The viol (also called viola da gamba) is any one of a family of bowed, fretted, stringed musical instruments developed in the 1400s and used primarily in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The family is related to and descends primarily from the Spanish vihuela (a guitarlike plucked string instrument). Some degree of developmental influence, if only in playing posture, is credited to the Moorish rebab as well.
Vihuelists began playing their flat-bridged instruments with a bow in the second half of the 15th century. Within two or three decades, this led to the evolution of an entirely new and dedicated bowed string instrument that retained many of the features of the original plucked vihuela: a flat back, sharp waist-cuts, frets, thin ribs (initially), and an identical tuning—hence its Spanish name vihuela de arco (arco, meaning "bow"). Inspired by another local instrument, the Moorish rebab, this new vihuela was usually held upright, either resting on the lap or held between the legs, similar to the playing posture of a cello. This a gamba playing position was more suited to larger instruments than was the a braccio position of the modern violin. The instrument was imported to Italy from Spain by the Borgia family. This gave rise to its Italian name viola da gamba, meaning "viol for the leg," which also helped differentiate it from the early violin family, which the Italians called viola da braccio (lit. "viol for the arm"). and was played along with the crumhorn by Henry VIII
Unlike members of the violin family, which are tuned in fifths, viols are usually tuned in fourths with a major third in the middle, mirroring the tuning employed on the vihuela de mano and lute during the 16th century and similar to that of the modern six-string guitar.
Viols were first constructed much like the vihuela de mano, with all surfaces, top, back, and sides made from flat slabs or pieces of joined wood, bent or curved as required. However, some viols, both early and later, had carved tops, similar to those more commonly associated with instruments of the violin family. The ribs or sides of early viols were usually quite shallow, reflecting more the construction of their plucked vihuela counterparts. Rib depth increased during the course of the 16th century, finally coming to resemble the greater depth of the classic 17th-century pattern. The flat backs of most viols have a sharply angled break or canted bend in their surface close to where the neck meets the body. This serves to taper the back (and overall body depth) at its upper end to meet the back of the neck joint flush with its heel. Traditional construction uses animal glue, and internal joints are often reinforced with strips of either linen or vellum soaked in hot animal glue—a practice also employed in early plucked vihuela construction. The peg boxes of viols (which hold the tuning pegs) were typically decorated either with elaborate carved heads of animals or people or with the now familiar spiral scroll finial.
The earliest vihuelas and violas, both plucked and bowed, all had sharp cuts to their waists, similar to the profile of a modern violin. This is a key and new feature—first appearing in the mid-1400s—and from then on, it was employed on many different types of string instruments. This feature is also key in seeing and understanding the connection between the plucked and bowed versions of early vihuelas. If one were to go searching for very early viols with smooth-curved figure-eight bodies, like those found on the only slightly later plucked vihuelas and the modern guitar, they would be out of luck. By the mid-1500s, however, "guitar-shaped" viols were fairly common, and a few of them survive.
The earliest viols had flat, glued-down bridges just like their plucked counterpart vihuelas. Soon after, however, viols adopted the wider and high-arched bridge that facilitated the bowing of single strings. The earliest of viols would also have had the ends of their fretboards flat on the deck, level with or resting upon the top or sound board. Once the end of their fretboards were elevated above the top of the instrument's face, the entire top could vibrate freely. Early viols did not have sound posts, either (again reflecting their plucked vihuela siblings). This reduced dampening again meant that their tops could vibrate more freely, contributing to the characteristic "humming" sound of viols; yet the absence of a sound post also resulted in a quieter and softer voice overall.
It is commonly believed that C-holes (a type and shape of pierced sound port visible on the top face or belly of string instruments) are a definitive feature of viols, a feature used to distinguish viols from instruments in the violin family, which typically had F-shaped holes. This generality, however, renders an incomplete picture. The earliest viols had either large, open, round, sound holes (or even round pierced rosettes like those found on lutes and vihuelas), or they had some kind of C-holes. Viols sometimes had as many as four small C-holes—one placed in each corner of the bouts—but more commonly, they had two. The two C-holes might be placed in the upper bouts, centrally, or in the lower bouts. In the formative years, C-holes were most often placed facing each other or turned inwards. In addition to round or C-holes, however, and as early as the first quarter of the 16th century, some viols adopted S-shaped holes, again facing inward. By the mid-1500s, S-holes morphed into the classic F-shaped holes, which were then used by viols and members of the violin family alike. By the mid- to late 16th century, the viol's C-holes facing direction was reversed, becoming outward facing. That configuration then became a standard feature of what we today call the “classic” 17th-century pattern. Yet another style of sound holes found on some viols was a pair of flame-shaped Arabesques placed left and right. The lute and vihuelalike round or oval ports or rosettes became a standard feature of German and Austrian viols and was retained to the very end. That feature or “genetic marker” was exclusively unique to viols and reminded one always of the viol's more ancient plucked vihuela roots, the "luteness" of viols.
Historians, makers, and players generally distinguish between Renaissance and Baroque viols. The latter are more heavily constructed and are fitted with a bass bar and sound post, like modern stringed instruments.
Alternate tunings (called scordatura) were often employed, particularly in the solo lyra viol style of playing, which also made use of many techniques such as chords and pizzicato, not generally used in consort playing. An unusual style of pizzicato was known as a thump. Lyra viol music was also commonly written in tablature. There is a vast repertoire of this music, some by well-known composers and much by anonymous ones.
