Is this the most exhausting work a violist can play?

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It was last season that the BBC National of Orchestra Wales first performed Carl Nielsen's incredible fifth symphony at St David's Hall with our principal conductor, Thomas Søndergård, and I am looking forward to the opportunity to revisit this work and to perform it on the international stage of the BBC Proms.

Members of the BBC NOW with Laura Sinnerton, far right

It was my first experience of this colossal symphony and at the time I wrote about what is arguably the work's most dramatic moment - the crazy snare drum breakdown of the first movement. However, on this occasion I would like to highlight the role of the section that I am a part of - the violas.

The viola is decidedly larger and heavier than the violin. The notes are spaced further apart, and the extra length and thickness of the strings requires a great deal more effort in both the left hand and the right arm to make an excellent general sound, and good articulation in fast passagework. In short, it gets pretty physical sometimes - and the opening movement of Nielsen's Fifth is about as physical as it gets.

The movement opens with the violas alone; two alternating notes, quietly, utterly uniform in rhythm. Thomas describes it as looking out over a flat, almost featureless landscape, with just a little movement in the air. This doesn’t go on for a few seconds though. Oh no. This goes on for two full pages (don’t get distracted though or you will miss the moment the notes change!). Let me describe the geography of the music for you.

The violas begin their oscillating motif. All else is still. The bassoons enter with a slow moving theme. The violas are still going. Horns enter. Flutes enter. The violas are still going. The clarinet enters with a theme similar to the opening bassoon theme. The violas are still going. The first violins enter (typically) with a lovely melodic theme along with the cellos. You guessed it, the violas are still oscillating away quietly in the background.

Next comes a full page of mad pizzicato (where you pluck the string with a finger rather than using your bow) - a passage that inevitably ends with your pizzicato finger looking like it has been stung by an irate wasp, all red and a bit blistery.

Then comes the marathon. Oh yes, up to now was only the warm up. The violas set off on a two and a bit page flurry of sextuplets (six notes in every beat), much more present than the opening two note motif, and much more active harmonically, notes changing every few bars. It is physically very taxing, ending with an extension in the left hand (the notes don't fall within the compass of the natural handspan, so you must stretch your hand out further than its regular width).

Carl Nielsen

To get an idea of how this feels, I’d like you to indulge me a little. Look at a clock with a ticking second hand. Place your left hand on a table top. Using only your little finger, middle finger and index finger, bring the finger tips down on the table like little hammers, one after the other to make six taps, evenly spaced, in every second. Little finger, middle finger, index finger, little finger, middle finger, index finger.

Now switch to using your little finger, ring finger and index finger and repeat the exercise. Try to keep this up for about two minutes. Now imagine doing this slightly quicker, with your hand the opposite way up, and a big lump of wood stuck under your chin. And thousands of people staring at you. Such is the violist’s lot!

Exhausting as it is however, the perpetual motion of the violas during this opening movement creates the mood of the whole symphony - the juxtaposition of the active and the passive. Composed just after the First World War, Carl Nielsen commented that no one in Europe had been left untouched by the horrors of the conflict. This music is still relevant today. It explores the fear of subjugation of the individual, the transient ambiguity of who is ‘good’ and who is ‘evil’. The work’s conclusion is not a sense of euphoric victory that evil will be vanquished, but a euphoria in the indomitable spirit of mankind. I could talk about it all day, but really, you should have a listen for yourself.

The BBC National of Orchestra Wales plays Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony live on Monday 11 August as part of the BBC Proms. Listen live on BBC Radio 3 from 7.30pm; or catch up afterwards with iPlayer Radio.

Find out more about Nielsen’s Fifth with this Proms Music Guide.

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