top of page

‘The utmost intensity’

Timothy Ridout's new CD celebrates the musical influences of Lionel Tertis, prompting me to find out more about the man who transformed the viola, and wonder what he might think of today's musicians

I had a fun gig last week, interviewing viola player Timothy Ridout at the launch of his wonderful new Lionel Tertis-themed CD. Tertis (1876–1975) arguably invented modern viola playing, pushing the technical limits and perceptions of the instrument, inspiring swathes of new repertoire and sowing the seeds for the golden age of viola playing that we are now enjoying, of which Ridout, still under 30, is a stellar example.

The Blue Plaque at Tertis’s home at 42 Marryat Road, Wimbledon

In preparation, I had the pleasure of going down a Tertis rabbit hole. This included reading Tertis’s own autobiography, My Viola and I, a charming (if sometimes a little pompous) collection of stories about his childhood, key moments and subjects from his artistic life, and a whole section of technical advice, much of which is deeply unfashionable now, but music to my reactionary ears.

‘You must play and interpret with the utmost intensity of feeling, be it fortissimo or pianissimo, appassionata or cantabile, all the time and every time. In no other way can the inert instrument be brought fully to life and made to transmit the reality of your sentiments’ – Lionel Tertis

Tertis’s parents emigrated from Poland and his father Alexander was cantor of Princes Street Synagogue in Spitalfields, which might explain his lyrical, instinctively expressive playing. This is a quality Ridout shares, so it was unsurprising when he explained that as a child his main musical outlet was singing, until his voice broke, when his attention shifted to the viola.

You can hear Tertis’s gentrified East End accent in this short but wonderful Desert Island Discs from 1962. Coming from this poor background, Tertis describes the many gigs he undertook as a pianist, from the age of 13, to make money to pay for his training – whether in mental institutions or seaside retreats (playing to hundreds of East London school children as they ate lunch on holiday in Clacton-on-Sea), possibly instilling in him the importance of communicating with an audience.

Viola as a solo instrument

Although he came to the viola relatively late, and initially only to fill a hole in a quartet at the Royal Academy, Tertis became a fierce advocate quickly:

‘In those days when it was the rarest thing to hear a viola solo, the upper range of the instrument was completely unexplored. Players of that time rarely climbed higher than the second leger line in the treble clef! To counteract this neglect of the higher registers I resolved to give demonstrations to show the improvement in the quality of those higher tones that could be achieved by persistent practice in them. As a student at the R.A.M. I was able to accomplish this by playing the Mendelssohn and Wieniawski D minor concertos (of course a fifth lower but exactly as written for the violin) at two of the fortnightly students’ concerts there. The morning after my performance of the Mendelssohn, I met Alfred Gibson who was for a time the violist of the Joachim Quartet. Evidently he had been present at the concert for he greeted me with a menacing look and exploded: “I suppose the next thing is, you will be playing behind the bridge! The viola is not meant to be played high up – that is the pig department!” I felt like replying: “It probably is on your viola but not on mine!” However, that would have been rude coming from a student to a Professor of the Academy.’

He certainly doesn’t come across as meek, mild, or backward in coming forward, as this memory of one rehearsal with Henry Wood proves:

‘At one point in the work the first oboe and I had to play one or two B flats in unison. Wood turned suddenly to me and said: “Intonation! Intonation! Your B flat is sharp!” To me that accusation was a red rag to a bull. I exploded with rage. All my life I have concentrated on true intonation, and I flattered myself on being pretty good at it. The orchestra stopped, and I played a succession of B flats all down bows – crescendo, forte, fortissimo. Then I bellowed: “That’s my B flat, and there’s nothing wrong with it! Ask your oboe-player about his B flat!” At this H.J.W. retorted, in his high-pitched counter-tenor voice: “HOITY TOITY!” Things calmed down after that, the rehearsal continued without untoward interruption and I forgave what I considered a gross indignity.’


Tertis adored Kreisler – he describes following him around ‘like a dog’ – and took him as a role model for what the viola might do expressively and technically. He was therefore delighted to be invited to play Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with Kreisler and offers a lesson in generosity for us all:

‘At the first performance of the Concertante at the Carnegie Hall with Kreisler, he insisted that I should go on to the platform before him, and when I demurred he said: “You are my guest” – that was typical of his lovely nature. A similar example of his characteristic kindliness was, I remember, when he remarked to me, “Whenever I attend recitals of my fellow artists, I never take notice of their faults – if any, I let them go in one ear and out of the other. But their good points I enjoy, and endeavour to grasp these and learn from them.” Indeed, never once did I hear him say a derogatory word concerning any artist.’

