The Viola da Gamba
The cello-like instrument played by Susanne Heinrich on this week's show - the viola da gamba, or vio l - appeared in the late 1500s and was a standard instrument in Renaissance and early Baroque ensembles. Unlike the cello, the viola da gamba has frets, which give the viol exceptional resonance and allow the player to employ a greater variety of fingering positions. The bow and bowing technique are also different than those used on the cello - the viol bow is convex or arched, and is held with the palm upward. According to an early treatise on viol technique, the bow hand "should express all the passions - the middle finger presses on the hair to make more or less sound, and by pressing and relaxing imperceptibly this makes the expression both soft and loud."
Originally the viola da gamba (literally "leg viol") came in three sizes or voices - treble, tenor, and bass - and were played together in viol "consorts." But as musical styles changed over the 17th century the tenor and treble viols declined in popularity and were replaced by the violin, which gave a brighter and brisker tone. Eventually the term "viola da gamba" became synonymous with the bass viol, which became a fashionable instrument in aristocratic circles, especially in France in the late 1600s. It remained in use well into the 18th century as a solo instrument, paired with the theorbo or harpsichord to provide the supporting bass line (the basso continuo or thorough bass) in ensembles. It was also played in a trio with the violin and harpsichord.
The viola da gamba eventually fell into disuse over the course of the 18th century as instruments such as the cello and bass were refined - instruments that were more suited to the louder classical music being composed by Haydn and Mozart. A revival of interest in the viola da gamba began in the late 19th century and has continued throughout the 20th as musicians have rediscovered early music repertoire and modern luthiers relearned the techniques for making viols. One of the most celebrated viol virtuosos was French composer Marin Marais (1656-1728), born in Paris, one of the central figures in the French school of bass viol players. He spent most of his life in the French capital - he began as a chorister but switched to the viola da gamba after his voice broke. His teacher was the most eminent viol teacher of the day - a Monsieur Sainte-Colombe - but according to legend Marais surpassed Sainte-Colombe's talents in only six months' time and went on to study composition with Jean-Baptiste Lully, France's preeminent composer known especially for his operas. Marais did produce four operas of his own, but essentially devoted himself to the viol and spent 46 years in the employ of King Louis XIV as royal violist - the King apparently liked to hear the viol while he dined.
Marais published five collections of viol music between 1686 and 1725-about 550 pieces for one, two, or three bass viols, including a number of what he called "character pieces" such as "The Human Voice" and even one that depicts the details of a bladder operation (possibly his own, done without anesthetic, in 1720) - Le tableau de l'opérationde la taille. These five volumes mark Marais out not only as the most prolific but also the most inventive and expressive composer for the viola da gamba.
What's a theorbo?
The Palladian Ensemble
Program for January 16, 2000:
Musician Discography: Currently Available Releases
Web site: www.palladianensemble.com