Those who are in the strings community and, to some degree, those in the world of instrumental music at large, are well aware of the proverbial “viola joke”. While all musicians with a sense of humor have their self-deprecating jokes about their choice instrument, Viola is different. There is a massive disproportion in the number of jokes about the viola. This disproportion has a historical precedent.
Hector Berlioz, the composer of the great piece Harold in Italy, conveyed a particularly critical sentiment when he stated:
"Viola players were always taken from among the refuse of violinists."
Most violists are familiar with this quote, and often see it as a scathing remark on the viola. Others like to see it as more of a remark on the standard practices of the time, which has some warrant.
Most viola sections were made up of the least skilled violin players and, since it was a middle voice, the parts were not as noticeable (and were typically easier to play). Since violinists were the violists at the time, it was common practice to play much smaller violas (usually between 14” and 15”), which do not produce a robust and aesthetically pleasing tone.
So you have a combination of the least-skilled violinists playing on poor sounding instruments and, hence, you have the perfect storm for the origin of "the viola joke".
It wasn’t until a man named Lionel Tertis came along that the viola began to be respected. The first of three major viola virtuosos (the other two being William Primrose and to a lesser extent Paul Hindemith), Tertis is responsible for a major contribution to the viola’s standard repertoire today. In the hands of such a skilled musician, the viola had a chance to shed some of the misconceptions surrounding it.
Tertis also advocated for larger violas, believing that the smallest viola that can produce a sufficient enough tone is 16.5”. Tertis himself played a viola that was over 17” despite standing around only 5’6”! It should be duly noted that Lionel Tertis’ performance career was cut short due to tendonitis.
Many virtuosos, such as Kim Kashkashian, Tabea Zimmerman, and Lawrence Power have since demonstrated the enormous possibilities of the Viola sound.
Today, the viola is much more highly respected as an instrument, has shown its might through many of the great virtuosi of the last two centuries, and has an impressive body of repertoire. The viola joke still lingers for better or worse, but there is no serious reason to think less of the instrument than the other instruments in the string family.