Instruments | Viol & Violin | Renaissance | Classical

It is still possible to find old books which explain cheerily that the viol was an early version of the violin, now superseded. It is worth saying straight away that this is not true.

These two related but different families of instruments both evolved from the early sixteenth century in northern Italy, but made different sounds and were played in different repertories.

The violin was from the outset associated with dance music and was part of the entertainment end of music, a bit like the saxophone or the electric guitar today. The viol was in a higher social class altogether and the music written for it was intended to be played for (or even by) the nobility. It is usually judged to be a bowed version of the vihuela. Originally played in Spain, this instrument became popular in Italy at the time of the Spanish Borgia popes. Notable Renaissance composers for the viol included Byrd and Gibbons.

All members of the viol family, of whatever pitch or size, were played in the same way. The instrument was held upright between the player’s knees (or in the case of the smallest, on the lap). The fingers of the left hand stopped the strings, pulling them down on to gut frets, to alter the pitch; the right hand held the bow in an underhand grip, palm upwards, and crossed the string at right angles midway between bridge and fingerboard. While something similar is true of the cello, the violin and viola were from the beginning held higher and in a more horizontal position.

Beginnings of the Violin

At the end of the Middle Ages, there were a number of bowed instruments that were held in the left hand and wedged against the shoulder or chest. Often with three strings, they were made in a variety of shapes and carried various names, such as the rebec and the medieval fiddle. The lira da bracchio, a surviving example of which can be seen in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, had five strings running along the fingerboard and over the bow, plus another two to one side, which could be bowed but not fingered. The term ‘viole’ replaced that of ‘lira’ early in the sixteenth century, developing into ‘violino’.

In the early sixteenth century a bowed shoulder-instrument developed, with the number of strings fixed at four and the tuning settled more or less at e’’, a’, d’ and g, marking the beginning of the history of the violin itself. The tunings of the other family members also settled down: at a’, d’, g’, c for the viola, and the same an octave lower for the cello.

The strings of both viol and violin families were tuned by pegs slotted into a peg box at the end of the instrument’s neck. They were wound around the pegs and the pegs turned to increase or relax the tension, thus causing the string to go up or down in pitch. The peg...

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