In Defense of the Viola

To the casual observer of a symphony orchestra in flight, it is plain the violas are doing something up there, but what exactly isn’t always obvious. The melody typically goes to treble instruments like the 1st Violins, flute or trumpet. The bass line is typically assigned to cellos, basses, bassoons or trombones. But the violas occupy the middle ground. And they perform a wide variety of functions there. Like the rhythm guitar of a rock band, the viola is often assigned the internal motor rhythm. It also frequently fills out the harmony. But do violas ever play melody?

The Concerto for English Horn and Viola (BWV 1060), by J. S. Bach

An arrangement for English Horn and Viola of Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin (BWV 1060). Like my previously released Concerto for Two Violas in A Minor (BWV 1043), this arrangement is modeled after Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. As with current day performances of Brandenburg No. 6, it has an accompanying ensemble consisting of Violas 1 & 2, Cello, Cembalo and Bass (no violins). Single or multiple instruments may be used on each part. This arrangement has the added flexibility of being a double viola concerto with an optional Solo Viola 2 taking the place of the English Horn.

Available in both ensemble and piano versions, this arrangement is suitable for both recital and formal concert stage performances. It makes an ideal stand-up concerto. It makes an excellent companion piece on programs that feature viola(s) or english horn.

This concerto arrangement represents a significant addition to solo viola and solo english horn repertoire from the Baroque period, for which there are scant choices. For that reason it is sure to be found of value to both the learner as well as to the seasoned soloist.

The Star of County Down

It is my pleasure to introduce a new and fun piece for viola and piano, an arrangement of the Irish traditional song, Star of County Down. This was written for the occasion of my niece’s wedding in May of 2014. It is celebratory in character, and a respectful nod to our family’s Irish roots.

The work consists of a cadenza-like introduction, followed by theme and variations. The two variations consist of elaborate descants over the theme. The second variation captures the spirit of Irish fiddling. It ends as it began with a cadenza-like coda. Duration: 3 mins 50 secs. An optional Dal Segno al Coda lengthens the piece by about 50 secs if desired.

The work resembles in its own way the miniatures for violin and piano written by Fritz Kreisler. That said, however, neither the viola nor piano part present any frightening technical challenges. It is suited to players of intermediate level or higher, student as well as advanced players. Supplemental material includes examples of how to embellish the melody, and lyrics to the song as left to us by Cathal McGarvey (1866-1927).

The Concerto for Two Violas (BWV 1043), by J. S. Bach

The Concerto for Two Violas (BWV 1043) is an arrangement of the famous “Bach Double” Violin Concerto. It makes an ideal stand-up concerto and is suitable for both recitals and the formal concert stage. It also fills an urgent need for Baroque concerto repertoire for the viola, for which there are few choices.

The new Bach Double for Viola is available in two formats: a full Ensemble Version, and a version for Two Violas and Piano. The Ensemble Version is scored for the combination of instruments commonly used to perform Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6: Solo Violas I & II, and a string ensemble consisting of Violas I & II, Cello, Double Bass and Cembalo (typically harpsichord). Single or multiple instrument may be used on ensemble parts.

The audio sample link below dates from 1999. The soloists are myself (Brett Allen), Solo Viola I, and the late David Schmookler, Solo Viola II. The concert featured the viola section of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and was part of the Sundays at Central series. David Schmookler was Principal Viola of the Columbus Symphony from 1986-2010.

Nativity Scenes, Suite for String Orchestra

Weaving Classical Music and Traditional Carols through the Biblical Narrative of Christmas.

    "I was deeply moved on hearing this work in performance for the first time. ... here comes a composer, American Brett L. Allen, to present the Christmas story in such a fresh context"

Written Lessons-and-Carols style, Nativity Scenes, Suite for String Orchestra is an excellent choice for Christmas programming. The suite consists of five movements, telling the story of the Nativity and relating well-familiar Christmas carols to their historical roots.

Live Recordings:

  1. Veni Emmanuel

  2. We Three Kings

  3. Christmas, Joy to the World

  4. Silent Night

  5. Good Christan Men Rejoice

The five movements may be excerpted.

