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The viol (also called viola da gamba) is any one of a family of bowed, fretted stringed musical instruments developed in the 1400s and used primarily in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The family is related to and descends primarily from the Spanish vihuela (a guitar-like plucked string instrument). Some degree of developmental influence, if only in playing posture, is credited to the Moorish rabab as well.
Vihuelists began playing their flat-bridged instruments with a bow in the second half of the 15th century. Within two or three decades this led to the evolution of an entirely new and dedicated bowed string instrument which retained many of the features of the original plucked vihuela: a flat back, sharp waist-cuts, frets, thin ribs (initially), and an identical tuning — hence its Spanish name vihuela de arco (arco meaning "bow"). Due to their comparatively large sizes, this new instrument was usually held upright, either resting on the lap or held between the legs, similar to the playing posture of a cello. This gave rise to its Italian name viola da gamba, meaning "viol of the leg," which also helped differentiate it from the visually similar but only distantly related early violin family which the Italians called viola da braccio (lit. "viol of the arm").
Viols have a flat back and carved front (in contrast to members of the violin family, whose backs and fronts are both carved), with an angled "break" of wood on the back towards where the neck meets the body. Traditional construction uses animal glue and internal joints are often reinforced with vellum soaked in hot animal glue. Viol necks were often decorated with carved heads as an alternative to the familar spiral scroll design where the tuning pegs are. Viols most commonly had six strings, although many 16th century instruments had five or even four strings. Viols were (and are) strung with (low tension) gut strings, unlike the steel strings used by members of the modern violin family. Gut strings produce a sonority far different from steel, which is generally described as softer and sweeter. Around 1660, gut or silk core strings overspun with copper wire first became available. These were then used for the lowest pitched bass strings on viols (and on many other string instruments as well). Viols are fretted in a manner similar to early guitars or lutes, by means of movable, wrapped-around and tied-on gut frets. A low seventh string was supposedly added in France to the bass viol by Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (c. 1640-c. 1690), whose students included the French gamba virtuoso and composer Marin Marais. However, the painting Saint Cecilia with an Angel (1618) by Domenichino (1581-1641) shows what may be a seven-string viol.
Unlike members of the violin family, which are tuned in fifths, viols are usually tuned in fourths with a major third in the middle, mirroring the tuning employed on the vihuela de mano and lute during the 16th century, and similar to that of the modern six-string guitar.
Viols were first constructed much like the vihuela de mano, from flat slabs or pieces of wood, bent or curved as required. However, some viols, both early and later, had carved tops, similar to those more commonly associated with instruments of the violin family. The ribs or sides of early viols were usually quite shallow, reflecting more the construction of their plucked vihuela counterparts. Rib depth increased during the course of 16th century, finally coming to resemble the greater depth of the classic 17th century pattern.
The earliest vihuelas and violas, both plucked and bowed, all had sharp cuts to their waists, similar to the profile of a modern violin. This is a key and new feature, which first appeared in the mid 1400s and from then on was employed on many different types of string instruments. This feature is also key in seeing and understanding the connection between the plucked and bowed versions of early vihuelas. If one were to go searching for very early viols with smooth-curved figure-eight bodies, like those found on the only slightly later plucked vihuelas and the modern guitar, they would be out of luck. By the mid 1500s, however, "guitar-shaped" viols were fairly common, and a few of them survive.
The earliest viols had flat, glued down bridges just like their plucked counterpart vihuelas. Soon after, however, viols adopted the wider and high arched bridge which facilitated the bowing of single strings. The earliest of viols would also have had the ends of their fretboards flat on the deck, level with or resting upon of the top or sound board. Once the end of their fretboards were elevated above the top of the instrument's face the entire top could vibrate freely. Early viols did not have sound posts either (again reflecting their plucked vihuela siblings). This reduced dampening meant again that their tops could vibrate more freely, contributing to the characteristic "humming" sound of viols. Yet the absence of a sound post also resulted in a quieter and softer voice overall.