Much viol music predates the adoption of equal temperament tuning by musicians. The moveable nature of the tied-on frets permits the viol player to make adjustments to the tempering of the instrument, and some players and consorts adopt meantone temperaments, which are arguably more suited to Renaissance music. There are several recognised fretting schemes in which the frets are spaced unevenly in order to give "better-sounding" chords in a limited number of keys. In some of these schemes, the two strands of gut that comprise the fret are separated so that the player can finger a slightly sharper or flatter version of a note to suit different circumstances.
Descriptions and illustrations of viols are found in numerous early 16th-century musical treatises, including those authored by:
Both Agricola's and Gerle's works were published in various editions.
There were then several important treatises concerning or devoted to the viol. The first was by Silvestro Ganassi: Regola Rubertina & Lettione Seconda (1542/3). Diego Ortiz published Trattado de Glosas (Rome, 1553), an important book of music for the viol with both examples of ornamentation and pieces called Recercadas. In England, Christopher Simpson wrote the most important treatise, with the second edition being published in 1667 in parallel text (English and Latin). This has divisions at the back that are very worthwhile repertoire. A little later, in England, Thomas Mace wrote Musick's Monument, which deals more with the lute but has an important section on the viol. After this, the French treatises by Machy (1685), Rousseau (1687), Danoville (1687), and Loulie (1700) show further developments in playing technique.
Perhaps even more common than the pure consort of viols was the mixed or broken consort (also called Morley consort). Broken consorts combined a mixture of different instruments—a small band, essentially—usually comprising a gathering of social amateurs and typically including such instruments as a bass viol, a lute or orpharion (a wire-strung lute, metal-fretted, flat-backed, and festoon-shaped), a cittern, a treble viol (or violin, as time progressed), sometimes an early keyboard instrument (virginal, spinet, or harpsichord), and whatever other instruments or players (or singers) might be available at the moment. The single most common and ubiquitous pairing of all was always and everywhere the lute and bass viol: for centuries, the inseparable duo.
The bass viola da gamba continued to be used into the 18th century as a solo instrument (and to complement the harpsichord in basso continuo). It was a favorite instrument of Louis XIV and acquired associations of both courtliness and "Frenchness" (in contrast to the Italianate violin). Composers such as Marin Marais, Johann Sebastian Bach, Antoine Forqueray, and Carl Friedrich Abel wrote virtuoso music for it. However, viols fell out of use as concert halls grew larger and the louder and more penetrating tone of the violin family became more popular. In the last one hundred years or so, the viola da gamba and its repertoire were revived by early music enthusiasts, an early proponent being Arnold Dolmetsch.
Today, the viol is attracting ever more interest, particularly among amateur players. This may be due to the increased availability of reasonably priced instruments from companies using more automated production techniques, coupled with the greater accessibility of music editions. The viol is also regarded as a suitable instrument for adult learners; Percy Scholes wrote that the viol repertoire "...belongs to an age that demanded musicianship more often than virtuosity."
There are now many societies for people with an interest in the viol. The first was The Viola da Gamba Society, which was established in the United Kingdom in 1948 and has a worldwide membership. Since then, similar societies have been organized in several other nations.
A living museum of historical musical instruments was created by Prof José Vázquez of the University of Vienna as a center for the revival of the instrument. More than 100 instruments, including approximately 50 historical viola da gambas in playable condition, are the property of this new concept of museum: the Orpheon Foundation Museum of Historical Instruments. All the instruments of this museum are played by the Orpheon Baroque Orchestra, the Orpheon consort, or by musicians who receive an instrument for a permanent loan. The instruments can be seen during temporary exhibitions They are studied and copied by violin makers, contributing to the extension of the general knowledge we have on the viola da gamba, its forms, and the different techniques used for its manufacture.
The 1991 feature film Tous les matins du monde (All the Mornings of the World) by Alain Corneau, based on the lives of Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais, prominently featured these composers' music for the viola da gamba and brought viol music to new audiences. The film's bestselling soundtrack features performances by Jordi Savall, one of the best-known modern viola da gamba players.
Among the foremost modern players of the viols are Jonathan Dunford, José Vàzquez, Paolo Pandolfo, Jordi Savall, Wieland Kuijken, Vittorio Ghielmi, Hille Perl, and Guido Balestracci. Many fine modern viol consorts (ensembles) are also recording and performing, among them the groups Fretwork and Phantasm. The Baltimore Consort specializes in Renaissance song (mostly English) with broken consort (including viols).
In the early 21st century, the Ruby Gamba, a solid-body seven-string electric viola da gamba, was developed by Ruby Instruments of Arnhem, the Netherlands. It has 21 tied nylon (adjustable) frets in keeping with the adjustable (tied gut) frets on traditional viols and has an effective playing range of more than six octaves.
Viola da gamba, viola cum arculo, and vihuela de arco are some (true) alternate names for viols. Both "vihuela" and "viola" were originally used in a fairly generic way, having included even early violins (viola da braccio) under their umbrella. It is common enough (and justifiable) today for modern players of the viola da gamba to call their instruments violas and likewise to call themselves violists. That the "alto violin" eventually became known simply as the "viola" is not without historical context, yet the ambiguity of the name tends to cause some confusion. The violin, or violino, was originally the soprano viola da braccio, or violino da braccio. Due to the popularity of the soprano violin, the entire consort eventually took on the name "violin family." Depending on the context, the unmodified "viola da braccio" most regularly denoted either an instrument from the violin family, or specifically the viola. When Monteverdi called simply for "viole da braccio" in "Orfeo," the composer was requesting violas. "Viola da braccio" was finally shortened to "viola" once viols became less common. Some other names for viols include viole or violle (French). In Elizabethan English, the word "gambo" (for gamba) appears in many permutations; e.g., "viola de gambo," "gambo violl," "viol de gambo," or "viole de gambo," used by such notables as Tobias Hume, John Dowland, and William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night.