Performance Details: Full compliments of strings recommended (minimum: 4-4-2-3-2). Duration 22 mins; 28 mins if narrated. Score includes optional Scriptural narration to be read between movements in the English Lessons and Carols tradition.

Ordering Information: Print-on-demand sheet music for “Nativity Scenes: Suite for String Orchestra,” published by Oxford University Press, is available for purchase from: Allegro Music, UK.

Sample parts may be perused at at the following links: Full Score, Violin, Viola, Cello, Contrabass, Narrator.

Also see:

4amici, Quartet for Bassoon, Violin, Viola Cello

An original work written for Betsey Sturdevant’s Amici Quartet, for the four-instrument combination Bassoon, Violin, Viola and Cello. Betsey Sturdevant is Principal Bassoon of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. The work was first performed in November of 2010 in Columbus, Ohio.

The work is theatrical in nature. I had in mind four buddies getting together for a jam session in a public space, not unlike the phenomena of the drum circle. There is an improvisatory feel to the music. Each participant offers up a musical idea. Before long we have a groove. Interruptions occur. There is a section that sounds like a war song from the old country. Later, the strings decide to cut the bassoon out and do their own thing. But the bassoonist won’t have it and crashes the party. And so it goes, on and on, each section spinning out a new section. Where it is headed and where it will end is anyone’s guess. Eventually the energy dissipates and everyone calls it a night.

Sample parts are available on

Full Score, Bassoon, Violin 1, Viola, Cello.

Mixture of Threes

Mixture of Threes was written as a demonstration piece for young listeners. Ideally, it would be performed at the time many of them are considering taking up a musical instrument. It is an ideal way of introducing young audiences to instruments of three main instrumental groups - winds, strings and brass. It playfully incorporates three musical styles: Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Latin. The title, “Mixture of Threes” reflects the nature of the piece – three movements, three instruments, three instrumental families, three musical styles, and so on. Though designed for educational purposes, it is equally at home in formal concert settings.

Sample parts are available here.

Le Grand Tango Review in American String Teacher Magazine

The following review appeared in the February, 2013 issue of the American String Teacher Magazine. Many thanks to Blair Williams for a thoroughly positive assessment! Blair is a Ph.D. student at Ohio State University, a brief bio is down below.

LE GRAND TANGO (va, pno). Astor Piazzolla, arr. Brett L. Alen. Berben/Theodore Presser, 1982, $29.95. Allen is assistant principal violist with the Columbus (OH) Symphony and performs with the ProMusic Chamber Orchestra. His arrangement of Le Grand Tango is challenging yet enticing to study. Allen adds octave doublings to the overflowing use of double stops commonly found in other arrangements of the work. Glissandos, harmonics, and use of the viola’s full range all add to the sultry style of this piece. Allen adds excellent suggestions for finger choreography, phrasing, precisely articulated style and voicing to encompass the colors Piazzolla intended. He offers the viola community a virtuosic piece to prove the viola’s versatility in all genres. A perfect recital closer for the artist-level violist! B.W.

Blair Williams (B.W.), Ph.D. student in String Music Education at Ohio State University conducts the OSU Community Orchestra and works with the Chamber Strings, an orchestra under the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestras. She also maintains a small violin and viola studio. She holds a BME from Baylor University and an MM from Kansas State University.

Le Grand Tango, for Viola, String Orchestra and Piano. Piazzola, arr. Brett L Allen.

Piazzolla: Bridging the Classical/Popular Divide

Composers of serious classical music generally find support in forms of patronage. Their opportunities consist of entering competitions, winning government grants, receiving commissions from foundations, wealthy individuals or other sponsorship sources. Composers of popular music on the other hand generally work with market forces. They derive income from the selling of recordings and through broadcast licenses. When a song plays on the radio, a couple nickels and dimes end up in the pocket of the composer who wrote it. Bands go on concert tours, but the overriding purpose is to drive the sale of recordings and broadcasts. With popular music, in order to sell, it MUST have mass appeal.

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