It is commonly believed that C-holes (a type and shape of pierced sound-port visible on the top-face or belly of string instruments) are a definitive feature of viols, a feature used to distinguish viols from instruments in the violin family, which typically had F-shaped holes. This generality, however, renders an incomplete picture. The earliest viols had either large, open, round, sound-holes (or even round pierced rosettes) like those found on lutes and vihuelas, or they had some kind of C-holes. Viols sometimes had as many as four small C-holes, one placed in each corner of the bouts, but more commonly they had two. The two C-holes might be placed in the upper bouts, centrally, or in the lower bouts. In the formative years, C holes were most often placed facing each other or turned inwards. In addition to round or C-holes, however, and as early as the first quarter of the 16th century, some viols adopted S-shaped holes, again facing inward. By the mid 1500’s S-holes morphed into the classic F-shaped holes which were then used by both viols and members of the violin family alike. By the mid-late 16th century the viol's C-holes facing-direction was reversed, becoming outward-facing. That configuration then became a standard feature of what we call today “the classic” 17th century pattern. Yet another style of sound-holes found on some viols were a pair of flame-shaped Arabesques placed left and right. The lute and vihuela-like round or oval ports or rosettes became a standard feature of German and Austrian viols and was retained to the very end. That feature or “genetic marker” was exclusively unique to viols and reminded always of the viol's more ancient plucked vihuela roots, the "luteiness" of viols.
Historians, makers, and players generally distinguish between Renaissance and Baroque viols. The latter are more heavily constructed and are fitted with a bass bar and sound post like modern stringed instruments.
The bow is held underhand (palm up), similar to a German double bass bow grip, but away from the frog towards the balance point. The stick's curvature is generally convex as were violin bows of the period, rather than concave like a modern violin bow. The "frog" (which holds the bowhair and adjusts its tension) is also different from that of modern bows: whereas a violin bow frog has a "slide" (often made of mother of pearl) to hold the hair flat across the frog, viol bows have an open frog that allows more movement of the hair. This is essential to allow the traditional playing technique in which the player tensions the bow hair with one or two fingers of the right hand between the hair and the bow stick in order to control articulation and inflection while playing.
The gamba (as the name is often abbreviated for convenience) comes in six sizes: "pardessus de viole" (which is relatively rare), treble, alto, tenor, bass, and contrabass (also known as a violone). The treble is about the size of a violin (but with a deeper body); the standard bass is a bit smaller than a cello. The English made smaller basses known as division viols, and the smaller still Lyra viol. German consort basses were larger than the French instruments designed for continuo. Two closely related instruments include the baryton and the viola d'amore, although the latter is played under the chin, viola-fashion.
The standard tuning of the viol is in fourths, with a major third in the middle (like the standard Renaissance lute tuning). For bass viols the notes would be (from the lowest) D-G-c-e-a-d', with an additional low A for seven-string bass viols. For the tenor viol the tuning is G-c-f-a-d'-g'. The treble viol is one octave higher than the bass.
Alternate tunings (called scordatura) were often employed, particularly in the solo lyra viol style of playing, which also made use of many techniques such as chords and pizzicato, which were not generally used in consort playing. An unusual style of pizzicato was known as a thump. Lyra viol music was also commonly written in tablature. There is a vast repertoire of this music, some by well-known composers and much by anonymous ones.
Much viol music predates the adoption of equal temperament tuning by musicians. The moveable nature of the tied-on frets permit the viol player to make adjustments to the tempering of the instrument and some players and consorts adopt meantone temperaments which are arguably more suited to Renaissance music. There are several recognised fretting schemes in which the frets are spaced unevenly, in order to give "better-sounding" chords in a limited number of keys. In some of these schemes, the two strands of gut which comprise the fret are separated so that the player can finger a slightly sharper or flatter version of a note, to suit different circumstances.
Descriptions and illustrations of viols are found in numerous early 16th century musical treatises, including those authored by:
- Sebastian Virdung: Musica getutsch, 1511
- Hans Judenkunig: Ain schone kunstliche Vunderwaisung, 1523
- Martin Agricola: Musica instrumentalis deutsch, 1528
- Hans Gerle: Musica Teusch (or Teutsch), 1532
Both Agricola's and Gerle's works were published in various editions.
