No Laughing Matter: The Viola Joke as Musician's Folklore

Presented by Carl Rahkonen at the National Meeting of the American Folklore Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology, October 21, 1994, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Copyright (c) 1994.

The author has requested that if you quote any of this information, please cite this paper.

As with any other group, musicians tell stories and jokes to one another based upon their specialized knowledge and experience. In recent years there has been a joke cycle among musicians pertaining to the viola. For those of you not familiar with the viola, it is slightly larger than the violin, and plays the alto, or middle-range voice in the string section of an orchestra.

Being a violist myself, and also an ethnomusicologist trained folklore, I have paid particular attention to the telling of viola jokes, and over the past three years have personally collected fifty examples. From the number of different musicians who told me these jokes, I can conclude that they were being told in music departments, in major symphony orchestras, regional and community orchestras, and were even being told in orchestras abroad.

As further evidence of the pervasiveness of the viola joke cycle, I have heard several programs on WQED, the Pittsburgh classical music radio station that have featured viola jokes. I have seen viola jokes published in the Pittsburgh Musician, the newsletter of the American Federation of Musicians Local 60-471. The Cleveland Plain Dealer on Sunday March 27th, 1994 featured an article on the viola section of the Cleveland Orchestra, which begins with the line "Hold the viola jokes." Also, cartoonists have featured the viola in some of their recent work. [examples were shown]

Going strictly by the number of jokes I personally heard, the viola joke cycle began in 1992, reached it peak in 1993, and at the present time has greatly diminished.

In order to organize these jokes, I have arranged them into six different categories, which are not necessary mutually exclusive:

  1. Jokes disparaging the viola itself.
  2. Jokes disparaging viola players.
  3. Jokes which offer a general disparagement, which can be easily understood outside musical circles.
  4. Jokes which usually can only be understood by among musicians.
  5. Reverse jokes which get revenge on musicians telling viola jokes.

    All the viola jokes in these first five categories are in the form of a question and answer, so I have added a sixth category which I call
  6. Narrative viola jokes
[author's list of viola jokes here, all of which appear on the viola jokes page.]

As you may have guessed by now the viola is considered somewhat a second-class citizen in the orchestra. There are several reasons for this. Orchestral viola parts are easier than violin parts and they tend to be the less important, non-melodic parts. If viola players do get difficult parts, as they do from time to time, they tend to struggle while trying to play them.

As an instrument, the viola does not have the same carrying power as a violin or cello, since it is pitched one-fifth lower than a violin, but is only about 10% larger. Its solo literature is very limited. Only string bassists tend to suffer the same stereotyping as violists, because of a lack of solo literature for the instrument and having mundane orchestral parts.

An additional handicap is the fact that most violists start out as violinists. Even the greatest violist of recent times, William Primrose, in his book Playing the Viola, includes a chapter about coming to viola playing by way of the violin. The Cleveland Plain Dealer article I mentioned earlier revealed that ten out of the eleven violists in Cleveland Orchestra started out on the violin! One of the first assumptions in junior high school orchestras is that the director will switch the poor violinists over to viola, where they will do less harm, and perhaps even contribute. Viola players are frequently considered inferior musicians since they are thought of as the ones who couldn't make it playing the violin.

An additional factor is the extremely hierarchical structure of a symphony orchestra with regards to musical authority. The conductor is the highest authority. The next highest is the concertmaster, who is the first chair, first violin. The brass, wind, and percussion players are typically all soloists playing one person to a part, so the real pecking order can be seen primarily in the string sections. Each of the string sections has a principal player, whose job it is to lead that section, giving specific directions with regards to bowings, fingers and phrasings. The principal players also gets to play the solo parts, if there are any. Each of the string sections are seated in hierarchical order, with the better players near the front. Superimposed of this hierarchy is an overall hierarchy in the strings. The first violins are the most important, almost always playing the chief melodies. The cellos are perhaps the next most important, followed by second violins, violas and string basses. The violas are always at, or near the bottom, of the hierarchy.

There is an historical reason for this. In the beginning of the era when symphonies began, comparatively few pieces had actual viola parts. As a rule the violas doubled the cellos, switching octaves whenever necessary. Early symphonies were published with three string parts, 1st violin, 2nd violin and bass. The poor violas dragged along with the basses, and were frequently played by individuals who couldn't handle the violin.

The attitude and stereotype about the viola and its players can be seen quotations about the viola from a standard reference work, The Dictionary of Musical Quotations (Ian Crofton and Donald Fraser, Schirmer Books, 1985, p.152):

"The viola is commonly (with rare exceptions) played by infirm violinists, or by decrepit players of wind instruments who happen to have been acquainted with a string instrument once upon a time."
Richard Wagner, in 1869, quoted in Gattey Peacocks on the Podium (1982).
"If you'd heard the violas when I was young, you'd take a bismuth tablet."
Sir John Barbirolli, quoted in Kennedy, Barbirolli Conductor Laureate (1971).

So why are viola jokes told? Certainly for fun and humor, but they also serve the functions of reinforcing the hierarchical structure of the orchestra and to voice unspoken but widely understood stereotypes. A joke will be funny only if it is unanticipated and if there is some basis to it in reality.

Irvin Kauffman, the Associate Principal Cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, was a significant informant for viola jokes. He assured me that the violists of the Pittsburgh Symphony are just as fine musicians as the rest of the orchestra, and that other musicians tell viola jokes because, "The violas get paid the same money for doing a dumb (i.e., easier) job!"

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