perhaps it’s time to declare a moratorium on viola elegies.  Most of them neither make for satisfactory concert pieces nor even suit the purpose for which they were originally intended.  Few composers write more than one or two viola pieces in their lifetimes, and they do us no favours when they hand us yet another example of a type of music which we already have in abundance.  We have long since passed the point where any new work for the viola represents a significant contribution to our repertoire.  Composers would serve us better by providing: solid, well-written works playable by students of all levels; strong pieces suitable for opening or concluding a recital; concerti that display our capacity for both lyricism and virtuosity, rather than merely “a mood of dusky dimness”; nice, flashy encore numbers; and in general, music that explores and expands the expressive range of the viola, rather than placing limits on it.  We don’t need any more elegies.  We already have more of them than we can use.  May they rest in peace.

List of Elegies for Viola