There were then several important treatises concerning or devoted to the viol. The first was by Silvestro Ganassi: Regola Rubertina & Lettione Seconda (1542/3). Diego Ortiz published Trattado de Glosas (Rome 1553), an important book of music for the viol with both examples of ornamentation and pieces called Recercadas. In England, Christopher Simpson wrote the most important treatise, with the second edition being published in 1667 in parallel text (English and Latin). This has divisions at the back which are very worthwhile repertoire. A little later in England, Thomas Mace wrote Musick's Monument, which deals more with the lute, but also has an important section on the viol. After this the French treatises by Rousseau (1687), Danoville (1687) and Loulie (1700) show further developments in playing technique.
Viols were second in popularity only to the lute (although some might dispute that secondness), and like lutes they were very often played by the common-man (or woman, or child), otherwise know as "amateurs". Affluent homes might have a so-called chest of viols which would contain one or more instruments of each size. Gamba ensembles, called consorts, were common in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they performed vocal music (consort songs or verse anthems) as well as that written specifically for instruments. Only the treble, tenor, and bass sizes were regular members of the viol consort, which consisted of three, four, five, or six instruments. Music for consorts was very popular in England in Elizabethan times, with composers such as William Byrd, John Dowland and during the reign of King Charles I by composers such as John Jenkins and William Lawes. The last music for viol consorts before their modern revival was probably that written in the early 1680s by Henry Purcell.
Perhaps even more common than the pure consort of viols was the mixed or broken consort (also called Morley consort). Broken consorts combined a mixture of different instruments, a small band essentially, usually a gathering of social amateurs, and typically included such instruments as: a bass viol, a lute or orpharion (a wire-strung lute, metal-fretted, flat-backed, and festoon-shaped), a cittern, a treble viol (or violin as time progressed), sometimes an early keyboard instrument (virginal, spinet, or harpsichord), and whatever other instruments or players (or singers) might be available at the moment. The single most common and ubiquitous pairing of all was always and everywhere the lute and a bass viol -- for centuries, the inseparable duo.
The bass viola da gamba continued to be used into the 18th century as a solo (music) instrument and to complement the harpsichord in basso continuo). It was a favorite instrument of Louis XIV and acquired associations of both courtliness and Frenchness (in contrast to the Italianate violin). Composers such as Marin Marais, Johann Sebastian Bach, Antoine Forqueray, and Karl Friedrich Abel wrote virtuoso music for it. However, viols fell out of use as concert halls grew larger, and the louder and more penetrating tone of the violin family became more popular. In the last one hundred years or so, the viola da gamba and its repertoire were revived by early music enthusiasts, an early proponent being Arnold Dolmetsch.
The viol today
Today, the viol is attracting ever more interest, particularly amongst amateur players. This may be due to the increased availability of reasonably-priced instruments from companies using more automated production techniques, coupled with the greater accessibility of music editions. Also, the viol is regarded as a suitable instrument for adult learners; Percy Scholes wrote that the viol repertoire "belongs to an age that demanded musicianship more often than virtuosity."
There are now many societies for people with an interest in the viol. The first was The Viola da Gamba Society, which was established in the United Kingdom in 1948 but has a worldwide membership. Since then, similar societies have been organized in several other nations.
A living Museum of historical musical instruments was created by Prof José Vàzquez of the university of vienna, as a center for the revival of the instrument. More than 100 instruments including approximately 50 historical viola da gambas in playable conditions are the property of this new concept of museum: Orpheon - Museum of Historical Instruments. All the instruments of this museum are played by the Orpheon Baroque Orchestra, the Orpheon consort, or by musicians who receive an instrument for a permanent loan. The instruments can be seen during temporary exhibitions. They are studied and copied by violin makers contribuing to the extension of the general knowledge we have on the viola da gamba, its forms and the diffent techniques used for its manufacture.
The 1991 feature film Tous les matins du monde by Alain Corneau, based on the life of the Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais, prominently featured these composers' music for the viola da gamba and brought viol music to new audiences. The film's bestselling soundtrack features performances by Jordi Savall, one of the best-known modern viola da gamba players.
