Today’s Dead Musical Instrument: the Viola da Gamba

July 11, 2009 at 5:25 pm (By Theo Boehm) (, , )

(Cross-posted from A Quiet Evening)

Some of the ghosts with whom I particularly enjoy having conversations are defunct musical instruments. The good thing about dead instruments is that it sometimes doesn’t take much to bring them back to life. One easy and grateful resurrection has been that of the viola da gamba.

The old gamba is with us again, speaking in its high, nasal voice, like an ambassador from those centuries when it was the principal bowed instrument of European music. And, like any good diplomat, it knows how to fit its style to the message it intends to deliver.

Sometimes acerbic and edgy, telling stories of war and glory to the ladies and gentlemen at home, as in the clip above, with all the drama of that great age of warfare and theatre, the 17th century.

At other times, smooth and eloquent as at a great council from the same century, its head bowed in prayer at the convocation, and its subsequent discourse profound yet courteous, as in this 6-part Fantasia by William Lawes, the last great English composer for the viol (as it was known in English) before the Civil War and the age of Cromwell. Lawes was, in fact, killed on the Royalist side at the seige of Chester in 1645, but not before he demonstrated the manners he had learnt at Court:

Developed in the 1400’s, the viola da gamba, as it was known in Italian, held sway during the same centuries as the harpsichord. Viols were made in various sizes, something like the violin family, but with a few more thrown in for variety’s sake, and played, not under the chin, like the violin and viola, but on or between the legs, the larger sizes being held something like a ‘cello. Viols had six strings, tuned in 4ths with a major 3rd in the middle, like a modern guitar, and commonly had tied-on gut string frets, like lutes, early guitars, and other plucked instruments of the time. The bass closest in size to the ‘cello was often fitted with 7 strings, which was begun in France in the 17th century. Sometimes the bass sizes were played fretless, leading ultimately led to our modern string bass, which is, in fact, the lone member of the viol family to survive in continuous use into modern times.

The bow was also held with the hand turned upwards, a finger or fingers helping to regulate the tension of the bow hair. The so-called “German” style of bow and bowing technique used by some modern string bass players is the only survivor of this method of playing stringed instruments.

An early example of a depiction of the viol is this angel, playing a rather kinky-looking instrument with an equally kinky technique in this detail from the famous Isenheim Alterpiece of Matthias Grünewald of around 1512-1516:

Clearly, some music not of this earth is being made here.

If we fast-foward 2-1/2 centuries, we find ourselves face-to-face with this slightly tipsy-looking gentleman, the last professional virtuoso on the viol, a German living in the London of Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Johnson, one Carl Friedrich Abel:

Abel had his portrait painted by Gainsborough, and wrote music like the following, although his tie-back wig would have kept any flowing locks from getting caught in the strings as this guy’s threaten to do:

The one, great, semi-pop-culture moment for the viola da gamba came in 1991 with the release of Tous les Matins du Monde, a movie based loosely on the life of Marin Marais, a gamba virtuoso at the court of Louis XIV, which starred Gérard Depardieu, and sparked a short-lived craze for viols and their music, especially in France. It’s an excellent movie, except for the complete lack of coordination by some of the actors pretending to play on their instruments, the music actually supplied by Jordi Savall, who is in the first clip in this post.

If we’re back in the dramatic 17th century through that movie, we might as well get a final taste of the young Marin Marais charming the elusive Sieur de Sainte-Colombe and his daughter, Marais being played by Guillaume Depardieu, who actually could play the instrument a bit, and who came to a tragic end last year:

There are plenty of ghosts here, old and new, to keep us company if we want to bother with them. They’ve always seemed more to bother with me, but, as I say, that’s just my particular bit of luck.

—Theo Boehm

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8 Comments

  1. Ennui said,

    Theo,

    Wonderful post.

  2. trooper york said,

    Vasco de Gamba?

  3. trooper york said,

    Amba de Gamba?

  4. Ron said,

    [Ron at ballpark] AmbaGambaAmbaGambaAmbaGamba….swing!

    Was there one in the Brooklyn Dodgers Sym-Phony?

  5. Randy said,

    What a delight to find this post! Thanks, Theo!

  6. amba12 said,

    Ah! Theo, I hope this is only the first of many cross-posts! And that it leads many back to your home place. A magnificent diversion.

  7. Fiddler said,

    Hello, Everyone:

    Years ago, I heard of a viola da gamba player who had an interesting journey, professionally, from Electric Bass Guitar to Contra Bass, to Baroque Cello, and eventually to Viola da Gamba. But I don’t remember his name. Could anyone, who has any information on this musician, give me his name and links, please?
    Thanks,
    best,
    Fiddler.

  8. The Viola da Gamba: Part 1 Introduction | Corelli Violin said,

    […] “Today’s Dead Musical Instrument: the Viola da Gamba” […]

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