What is a viol?

how to hold the viol

from Christopher Simpson: 'The Division Viol', 2/1665

Despite some similarities, the viol is not an 'ancestor' of the modern violin family - rather, it could be described as a distant relative, originating in a different cultural context, and never quite standardised the way the violin family eventually was. It shares with the violin family the fact that it is a bowed instrument, with a curved bridge, a large resonating body, and a fingerboard crowned by a peg-box and a scroll. But it differs in that it has more strings (usually six or seven), is tuned in fourths and a third (nearly like a guitar), has gut frets which are tied round the neck and can therefore be moved for tuning, and is always played between the knees. The bow is slightly outcurved and is held with an underhand grip.

The viol also comes in a great variety of sizes, including not just the treble, alto, tenor and bass of the classic viol consort, but also the French 18th-century pardessus (small treble), the seven-string French baroque bass, and various bigger deep bass viols (including versions related to the modern orchestral double bass).

Structurally it is also very different: it is extremely lightly built, has a flat back (fundamentally different in properties from the carved back of the violin), a deeper body, and some strikingly different structural features. Until at least the 1660s all viol strings were plain gut, so basses had to be quite large.

bass viol bridge, showing thick gut bottom string

The most common sizes of viol used today are:

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16th-century Venetian bass by Richard Jones

Early history

The viol (or viola da gamba, 'viol for the legs', the standard Italian term applied to all sizes of the instrument) developed probably in Spain around the 1490s, from a combination of the Arab lute and early bowed chordal instruments. It was adopted with enthusiasm in the Italian Renaissance courts, notably that of Isabella d'Este, who is credited with having persuaded instrument makers to construct a family of viols of different sizes(1495-99), suitable for new types of instrumental ensemble and for accompanying vocal music.

Gradually, clusters of innovative viol-makers appeared in Venice and other major Italian cities, producing instruments of outstanding quality which have formed the basis for what are nowadays generically called 'Renaissance viols'. Good instruments of this kind have a clear silvery sound and great versatility, but are relatively quiet in the bass register because of the absence of a soundpost (a light wooden dowel wedged between the front and the back of the instrument, just below the treble end of the bridge: it seems to have been added to some bowed instruments from around 1592, and has the effect of increasing the power of the lower strings).

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The English viol consort

heads of tenor and treble viols by Robert Eyland

From Italy, the early viol spread throughout the rest of Europe, but its basic shape and construction did not become reasonably standardised until the early 17th century. By that time the best viols were made in England, where craftsmen produced very sophisticated instruments which remained highly valued for a century or more. The demands on the instrument were considerable: increasingly complicated contrapuntal music was composed from the 1560s onwards specifically for a consort (ensemble) of viols, where each part was played by a single instrument. With consort music of between three and six separate parts, each instrument (from the bass to the treble) had to have an even and matching sound-quality, and great clarity of articulation throughout its range. It is likely that a standard family of viols, in graded sizes, had become firmly established in England between the 1520s and the 1560s. Henry VIII employed a significant number of viol and violin players from Italy and Flanders, whose careers we can trace through the royal accounts from then onwards. Under Elizabeth, the viol played a major role not only at court and in aristocratic household, but also in the major cathedral establishments, where choirboys learnt to play them as part of their musical training.

various viols

different sizes illustrated in Praetorius, 'Syntagma Musicum' vol.2, 1619

The fact that the viol seems to have met both court and domestic musical needs may explain why so much music was composed for it. It could be used to accompany voices (both in liturgical and secular context), it could be played in mixed ensembles (with the lute, or in the so-called 'broken' consort with flute, cittern and bandora), and above all it worked perfectly in the pure consort of viols. William Byrd (1540-1623) composed some extraordinarily powerful and brilliant pieces for between three and six viols, and it is likely that the sets of instrumental music by the older Christopher Tye (c.1500-1572) may also have been intended for a viol consort ranging from treble to deep bass. By the end of Elizabeth's reign a major repertoire of viol music was available, mostly in hand-written copies, in a wealth of formats - from the originally religious In Nomine settings (based on a section of a mass composed by Taverner before 1528), through the free and complex fantasia which so fascinated early patrons of the viol, to various forms of dance music suitable for lighter entertainment.

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17th-century England

William Lawes

The viol continued to play a major role in the early Stuart court, with a great flowering of brilliant composers connected to the court of James VI/I and his two cultured sons, amongst them John Jenkins (1592-1678) and William Lawes (1602-45). They wrote for various groupings of viols (up to 6), sometimes with a pipe organ supporting the texture, but always giving each part an equal share in the musical material. Jenkins, in particular, also wrote divisions (elaborate ornamentations) for 1-2 basses which stretched both the technique and range of the instrument beyond that of any other bowed instrument of the period. Although the civil wars of the 1640s totally disrupted both court patronage and much domestic music, the viol remained part of the cultural life of the Interregnum (1649-60). After the Restoration in 1660, however, French tastes in music became fashionable at court, and composers abandoned the viol consort - with the outstanding exception of Henry Purcell, who produced an extraordinary set of pieces for 3-7 viols in 1680.

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The later repertoire for solo bass viol

French 7-string bass by

By then, however, the French had adopted the bass viol and began to exploit the new technology of overwinding gut strings with thin silver wire to give more power in the bass. They added an additional 7th string, tuned to the deep A below the bass clef, and in this form the bass acquired a large corpus of outstanding music by composers such as Sainte-Colombe, Marin Marais and the two Forquerays (father and son) employed at the French court. Their solo music for bass exploits the full range of 4 octaves, the contrasting sonorities, and potential for complex chordal playing: never showy for its own sake, but impossible to play on any other instrument, and unmistakeably French. The bass remained a key component in French chamber music at least until the mid-eighteenth century, both as a solo and as a continuo instrument. In the German-speaking lands, too, composers from Buxtehude to Bach made extensive use of the bass viol, as did the Dutch virtuoso Johannes Schenk. The French also designed a very small viol, the pardessus, for use alongside the violin or the flute in baroque trio sonatas. Not until the death of the German viol virtuoso Carl Friedrich Abel, in 1787, did the bass viol finally disappear from the concert platform, ousted by the more powerful cello.

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