Among the foremost modern players of the viols are: José Vàzquez, Paolo Pandolfo, Jordi Savall, Wieland Kuijken, Vittorio Ghielmi, Hille Perl, and Guido Balestracci. Many fine modern viol consorts (ensembles) are also recording and performing, among them the groups Fretwork and Phantasm. The Baltimore Consort specializes in Renaissance song (mostly English) with broken consort (including viols).
New compositions for viols
A number of contemporary composers have written for viols, and a number of soloists and ensembles have commissioned new music for viols. Fretwork has been most active in this regard, commissioning George Benjamin, Michael Nyman, Elvis Costello, Sir John Tavener, Orlando Gough, John Woolrich, Tan Dun, Alexander Goehr, Fabrice Fitch, Andrew Keeling, Thea Musgrave, Sally Beamish, Peter Sculthorpe, Gavin Bryars, Barrington Pheloung, Simon Bainbridge, Duncan Druce, Poul Ruders, Ivan Moody, and Barry Guy; many of these compositions may be heard on their 1997 CD Sit Fast. The Yukimi Kambe Viol Consort has commissioned and recorded many works by David Loeb, and the New York Consort of Viols has commissioned Bülent Arel, David Loeb, Daniel Pinkham, Tison Street, Frank Russo, Seymour Barab, William Presser, and Will Ayton, many of these compositions appearing on their 1993 CD Illicita Cosa. Other composers for viols include Moondog, Kevin Volans, Roy Whelden, Toyohiko Satoh, Mark Moya, Giorgio Pacchioni, and Michael Starke.
In the early 21st century, the Ruby Gamba, a solid-body seven-string electric viola da gamba was developed by Ruby Instruments of Arnhem, the Netherlands. It has 21 tied nylon (adjustable) frets in keeping with the adjustable (tied gut) frets on traditional viols, and has an effective playing range of more than six octaves. The instrument has been adopted by such contemporary gambists as Gilles Zimmermann, Jay Elfenbein, and Tony Overwater.
Another new version of the viol is the TogaMan GuitarViol, which is essentially a solid-bodied electric tenor viol. Its tuning is the same as a guitar, whereas the Ruby Gamba is more traditionally oriented.
The viola da gamba is occasionally confused with the viola, the alto member of the modern violin family and a standard member of both the symphony orchestra and string quartet. The latter instrument came into being and was named long after the original late 15th century Italian violas. The earlier Italian viola family included the viola da mano and viola da gamba — being plucked and bowed viola guitars, respectively. The names viola (Italy) and vihuela (Spain) were essentially synonymous and interchangeable. Vihuela and viola are thus both synonymous names for the plucked guitar-like instrument usually called simply vihuela today. Viola da gamba, viola cum arculo, and vihuela de arco are some (true) alternate names for viols. Both names vihuela and viola were originally used in a fairly generic way, having included even early violins (viola da braccio) under their umbrella. It is common enough (and justifiable) today for modern players of viola da gamba to call their instruments violas, and likewise to call themselves violists. That the "alto violin" eventually usurped the name "viola" is unfortunate and is actually more the cause of any current confusion. Some other names for viols include: viole or violle (French). In Elizabethan English, the word "gambo" (for gamba) appears in many permutations, e.g. "viola de gambo", "gambo violl", "viol de gambo", or "viole de gambo", used by such notables as: Tobias Hume, John Dowland, and William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night.
- Bryan, John (2005). "In Search of the Earliest Viols: Interpreting the Evidence from a Painting by Lorenzo Costa." The Viola da Gamba Society of Great Britain, Newsletter, no. 131.
- Crum, Alison, with Sonia Jackson (1992). Play the Viol: The Complete Guide to Playing the Treble, Tenor and Bass Viol. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816311-8.
- Woodfield, Ian (1984). "The Early History of the Viol." Cambridge University Press. (Documents the connections between the vihuela and the viol.)
- Joëlle Morton's GreatBassViol: Iconography, and early Treatise Facsimiles online
- Viola da Gamba Society of America site
- The Sound of the Division Viol
- Transcriptions and facsimiles of viol treatises
- Orpheon Foundation, Vienna, Austria
- Megaviol: A Bibliography
- Modern Viol Portal and Forum
Viol consorts and soloists
- The Rose Consort of Viols
- Viol instructional videos