Viola da Gamba – Definition & Detailed Explanation – Musical Instruments Glossary

I. What is a Viola da Gamba?

The Viola da Gamba, also known simply as the “gamba,” is a string instrument that originated in the 15th century. It is a member of the viol family, which includes instruments such as the viola da braccio and the viola da spalla. The name “viola da gamba” translates to “viol of the leg,” referring to the instrument’s positioning between the legs of the player when being played.

The Viola da Gamba typically has six strings, although some variations may have more or fewer strings. It is played with a bow, similar to a cello or a violin, and has a fretted fingerboard, which allows for precise intonation. The instrument has a rich, warm tone that is often described as mellow and expressive.

II. History of the Viola da Gamba

The Viola da Gamba was popular throughout Europe during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. It was commonly used in both solo and ensemble settings, and was particularly favored in consort music, where multiple viols of different sizes would play together.

The instrument reached its peak of popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries, with composers such as Marin Marais, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Tobias Hume writing extensively for the Viola da Gamba. However, with the rise of the violin family and the decline of the viol consort, the Viola da Gamba fell out of favor in the late 18th century.

In the 20th century, there was a resurgence of interest in early music, leading to a revival of the Viola da Gamba. Today, the instrument is played by both historical performance specialists and modern musicians, who appreciate its unique sound and expressive capabilities.

III. Characteristics of the Viola da Gamba

The Viola da Gamba is characterized by its sloping shoulders, C-shaped sound holes, and flat back. It comes in a variety of sizes, ranging from the small treble viol to the large bass viol. Each size has its own unique range and timbre, allowing for a diverse array of musical possibilities.

The instrument is typically made of wood, with the top made of spruce and the back and sides made of maple. The strings are usually made of gut, although modern players may use synthetic materials for added durability and stability.

The Viola da Gamba is known for its versatility, being able to play both melodic lines and accompanying harmonies. Its rich tone and expressive capabilities make it a popular choice for both solo and ensemble music.

IV. Playing Techniques of the Viola da Gamba

Playing the Viola da Gamba requires a unique set of techniques that differ from those used on other string instruments. The instrument is held between the legs of the player, with the bow held in an underhand grip. This allows for greater control and flexibility in bowing.

One of the key techniques used in playing the Viola da Gamba is called “division technique,” where the player divides the bow into multiple parts to create a seamless and continuous sound. This technique is essential for playing fast passages and intricate melodic lines.

Another important technique is vibrato, which is used to add warmth and expression to the sound. Unlike the vibrato used on the violin or cello, Viola da Gamba players typically use a slower and wider vibrato to enhance the instrument’s mellow tone.

V. Notable Composers and Works for the Viola da Gamba

Many composers throughout history have written music for the Viola da Gamba, showcasing the instrument’s versatility and expressive capabilities. Some notable composers include Marin Marais, Johann Sebastian Bach, Tobias Hume, and Christopher Simpson.

Marin Marais, a French composer and viol player, wrote extensively for the Viola da Gamba, including his famous “Pieces de viole.” Johann Sebastian Bach also composed several works for the instrument, such as the “Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord.”

Tobias Hume, an English composer and viol player, was known for his innovative and virtuosic music for the Viola da Gamba, while Christopher Simpson, an English composer and viol player, wrote influential treatises on viol playing and composition.

VI. Modern Day Viola da Gamba Players

In the modern day, there are many talented musicians who specialize in playing the Viola da Gamba. These players come from a variety of backgrounds, including historical performance practice, early music, and contemporary classical music.

Some notable modern Viola da Gamba players include Jordi Savall, Paolo Pandolfo, Sarah Cunningham, and Hille Perl. These musicians have dedicated their careers to exploring the repertoire of the Viola da Gamba and bringing its unique sound to audiences around the world.

In addition to performing traditional repertoire, modern Viola da Gamba players are also commissioning new works for the instrument, expanding its musical possibilities and ensuring its continued relevance in the 21st century. With their passion and dedication, these musicians are keeping the spirit of the Viola da Gamba alive for future generations to enjoy.