Instruments | Viola | Early Baroque | Classical

Developed to accompany the violin, the viola is tuned a fifth below it (losing the violin’s top E string, it acquires instead a bottom C string) and plays alto to the violin’s soprano. The viola was made as a slightly bigger violin, to be played in the same way.

It has been argued that if the makers had worked out the same size-to-pitch relationship for the viola as the violin, they would have come up with an instrument nearly half as big again, which would therefore have been played vertically, between the knees, like a small cello. Changes in design of the viola match those of the violin; they took place at the same time and were driven by the same musical forces.

The Baroque Viola

The viola was harder to play than the violin. It took more time to get the thicker strings to ‘speak’ or sound musical. As a result, it was important to allow the viola player to have less to do and accordingly the viola line in Baroque music tends to be simple. There is little virtuoso music for the viola dating from the Baroque, though Telemann wrote three concertos for it.

During the Baroque era, a viola with seven bowed strings and seven concealed strings became popular. Called the viola d’amore, it is the size of a viola, but with a flat back like a viol. The sound holes are not ‘f’s but wavering lines, nicknamed the ‘flaming sword’. The seven concealed strings run underneath the fingerboard and through, rather than over, the bridge. These vibrate in sympathy with the bowed strings. Vivaldi wrote several concertos for the viola d’amore (he actually wrote none for the viola).

The Extended Violin Family

The developing violin family did not immediately settle down into its modern designs, nor its modern grouping. Although the cello certainly existed during the early Baroque era, composers initially often wrote in preference for the bass violin. Slightly larger and heavier than the cello, with a gruffer sound and a lower tuning, it can be heard today in some historically informed (early music) performances of the music of Purcell and Couperin.

Few words in the musical lexicon are more confusing than ‘violone’. Meaning simply a double-bass viol, the direct ancestor of the modern double bass, the term can be found in different documents referring to a surprisingly wide variety of different bass bowed stringed instruments, depending on where and when the document was written. It carried five or six strings and the tuning was variable. The bass viol or viola da gamba (‘leg viol’) has six or seven strings.

Although viols as a whole went into decline during the Baroque era, eclipsed by the upstart violin family like nobility by provincial gentry, the bass viol, joined by the double bass viol, enjoyed an extended life. The demand for instruments to accompany church choirs meant...

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