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The Classical Viola da gamba Description Page

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String instrument
Other names Viola da gamba
Hornbostel-Sachs classification 321.322-71
(Composite chordophone sounded by a bow)
Developed Late 15th century from the vihuela
Related instruments
Early Italian tenor viola da gamba, detail from the painting St. Cecilia, by Raphael Sanzio, c. 1510.

The viol (also known as the Viola da gamba) is any one of a family of bowed, fretted, stringed musical instruments developed in the mid-late 15th century and used primarily in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The family is related to and descends primarily from the Spanish vihuela (a guitarlike plucked string instrument). Some degree of developmental influence, if only in playing posture, is credited to the Moorish rabab as well.

Viols are different in several respects from instruments of the violin family.



Detail from a painting by Jan Verkolje, Dutch, c. 1674, Elegant Couple (A Musical Interlude). The theme is similar to the classic Music Lesson genre, and features a bass viol, virginal, and cittern (in the woman's hand, out of frame in this detail; see full image). This image highlights the domestic amateur class of viol playing.

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 that 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").


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, the former 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. 1640–1690), whose students included the French gamba virtuoso and composer Marin Marais. Also, 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, with all surfaces, top, back, and sides made from flat slabs or pieces of joined 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 the 16th century, finally coming to resemble the greater depth of the classic 17th-century pattern. The flat backs of most viols have a sharply angled break or canted bend in their surface close to where the neck meets the body. This serves to taper the back (and overall body depth) at its upper end to meet the back of the neck joint flush with its heel. Traditional construction uses animal glue, and internal joints are often reinforced with strips of either linen or vellum soaked in hot animal glue—a practice also employed in early plucked vihuela construction. The peg boxes of viols (which hold the tuning pegs) were typically decorated either with elaborate carved heads of animals or people or with the now familiar spiral scroll finial.

The earliest vihuelas and viols, 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—first appearing in the mid-15th century—and from then on, it 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-16th century, 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 that 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 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 damping again meant 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-16th century, S-holes morphed into the classic F-shaped holes, which were then used by viols and members of the violin family alike. By the mid- to 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 today call the “classic” 17th-century pattern. Yet another style of sound holes found on some viols was a pair of flame-shaped Arabesques placed left and right. The lute and vihuelalike 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 one always of the viol's more ancient plucked vihuela roots, the "luteness" 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.

Viol bows

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), which pinches the hair and holds it flat and stationary across the frog, viol bows have an open frog that allows more movement of the hair. This facilitates a traditional playing technique where the performer uses one or two fingers of the bow hand to press the hair away from the bow stick. This dynamically increases bow hair tension to control articulation and inflection.

Violone or great bass viol. Painting by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1640, Dutch-born English Baroque era painter. Note the Italianate shape, square shoulders, and F-holes, apart from its massive size.
Plate from Christopher Simpson's book, The Division Violist, England, 1659–1667 edition.


Gamba (as the name is often abbreviated for convenience) comes in six sizes: "pardessus de viole" (which is relatively rare and did not exist before the 18th century), 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 still-smaller 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 (though the Renaissance tenor viol is usually tuned A-D-G-B-E-A). 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, 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 movable nature of the tied-on frets permits 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. Several fretting schemes involve frets that are spaced unevenly to produce "better-sounding" chords in a limited number of keys. In some of these schemes, the two strands of gut that form the fret are separated so that the player can finger a slightly sharper or flatter version of a note (for example G sharp vs. A flat) to suit different circumstances.


Illustration from Sebastian Virdung's (German) 1511 treatise Musica Getutsch, showing the lute family—plucked and bowed. This is the first printed illustration of a viol in history.

Descriptions and illustrations of viols are found in numerous early 16th-century musical treatises, including those authored by:

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 dal Fontego: 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 that are very worthwhile repertoire. A little later, in England, Thomas Mace wrote Musick's Monument, which deals more with the lute but has an important section on the viol. After this, the French treatises by Machy (1685), Rousseau (1687), Danoville (1687), and Loulie (1700) show further developments in playing technique.


The Smithsonian Consort of Viols, a contemporary viol consort

Viols were second in popularity only to the lute (although this is disputed), and like lutes, were very often played by 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 and John Dowland, and, during the reign of King Charles I, John Jenkins and William Lawes. The last music for viol consorts before their modern revival was probably written in the early 1680s by Henry Purcell.

