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A photo of two viols.

The viol, in Italian viola da gamba, is a bowed guitar developed in the Renaissance. It flourished for three hundred years, then spent a century neglected along with its playmates the harpsichord, recorder and lute, to be revived again in the 20th Century Early Music movement. It is now more widely played than ever, both professionally and by amateurs, the latter catered for by societies such as The Viola da Gamba Society in Britain and The Viola da Gamba Society of America in the US.

The foremost member of the viol family is the bass, typically having six strings tuned to the same notes as a bass lute1. To these was added around the year 1670 a seventh bass string, tuned to the A below cello C, and it is for such an instrument that Bach wrote his three viola da gamba sonatas and the crucial solos in the St John and St Matthew Passions.

The viol first emerged in Valencia, Spain, at the end of the 15th Century. Two forms of the instrument developed alongside each other: the vihuela da mano or hand viol, which became the guitar, and the vihuela da arco or bowed viol – the one we're talking about here. Vihuela is a Spanish form of the word viola, a generic term for necked stringed instruments2.

The vihuela da arco soon travelled across to Italy, where it was called viola da gamba, meaning 'leg viol'. This distinguished it from the viola da braccio or 'arm viol', which we now simply call the viola: the tenor of the violin family.

By the year 1500 the instrument had become popular throughout northern Italy and had begun to appear in many countries around Europe. It was used by travelling musicians, mostly playing along with a lute. But, while the violin family gravitated towards dance music, the viol family increasingly found its home in domestic and academic settings.

The Beginnings of Chamber Music

The viol became a family by being made in different sizes, a process applied to most Renaissance string and wind instruments. It lent itself particularly well to playing vocal music; whatever could be sung could also be played on viols. It became fashionable in Italy to form musical academies, where a teacher would maintain a set of instruments and instruct amateur players. These academies developed a learned and exploratory style of music, building on the already complex vocal music written for church use.

Apart from vocal part-music the early viol players played the more serious dances, such as the processional Pavan and the rhythmic Galliard. They also developed the Ricercare, pioneered in the first printed lute music; the name 'ricercare' has the same root as the word 'research', and that is just what such a piece of music does: searches out all the most fruitful permutations and combinations of a theme and its counter-melodies. The Ricercare form, combined with the imitative vocal style developed in the Motet, Madrigal and Chanson, gave rise to the supreme viol form, the Fantazia, which in turn morphed into perhaps the most learned form of music ever to grace the world (the Western world, at least): the Fugue.


When viol players meet to play for their own amazement3, most of all they play Fantazias, and mainly ones written in 17th Century England. The composers in the viol-player's repertoire are mostly unknown to other musicians and listeners. The father of the English Fantazia, however, is very well known: William Byrd. He was quite likely one of the choristers at St. Paul's in London in the mid-16th Century. The cathedral raised funds by hiring out the boys to perform at functions such as the annual feasts of the City companies, both singing and playing viols. The skills needed for a viol player, apart from a steady right arm and a quick left hand, are exactly the same as the skills needed for one-to-a-part singing: ability to read fluently, shape a phrase, and count your rests.

We have only a few viol pieces by Byrd, but they are among the very best: Fantazias, Pavans, Galliards and In Nomines, in three, four, five and six parts, and pieces based on popular songs such as Browning, My Dear. Byrd's followers in the genre include Alfonso Ferrabosco I and II (especially the son), Martin Peerson, Orlando Gibbons, John Coprario, Elway Bevin, Thomas Lupo, Thomas Tomkins, John Ward, William Cranford, William White, Richard Mico (who wrote only for viols; most viol composers were church musicians and left some sacred music as well), William Lawes, John Jenkins, Matthew Locke, and Henry Purcell.


John Dowland, principally a lute and song composer, left his mark on viol literature with his Lachrimae, or Seven Tears figured in seven passionate Pavans published in 1604. Other composers beloved of viol players, who wrote dance music but not Fantazias, include Anthony Holborne and William Brade. There are wonderful pieces by many Italian composers, similar to Fantazias but called either Canzonas or Ricercares; and the Canzonas, Pavans, Galliards, Almains and Corantos of German composers such as Johann Hermann Schein and especially Samuel Scheidt are highly valued.

In Nomines

One particularly English genre of instrumental music is the In Nomine, which had a curious genesis. In the 1520s or so John Taverner wrote a setting of the mass, based (in the traditional manner) on a medieval plainsong hymn, in this case Gloria tibi trinitas. The part of the mass where the words 'in nomine domini' appear was copied and passed around among amateur musicians and played in various instrumental settings, but most of all for viols. Soon other composers made new settings of the same plainsong, in the same form: with the hymn played by one player in long notes of equal value (normally breves), while the other parts weave counterpoint around it. Altogether over 150 In Nomines survive, by some 58 composers, the last being two excellent ones by Henry Purcell, written around 1680. This may be something like a quarter of all the In Nomines that were composed and passed around in manuscript.


People now talk about a consort of viols, but this use of the word 'consort' is dubious. In the 16th and 17th Centuries they spoke of a set or suit of viols, and the word 'consort' was used for a mixture of varied instruments. Francis Bacon, for instance, wrote4 that

… some Consorts of Instruments are sweeter than others; (a Thing not sufficiently yet observed:) as the Irish Harpe and Base Viall agree well; the Recorder and Stringed Musick agree well: Organs and the Voice agree well; &c. But the Virginalls and the Lute; Or the Welch-Harpe, and Irish-Harpe; Or the Voice and Pipes alone, agree not so well.

