Role of Viola Da Gamba as a Solo Instrument in the Sixteenth Century Term Paper

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Viola Da Gamba

Terms, Structure, and Origins

Viola Da Gamba as a Solo Instrument

Decline of the Viola Da Gamba



The viola da gamba, a member of the viol family, first appeared in Europe during the late fifteenth century. Its popularity soared during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and it became one of the one most popular instruments of the time. Primarily heard in ensemble or concert music, the instrument was a favorite of the courts of England, as well as throughout the rest of Europe. However, while the instrument was a beloved choice when blended with other instruments at the time, perhaps the most vital role of the viola da gamba was as a solo instrument in the sixteenth century.

This paper will briefly describe the viola da gamba and its origins, as well as its migration to Europe in the late fifteenth century and the common role of the instrument in the choral and ensemble music during the renaissance period of the sixteenth century. Most importantly, however, this paper will analyze the role of the viola da gamba as a solo instrument in the sixteenth century, and will discuss the impact this role had on the various cultures of this time period, as well as the impact on the future of musical theory.

Terms, Structure, and Origin

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The term "viola da gamba" initially came from an Italian term, literally meaning "viol of the leg." This term is derived from the fact that the viola da gamba is held between the legs in an upright position, much like the cello. Other common terms for the viola da gamba include simply the viol, in early texts, or the gamba. While the term was formerly coined for the entire group of viols, it later became synonymous with the bass viol.

TOPIC: Term Paper on Role of Viola Da Gamba as a Solo Instrument in the Sixteenth Century Assignment

The structure of the viola da gamba is extremely unique. As an instrument group, most viols are played upright, with the body resting between the knees. It differs from most stringed instruments in that the bow is typically held with the palm outward. The viol generally has sloping shoulders and a flat back, and was originally built in four sizes, those of the treble, alto, tenor, and bass. It is this bass viol that enjoyed such a large popularity from the late fifteenth century to the 18th century, and was the principle solo instrument of this group. Additionally, the gamba, much like the guitar, is fretted, allowing for a richer sound than many of the stringed instruments, since this technique produces an open string resonance.

The genesis of the viola da gamba is controversial, but most scholars believe the instrument originated at the end of the fifteenth century in the Kingdom of Aragon in Spain. Numerous paintings of the fifteenth century Aragonese in and around Valencia display prominent depiction of the viol. Additional support for Spanish origin can be seen in the form of the instrument itself, which appears to resemble the "vihuela de mano." Further, the unique playing position appears to have been taken from the Moors' playing of the "rabab."

According to modern music analysts, the viola da gamba spread quickly across Europe, in part due to the 1492 Valacian Rodrigo Borja's appointment to the papal throne. As Alexander the VI, Borja traveled to Rome from Spain, and brought with him the entire court chapel, which was comprised of numerous violists. By 1493, the pope had sent a Spanish viol consort to Milano, where Ambassador Bernardino Prospero heard the music, and reported back to Isabella d'Este. Isabella d'Este ordered a number of "viole a la spagnola" from a lute maker in Brescia, and thus, the viola da gamba revolution had begun.

As music of the viola da gamba began to spread, the instrument quickly became one of the more popular of the Renaissance and Baroque instruments. Popularity spread through the Mediterranean and Balearic Islands to Italy, in part due to the court's use of the instrument. France, Germany, England, and Italy all saw an increase in the use of the viol in choral music, as accompaniment in sonatas, in concertos, and in wedding processions for royal figures.

Viola da Gamba as a Solo Instrument

Reasons for Transformation

Although the viola da gamba was used primarily in the sixteenth century as past of viol duets and trios, the role of the instrument as a solo apparatus cannot be overlooked, and is one of the more important roles of the instrument in this period. Part of the evolution of the viola da gamba from a consort instrument to a solo device was based on necessity. Players of stringed instruments were increasingly requested to participate in performing the vocal portions of polyphonic music, and to fill in for missing vocal performers. As such, the gamba became the more popular instrument for this purpose, since the frets along the board allowed for a range of musical style and open note sounds that other stringed instruments could not achieve. As a result, the bass viol, now distinct as the viola da gamba from all other viols, had a repertory of solo pieces. From these beginnings as vocal substitutes, the popularity of the gamba grew even further.

Key Figures and Documents

In England, King Henry VIII even played a crucial role in the development of the gamba as a solo instrument. By 1540, King Henry VIII employed a complete consort of Italian viol players, and even wrote solo pieces for the instrument. This royal appreciation of the music lead to a number of English solo performers and composers for solo pieces, including William Lawes and Henry Purcell, two of the most noted viola da gamba soloists and composers.

In addition to the above individuals in England, Italy produced a number of viola da gamba soloists in the sixteenth century, as well as a number of fundamental manuals and treatises. It is important to note that, during this time, the printing of books was a highly expensive enterprise. The idea that manuals on the topic of the viola da gamba were published at all grants an understanding of the magnitude of popularity this instrument was experiencing. These works were largely technical, expressing in detail the most proficient ways to use the gamba as a solo instrument.

One of the more popular and lasting manuals on the viol was that of the "Regola Rubertina," written by Silvestro Ganassi in Venice in 1542. The work was important to early players, and provided them with numerous skills that marked the soloist's career. As a novice, one could play the gamba, but only as a background instrument to other viols and strings or other instruments. In order to perform solos, the player had to be skilled in the rapid alteration of fingers on the frets, integrated chords and stops, the art of sul ponticello, or playing near the bridge, and the art of sulla tastiera, or playing near the fingerboard. Further, they had to be well trained in the ability to improvise notes and reverberations to form a unique blend of sounds, all from a single instrument. Still further, the positioning of the bow on the strings, the tuning of the instrument, basic viol music theory, and the ability to read soloist tablature, often a difficult task, were all vital skills for any player hoping to learn to play on the level of a soloist.

One of Ganassi's most poignant points was his recommendations on performance styles of soloists. Ganassi mentioned the use of the eyes and facial expressions to convey particular emotions when playing. Additionally, he used tempo changes to express changes from gloomy pieces to more upbeat works. These small, yet important theatrical elements made the viola da gamba soloists even more entertaining, and furthered the use of the instrument as a solo device.

In Spain, another treatise introduced a method commonly used in all types of today's music, that of the free fantasie. In the "Tratado de Glosas," written in 1553 by Diego Ortiz, the "free fantasie" method was described in detail. While the method did involve another instrument, that of the harpsichord, the method was such that a soloist gamba player needed to perform independently. In free fantasie, the harpsichordist first played a few simple chords, to which the gamba player then counter pointed through improvisation. The harpsichord player then "answered" with his own improvisation, and so on. This technique, now often used in jazz and blues music, is one that requires a high level of musical training and ability. Since the style requires so much creativity on the part of the players, the gamba soloist needed to be a complete master of the instrument.

In France and Germany, soloists on the viola da gamba were actually in greater demand than in England or Italy, generally because consort music was not as popular. Late sixteenth and early seventeenth century composers in France, such as Francois Couperin, Boismortier and Marin Marais, wrote extremely… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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