Painting by Abraham Bosse, Musical Society, French,
c. 1635. Subject matter depicts amateur social music making, featuring lute, bass viol, and singers, with part books spread around the table. This is also representative of one kind of broken consort, albeit with minimal instrumentation.

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 comprising a gathering of social amateurs and typically including 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 bass viol: for centuries, the inseparable duo.

Portrait of French composer and viola da gamba master Marin Marais, by Andre Bouys, 1704.
Portrait of Carl Friedrich Abel, composer and viol master—German-born but residing in England most of his life—posed with his viola da gamba. By Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1765.

The bass viola da gamba continued to be used into the 18th century as a solo 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 Carl 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 20th century, the viola da gamba and its repertoire were revived by early music enthusiasts, an early proponent being Arnold Dolmetsch.

Historic viols survive in relatively great number, though very few remain in original condition. They can often be found in collections of historic musical instruments at museums and universities. Here are some of the extant historic viols at The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

The viol today

Today, the viol is attracting ever more interest, particularly among 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. The viol is also 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 and 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 Vázquez 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 condition, are the property of this new concept of museum: the Orpheon Foundation 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 [1]. They are studied and copied by violin makers, contributing to the extension of the general knowledge we have on the viola da gamba, its forms, and the different techniques used for its manufacture.

The 1991 feature film Tous les matins du monde (All the Mornings of the World) by Alain Corneau, based on the lives of 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 viol are Jonathan Dunford, Paolo Pandolfo, Jordi Savall, Wieland Kuijken, Vittorio Ghielmi, Hille Perl, Philippe Pierlot,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 viol

A number of contemporary composers have written for viol, and a number of soloists and ensembles have commissioned new music for viol. 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, Roman Turovsky, Giorgio Pacchioni, Michael Starke, and Jan Goorissen.

Electric viols

Since the late 1980s, numerous instrument makers, including Eric Jensen, Francois Danger, Jan Goorissen, and Jonathan Wilson, have experimented with the design and construction of electric viols. Their range of approaches, from Danger's minimally electrified acoustic/electric Altra line to Eric Jensen's solid-body brace-mounted design, have met with varying degrees of ergonomic and musical success.

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.

Electric viols have been adopted by such contemporary gambists as Gilles Zimmermann, Loren Ludwig, Jay Elfenbein, Paolo Pandolfo, Tina Chancey, and Tony Overwater.

Similar names

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. In the 15th century, the Italian word "viola" was a generic term used to refer to any bowed instrument, or fiddle. It is important to note that the word "viola" existed in Italy before the vihuela, or first viol, was brought from Spain. In Italy, "viola" was first applied to a braccio precursor to the modern violin, as described by Tinctoris (De inventione et usu musice, c. 1481–3), and then was later used to describe the first Italian viols as well. The names viola (Italy) and vihuela (Spain) were essentially synonymous and interchangeable. According to viol historian Ian Woodfield, there is little evidence that the vihuela de arco was introduced to Italy before the 1490s. The use of the term "viola" was never used exclusively for viols in the 15th or 16th centuries. In 16th century Italy, both "violas,"—the early viols and violins—developed somewhat simultaneously. While the violins such as those of Amati achieved their classic form before the first half of the century, the viol's form would be standardized later in the century by instrument makers in England.

Viola da gamba, viola cum arculo, and vihuela de arco are some (true) alternate names for viols. Both "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 the viola da gamba to call their instruments violas and likewise to call themselves violists. That the "alto violin" eventually became known simply as the "viola" is not without historical context, yet the ambiguity of the name tends to cause some confusion. The violin, or violino, was originally the soprano viola da braccio, or violino da braccio. Due to the popularity of the soprano violin, the entire consort eventually took on the name "violin family." Depending on the context, the unmodified "viola da braccio" most regularly denoted either an instrument from the violin family, or specifically the viola. When Monteverdi called simply for "viole da braccio" in "Orfeo," the composer was requesting violas. "Viola da braccio" was finally shortened to "viola" once viols became less common. 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.

"Viola da Gamba" also appears as a name appended to a spoof letter-to-the-editor in the first issue of National Lampoon magazine (April 1970).

Viol da Gamba and Gamba also appear as string family stops on the pipe organ.

See also


  • 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. Howard Mayer Brown, Peter le Huray, John Stevens. ed. The Early History of the Viol. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0 521 24292 4. (Documents the connections between the vihuela and the viol. Documents the connections between the a gamba playing position and the Moorish rabab.)
  • Robins, Brian. "The English Viol Consort in the Tudor Era". [2]

External links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Viola da gamba". Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.

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