Byrd wrote a good number of Consort Songs in which a solo voice consorted with (generally four) viols. He was not the first nor the last, but was by far the best exploiter of this genre, which more or less died with him.


Perhaps the most ancient way of generating music, apart from singing a new song, is to make variations on existing songs. In Medieval Europe this was virtually the whole business of composition, commonly done by adding faster notes against the slow notes of the original5. In the 16th Century books were printed setting out the method for doing this on various instruments, especially the viol, the Trattado de Glosas of Diego Ortiz (Rome, 1553) being the prime example.

Viola bastarda

Viol players in the 16th Century spent a good deal of time, as jazz players still do, improvising on short repeated bass lines or 'grounds'6. They also decorated whole compositions such as Chansons, Motets, and Madrigals. A school of 'viola bastarda' playing grew up in Italy with player-composers (most famously Francesco Rognoni) whose skill must have been stunning. The term 'bastarda' is most likely not the name of a model of instrument, but describes the style of improvisation used: instead of staying with one voice of the madrigal, the bastarda player would hop from part to part, decorating salient phrases in each.

Lyra Viol

Another development was the practice of playing from tablature. Tablature is the notation used for lutes and other fretted instruments7, and since the viol was tuned to the same interval-pattern as the lute it was inevitable that players should cross over. The use of tablature particularly suits chordal writing; this was called playing 'lyra-way'. In England Captain Tobias Hume published two collections of lyra-viol pieces in 1605 and 1607. The practice became so popular that there was more lyra-viol music written in England in the 17th Century than lute music.


One of the most concise music instruction books ever produced was The Division-Viol by Christopher Simpson (London, 1659), which in 67 pages teaches us how to hold, finger and bow the viol, how to decorate a phrase, the rules of composition, and how to make divisions on a ground8. The last sixteen pages consist of musical examples: 'Divisions for the practice of Learners'. Before this there are plentiful demanding exercises, and examples of all the points discussed, and there is even room for a few pages of metaphysical 'Reflections upon the Concords of Musick' and 'The Analogy of Musical Concords to the Aspects of the Planets' complete with a geometrical diagram.

The Baroque Viol

On the continent the viol was particularly cultivated in 17th Century France. It is a Frenchman, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, who is credited with adding the extra bass string, exploiting the new string technology of overwinding gut or silk cores with silver wire to add weight. His pupil, Marin Marais, published exquisitely engraved books of duets and trios for bass viols. He was known in the court of Louis XIV as 'the angel of the viol' and he had his counterpart in Antoine Forqueray, 'the devil of the viol'. They, like all Baroque composers, wrote Suites of dances for their instrument. The next generation, including Bach and Telemann, turned to Sonatas; Bach's are outstanding gems, and Telemann, the most successful composer of his time, consistently excelled himself when writing for the viol. Their French contemporary, Couperin, though principally a keyboard player, wrote what some regard as the best viol Suites in the repertoire.


In the 17th Century, wire 'sympathetic strings' were sometimes added to lyra viols, running through the neck under the fingerboard, to emerge and cross a low bridge of their own on the belly. Sympathetic strings are used in folk instruments such as the Hardanger fiddle of Norway, and in the viola d'amore: they are not fingered or bowed, but they hum in sympathy with the notes played on the fingered strings, adding a whining resonance. A special case of this system, in which a bass viol has sympathetic strings that are accessible to the left thumb through a gap in the back of the instrument's neck, was called the baryton. This was most famously cultivated in the 18th Century by Haydn's patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. Haydn wrote over 120 charming trios for the prince to play; they are demanding enough, and give the player the added sport of occasionally plucking melodies on the sympathetic strings.

The Twilight of the Viol

The bass viol was the principal solo bass instrument, more flexible and agile than the cello until after 1700. When Stradivari revolutionised cello design, making the instrument smaller and more responsive, the cello began to dominate the scene. Telemann's Paris Quartets of the 1730s almost seem like a swansong for the viol – its last moment of brilliance. Others continued composing and playing9, but by the end of the century, after the French Revolution, many elegant baroque instruments including the viol were pretty well silenced for a hundred years10 like Sleeping Beauties.

1D2-G2-C3-E3-A3-D4.2In Portuguese the word viola means 'guitar'.3A Dublin expression.4Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Sylva Sylvarum, or a Natural History.5The In Nomine genre is an example of this practice.6Chord-sequences, in today's usage.7Tablature is still the best notation for guitar; it is regrettable that the modern classical guitar was invented in the 1770s when the piano was dominant, and has ever since been stuck with staff notation, needing many more symbols for the required information and quickly becoming clogged in a moderate degree of complexity.8First, you add some runs and broken chords between the given notes ('breaking the ground'), then you add counterpoint ('descant').9The last interesting viol player/composer was Carl Friedrich Abel, the son of JS Bach's astonishing viola da gamba soloist in Köthen. Carl moved to London, where he promoted concerts in partnership with Bach's son Johann Christian up to the 1780s.10The instruments that had charmed the aristocracy were perhaps distasteful to the egalitarian Romantics. Curiously, the organ stop called 'viola da gamba', first used in 1693, has come to be labelled a 'Romantic stop'.

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