Viola Da Gamba

Name: Viola Da Gamba.
Type: Chordophones > Lutes > Viols.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.322.71
Period: 1600-1750 Baroque.
Country: Many.
Region: Western Europe.

Description: The viola da gamba, viol / ˈvaɪəl / viola da gamba / [ˈvjɔːla da ˈɡamba] or informally gamba. It is a bowed instrument similar in profile to the cello or viol. It is played with a bow in while positioned in between the legs. Hence its name “Viol de gamba” literally ‘leg viol’]. While it is not a direct ancestor of the violin, there is some kinship between the two instrument families.

History: The viola da gamba first appeared in Spain in the mid to late 15th century and were most popular in the Renaissance and Baroque [1600-1750] periods. Early ancestors include the Arabic rebab and the medieval European vielle but later, more direct possible ancestors include the Venetian viole and the 15th and 16th century Spanish vihuela, a 6-course plucked instrument tuned like a lute and also like a present-day viol that looked like but was quite distinct from at that time the 4-course guitar an earlier chordophone.

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 Etienne Loulie, 1700 show further developments in playing technique.

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

1511 Sebastian Virdung: Musica getutsch
1523 Hans Judenkunig: Ain schone kunstliche Vunderwaisung
1528 Martin Agricola Musica instrumentalis, deutsch
1532 Hans Gerle: Musica Teusch [or Teutsch]

Both Agricola’s and Gerle’s works were published in various editions.

Vihuelists began playing their flat-edged 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 and an identical tuning.

Hence its original name, vihuela de arco; arco is Spanish for “bow”. An influence in the playing posture has been credited to the example of Moorish rabab players. The viol is unrelated to the much older Hebrew stringed instrument called a nevel [literally, “skin”]. This ancient harp-like instrument was similar to the kinnor or nabla.

Stefano Pio argues that a re-examination of documents in the light of newly collected data indicates an origin different from the vihuela de arco from Aragon. According to Pio, the viola da gamba had its origins and evolved independently in Venice. Pio asserts that it is implausible that the vihuela de arco, which possibly arrived in Rome and Naples after 1483-1487. Since Johannes Tinctoris does not mention it prior to this time.

The viola de gamba underwent such a rapid evolution by Italian instrument makers. circumstances specifically excluded by Lorenzo da Pavia nor Mantuan or Ferrarese, as evidenced by Isabella and Alfonso. Ian Woodfield, in his The Early History of the Viol, points to evidence that the viol does in fact start with the vihuela but that Italian makers of the instrument immediately began to apply their own highly developed instrument-making traditions to the early version of the instrument when it was introduced into Italy.

Initially the family of viole [“viols”] shared common characteristics but differed in the way they were played. The increase in the dimensions of the “viola” determined the birth of the viol and the definitive change in the manner the instrument was held, as musicians found it easier to play it vertically.

The first consort of viols formed by four players was documented at the end of the fifteenth century in the courts of Mantua and Ferrara, but was also present in popular Venetian music ambience, noted at the Scuola Grande di San Marco, 1499; Venetian culture remained independent of Spanish influence and consequently unfamiliar with the instruments of those lands, such as the bowed vihuela de arco.

Although bass viols superficially resemble cellos, viols are different in numerous respects from instruments of the violin family: the viol family has flat rather than curved backs, sloped rather than rounded shoulders, c holes rather than f holes, and five to seven rather than four strings; some of the many additional differences are tuning strategy (in fourths with a third in the middle—similar to a lute—rather than in fifths], the presence of frets, and underhand [“German”] rather than overhand [“French”] bow grip.

Family: All members of the viol family are played upright [unlike the violin or the viola, which is held under the chin]. All viol instruments are held between the legs like a modern cello, hence the Italian name viola da gamba [it. “viol for the leg”] was sometimes applied to the instruments of this family. This distinguishes the viol from the modern violin family, the viola da braccio [it. “viol for the arm”].

A player of the viol is commonly known as a gambist, violist / ˈvaɪəlɪst / or violist da gamba. “Violist” shares the spelling, but not the pronunciation, of the word commonly used since the mid-20th century to refer to a player of the viola. It can therefore cause confusion if used in print where context does not clearly indicate that a viol player is meant, though it is entirely unproblematic, and common, in speech.

Frets on the viol are usually made of gut, tied on the fingerboard around the instrument’s neck, to enable the performer to stop the strings more cleanly. Frets improve consistency of intonation and lend the stopped notes a tone that better matches the open strings.

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