What is a Viol?


What is a viol?

A viol is a bowed instrument, related to the guitar. Its Italian name "viola da gamba" literally means "leg-viol;" it gets this name because it is played in a similar position to the ‘cello, held between the legs. While the viol may sometimes look a bit like a ‘cello, it is not related! The viol family is separate from the violin family, though both families of string instruments came into use at the same time, during the late 1400s. The viol was one of the most popular Renaissance and Baroque instruments. Viols were heard primarily in ensemble, or "consort" music.

What does the viol look like?

Historically, the viol has many shapes and sizes. But by
the 16th century, a standard shape for the viol emerged
with sloping shoulders, a flat back, broad ribs and a
fretted fingerboard. Viols come in lots of different sizes,
some play treble lines, others play alto, tenor and bass
parts. Most often, a viol consort is made up of instruments
of 3 different sizes, with treble viols playing the top line(s),
tenor viols playing the inner voices and bass viols
playing the bottom parts. Unlike a modern string quartet,
a viol consort is not always treble-dominated and usually
has several larger instruments playing the inner voices.
Treble, tenor and bass viols are the most common sizes
seen today, but historically, there were many other sizes
of instruments in the viol family, including a very small
treble (called the pardessus), an alto, basses in a variety
of sizes and tunings, and even a contrabass. No matter the
size, all members of the viol family were held vertically
between the knees or on the lap.

How is the viol bow held?

Whereas violin family instruments use an overhand grip (holding the bow above the stick), the viol bow is slightly convex and held with an underhand grip (the palm faces up). Because of the underhand grip, viol players can use their fingers to control the bow and manipulate the tension of the horse hair.

Is the viol tuned like a violin?

Unlike violins, most viols have six strings, tuned in fourths, with a third between their third and fourth strings, just like a lute and almost like a guitar. Chords can easily be played on the viol with the bow and are often included in solo music. Also similar to a guitar, viols have frets. Frets are made of gut string, and are tied onto the neck at half-step intervals, up to one fifth above the open string. Frets not only show the player where to place his fingers and facilitate playing chords, but they give the viol part of its characteristic sound, where every note resonates like an open string.

What is a consort?

A consort is a small instrumental ensemble,
usually all instruments from a single family.
Viol consorts were common at courts as well
as in private homes during the 16th-17th
centuries. The sound of the viol is sweet
and shimmering, quieter than that of violins,
violas, or cellos. Viols smaller than double
basses are, in fact, too quiet to be effective in
large orchestras or big concert halls, which
is why they eventually went out of use. But
many people today love the particular timbre
of viols and the Renaissance and Baroque
music written for them. Concerts are usually
given in small halls or churches, which suit
viols well.

Where was viol music heard?

Viols have a long history and they were heard all over Europe and England. They were perhaps most popular in the 16th to 18th centuries, from about the time of Henry VIII of England, who played them, to that of Louis XIV of France (the Sun King). Shakespeare mentions them in several plays, including Twelfth Night.

England, in particular, has a very rich history of viol composers and performers. By c.1540, Henry VIII had engaged a complete consort of Italian players. This royal patronage may have inspired an English school of performance and composition, which fueled by remarkable composers such as Byrd, Jenkins, William Lawes and finally Purcell, continued to thrive long after the viol had been superseded by the violin on the Continent.

In France, the bass viol was very popular as a solo virtuoso instrument. Pieces for viol and continuo accompaniment, duets for two viols, and trio sonatas for violin, viol and continuo were written by composers such as François Couperin, Boismortier, Ste. Colombe and the renowned bass viol virtuoso Marin Marais.

In Germany, the viol was played in both solo and chamber music. Heinrich Schutz incorporated viols in his sacred music; Buxtehude in his cantatas and sonatas – in which the viol virtuoso Johann Schenck often performed. J.S. Bach often used the viol as an obbligato instrument in sacred works. Telemann, and C.P.E. Bach later, used the viol in their chamber music. The last great German viol player was C.F. Abel, whose career flourished mainly in England.

Why did the viol fade from use?

The viols have a subdued, mellow tone, best heard in combination with other viols, or in a smaller chamber ensemble setting. The blending of harmonies, intricate rhythms and tone quality can be most appreciated in a small space. As the popularity of the violin grew throughout the 17th century, the viol could no longer compete. The violin, with a larger sound and the capability of being heard in big concert halls, became the instrument of choice. New repertoire, namely the solo concerto, laid the groundwork for the birth of the virtuoso violin soloist.

Is viol playing still active today?

The 20th century saw a resurgence of interest in the viol for the authentic performance of early music and there are now many organizations and universities worldwide that are devoted to performing and teaching early music on historical instruments. Additionally, along with the recorder, harpsichord and singing, playing the viol has returned to its true historical place as being a wonderful pastime for adult amateurs; lovers of the viol are nowadays found in many communities across North America. As a result, there is quite a demand for lessons and workshops, and there is now relatively easy access to musical editions, recordings and instrument rentals. This website was created primarily to assist the amateur viol playing community so that they might access information about what viol resources are available within Canada. But for more info of a general nature, visit the Viola da Gamba Society of America's website, or join the Viol List, an online forum.

If you have not already heard a viol performance, we look forward to seeing you at a concert soon! And if this site has inspired you to want to learn more about the viol, please contact us for more information.

silvestre painting
Louis Sylvestre, Le Comte de Bavaiere, 1707
freyse painting
Albert Freyse, Herzog August and His Family, 17th century