Orchestral playing

In 1938, having published an article in The Daily Telegraph criticising ‘the mass-production and consequent deterioration in quality of performance’ of London orchestras, due to their exhausting schedules, Tertis had a run-in with Thomas Beecham that led to him becoming a quasi-consultant to the conductor, attending rehearsals to critique the balance and working on the string parts: 

‘I set to work, concentrating on achieving unanimity in fingering and phrasing – an important factor in expressive string playing, especially in a body of players performing the same melodic phrase. One day when I was carrying out my duties at an orchestral rehearsal at the Albert Hall, with my beloved Kreisler playing Tchaikovsky’s concerto, I suggested that at a certain point in the score the orchestra had been too loud, and that Kreisler should play up. Immediately Kreisler turned to me and said: “I agree,” and then quite meekly: “I will try – I will do my best.”’

Later on in the book, Tertis even comes up with a ‘Revolutionary Seating Plan for a Symphony Orchestra’, to improve the balance between sections and the natural disadvantage that the strings have in pointing in the wrong direction. One can see the logic, but good luck with that. John Barbirolli actually tried it with the Hallé in 1964 and was clearly not impressed.

Tertis's Revolutionary Seating Plan for a Symphony Orchestra

For players, the practical meat of the book is his treatise on playing at the back of the book, although many of them have become fairly unfashionable. A few tips:


‘The certain road to never-failing perfect intonation is listening of the most concentrated kind. There is a vast difference between listening and listening intently. It is the latter which is absolutely imperative… You will notice how much richer is the sound of a note that is absolutely in tune. A note infinitesimally flat or sharp lacks the rich, round, penetrative, luscious sound that only a note perfectly in tune will give you.’


His views will probably be seen as controversial by today’s young players, although I’m with him on this one:

‘The vital factor about vibrato is that it should be continuous; there must be no break in it whatsoever, especially at the moment of proceeding from one note to another, whether those notes are in the same position or whether a change of position is involved. The vibrato in the note you are playing must start at the very beginning of that note (or possibly infinitesimally before the bow touches the string) - and must join the following note without stopping. In other words, KEEP YOUR FINGERS ALIVE! A phrase is spoilt by allowing them momentarily to go dead, i.e. by the cessation of the vibrato. Let me explain what I mean in a slightly different way: if the finger momentarily ceases to oscillate at the end of the note you are playing, the sound becomes dead, and more so if the note following it is not immediately alive for the first split second that the finger contacts the string.’

Dynamic range

And his views on dynamic range echo a comment Alfred Brendel made in this article for BBC Music Magazine:

‘Understand and make the difference apparent between piano and pianissimo.

Ensure that there is a positive distinction between mezzoforte, forte and fortissimo.

The words crescendo and decrescendo mean increasing and decreasing the tone gradually. They do not mean sudden loudness or softness. Remember that in pianissimo playing you must also use all the intensity of feeling you have within you to express your emotions. It is more difficult to do so when playing pianissimo than when playing forte.’

More unfashionable thoughts on following the composer’s intentions:

‘Do not feel absolutely bound to abide by all the printed nuances you find in the work you are playing. An alteration here and there that really appeals to you is not a crime and will provide a change from other interpretations and show your own individuality.

He even has a view on fashion:

‘Long hair and locks over the right or left eyebrow are nauseating to look at and utterly useless in furthering musical capability.’

He concludes with this rallying cry:


‘Does it not stand to reason that to bring to life a viola, violin, cello or double bass (all of which are inanimate lumps of wood with appen-dages), in order to reproduce the emotional sensibility of which you are capable, you must bring into force all the vitality your body and soul possess?

‘You must play and interpret with the utmost intensity of feeling, be it fortissimo or pianissimo, appassionata or cantabile, all the time and every time. In no other way can the inert instrument be brought fully to life and made to transmit the reality of your sentiments; but above all, understand the difference between sentiment and sentimentality – and avoid the latter like the plague.

‘Do not forget that your playing will reflect your innermost self.

‘Therefore, to make your power of expression worth listening to, it is necessary to mould your mind and action through life to all that is of the utmost sincerity.

‘The interpreter of music in its highest form must rise in his music-making above the levels of the everyday world, its commonness and its vanity, and hold himself apart, in an atmosphere of idealism.

‘I repeat my maxim quoted at the beginning of this section of the book: “The gratification of interpretative art lies in the fulfilment of its immense responsibilities.” Added to which I say with all the vehemence and certainty I can muster: the result will be the enhancement of your quality of tone production.’

High ideals, indeed. I wonder what Tertis would make of the musical world today. Surely some things would shock him – that many of his complaints about orchestral schedules and renumeration have not changed and that playing in some cases has become less sincere and individual. For certain, though, he would be delighted to hear Ridout’s album, including as it does so many of the works he himself inspired, transcribed and performed, with Ridout’s beautiful playing gratifying as it does so highly, the ‘interpretative art’.

Timothy Ridout and James Baillieu perform at the CD launch of A Lionel Tertis Celebration at The Foundling Museum. Photo: Frances Marshall/Harmonia Mundi


bottom of page