This work was commissioned by the BBC. The first performance was by the Scottish National Orchestra, at a BBC Promenade Concert in the Royal Albert Hall in 1973, with the composer conducting and with Peter Mark (solo viola).
Many of Musgrave's orchestral works have been written in what she has called dramatic-abstract forms; dramatic because players are sometimes called upon to carry out a more theatrical role, and abstract because there is no programme. The form is quite different in each of these works but technically they do have certain things in common. For in order to underline the dramatic nature of certain solo parts, the players at times play independently from the conductor, so they have the same kind of rhythmic freedom as they would in a virtuosic cadenza or lyrical rubato. This meant finding a notation that allows the synchronization of events simply and practically, leaving the players free to concentrate on presenting their lines in an uninhibited way.
The Viola Concerto explores the dramatic interplay of the solo viola with different small orchestral groups, and, equally important, the relationship of the soloist with his colleagues in the viola section. To this end, the viola section is seated where the lst violins normally sit, thus focussing attention on them right from the start.
The opening tutti forms the framework to the whole work. It is often loud and characterized by sharp jagged chords or whirling passages with chattering wind and brass. But there are also softer moments as when the soloist makes his entry, and later when there is a cantabile line accompanied by softly undulating horns.
There are two central episodes where the soloist is heard in combination with two small orchestral groups; an unconducted soft lyrical section when the viola solo is accompanied by the flute, bass clarinet and harp, and later a grotesque scherzo with the bassoon, lst cello and lst double bass. During this scherzo the orchestral violas become increasingly restive and finally break out with an impassioned declamation. They are dramatically interrupted by a solo trombone. The soloist then joins the violas, and leads them to a brief recapitulation and coda.