The viola is slightly larger than a violin, which gives it a lower pitch.
“If you took the top string off the violin and added one lower string, that’s the viola,” said Mark Berger, who plays viola for the chamber ensemble Music at Eden’s Edge, which has three upcoming concerts in Danvers and Essex.
But the differences don’t end there, and they leave the viola a bit of an outcast among musical instruments.
“Its unique timbre has a very special sound,” Berger said. “The cello and violin were acoustically perfected hundreds and hundreds of years ago. The viola never was. It has an awkward range. It represents a challenge, and that gives it a unique voice.”
Which isn’t to say the instrument hasn’t had its admirers.
“There’s quite a few composers that preferred viola,” Berger said. “Mozart himself played viola, when he would read through his own string quartets. In modern music, the viola has sort of come into its own.”
Among modern composers who have written music for the viola are Martin Boykan, who taught composition at Brandeis University for more than 50 years, and numbered Berger among his doctoral students.
Boykan has written a piece for Berger that will have its world premiere at the upcoming Eden’s Edge concerts, which open the ensemble’s new season.
“I have always admired his playing,” Boykan said. “He’s a wonderful musician.”
Berger also produces a unique sound on the viola, Boykan said, which inspired him as he wrote.
“I actually had Mark’s sound in my head, I heard his viola,” he said.
Berger will perform Boykan’s Sonata for Viola and Piano with Eden’s Edge pianist Naoko Sugiyama.
“It’s a three-movement sonata; it’s very lyrical,” Berger said. “Sort of the standard pattern for most sonatas is fast, slow, fast, but this is kind of the opposite. It has a very meditative last movement titled ‘Prayer.’”
Boykan said that spiritual association occurred to him only after the piece was done.
“I thought, ‘This is what it sounds like to me,’” he said. “I would be very happy if other people would feel it has a spiritual dimension, but I came to that late. I come to some of my best ideas late.”
Boykan, who studied composition with Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith, said that is simply because he works slowly.
“It takes me awhile to understand what the piece wants. I have a sense it is telling me what I should do,” he said. “Mozart heard it right away and did it. I do the wrong things first, and I have to go through that.”
Perhaps because he does spend time on his writing, Boykan’s main focus as a composer is on the experience of time.
“Music is about time, and time passes slowly in music,” he said. “We experience it in the present, and what we experience is altered by what we’ve just heard. But we’re not thinking in terms of the past and the future, because the experience is totally in the present.”
Rhythm, more than anything, defines a piece of music, because it controls the way time passes.
“Notes by themselves don’t mean anything,” he said. “They only mean in the sequence and the pacing, which is absolutely critical.”
Boykan, who has written “a few orchestral pieces that have just been released on CD,” has focused on composing chamber music and vocal music in his career. He was a pianist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the 1960s and first played Sonata for Viola and Piano for Berger on piano.
“He surprised me with it,” Berger said. “He called me up one day and told me he had a present for me. Now I’m going to get a chance to play it. It’s a great honor and a great treat.”
The program for the concert was chosen to complement Boykan’s composition, said Maria Benotti, artistic director of Eden’s Edge, and all the players had a say in what they would play.
While cello player Lynn Nowels suggested Debussy, and Berger told her Boykan liked to contrast his work with Mozart’s, Benotti chose Brahms’ “G Minor Piano Quartet.”
“It’s an extraordinary piece,” she said. “There are some places where it’s deeply sensitive, and then the rondeau goes crazy. That’s the wild part.”
The title for the concert, “A World at our Fingertips,” describes the wide range of music that was chosen for this program.
“Stylistically, there’s a lot of variation in the music,” Benotti said. “It’s the breadth of the variety, and there’s a nice coming together in the end on the Brahms.”
IF YOU GO What: Chamber music concert by Music at Eden's Edge, featuring premiere of Martin Boykan's Sonata for Viola and Piano. Performance times & places: Friday, June 21, 8 p.m., home of John Archer, 10 North St., Danvers; and Saturday, June 22, 8 p.m., First Universalist Church of Essex, 57 Main St., Essex. Cost: $20 adults, $18 seniors, $15 students, $55 family Free concert: Tuesday, June 18, 2 p.m., Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church, 323 Locust St., Danvers. (Senior/family series). For assistance for individuals with disabilities, call 978-270-4463. Tickets & information: 978-270-4463 or www.edensedge.org.