Viola da gamba & Lirone

Viola da gamba

The viola da gamba (also called 'viol') has often been praised as the most beautiful sounding instrument which exists, and which only the human voice could compete with, when it comes to subtle expression.

With its six (plusminus...) strings, tuned in fourths and a third (in the middle), and with gut frets tied around its neck, the viol is a close cousin of the lute. The large number of strings (compared to a cello, not to a harp...) and the frets make it possible to play not only melodies but also chords.

But due to this large number of strings (which means you can't bow really deep into one string), and the fact that its back is flat, the viol can not sound terribly loud, which is probably the reason why it became obsolete after 1750.

My seven-string French bass viol was made in 1994 by Marco Ternovec, after the Cheron viol (ca.1700) in the MIM in Brussels. My treble viol was very crudely made, by a well meaning amateur. It used to have a flat top, which greatly limited its sounding possibilities. I replaced the top with an arched belly, re-varnished the instrument and -because of its archaic shape- gave it a Renaissance set-up. I am a well-meaning amateur too, but I had the help of my great friend Floris-Jan... 

Viola bastarda

In Italy, around 1600, a style of improvising over all the voices of a polyphonic composition at the same time, called alla bastarda, was deemed the nec plus ultra of musical performance. All instruments with a tonal range big enough to play as high as a soprano, and as low as a bass, could be used for this. There were even some exceptional (male) singers could do this, using their falsetto. 

The viola bastarda is a type of viol favoured for playing alla bastarda: it is somewhat smaller than a bass. This means that it does have the bass range needed, but the shorter string lenght makes it easier to play very fast. Also, the rather narrow waist allows for quite a round bridge, thus giving the bow more space than a flatter bridge does. The thick wood of the belly makes it slow-speaking. This might seem contradictory, because alla bastarda improvisations have so many fast notes... but in my experience it makes a lot of sense: the long notes get the time to develop the full resonance of this instrument, and the small, unimportant notes never get to really bloom, which makes the texture of the music clear.

My viola bastarda, his name is Gasparo, was made in 1999 by my friend Floris-Jan van der Voort, after an original (ca. 1580) by Gasparo da Salò, now in Oxford, Ashmolean Museum. 


Here's a little personal story...

I had just started my harp studies, when I fell in love with the sound of the lirone, during a concert. The player of this instrument told me that if you can play the viol, then lirone is really easy to play (I know now that this is not true for everybody...). I promised myself that once I would be rich and famous, I would learn the viol, and once I could play the viol, I would buy a lirone and it would be easy to play.

What shall I say... I was young... I was impatient... and started to learn the viol before I was rich and famous (will I ever be? does it matter?). The lirone would have remained a dream, had not Floris-Jan given me the timber for a lirone as a graduation present... For a year I spent all the time I could afford to in his workshop, and guided by him, I made the instrument myself, until its first notes sounded, in the summer of 2005.

But what exactly is a lirone? Its name translates as  a 'big lyre', and in 16th C. Italy, the lyre (as played by Orpheus and Apollo) was believed to be not a plucked intrument, but bowed. And the more strings the better! Towards the second half of that century, as instruments got bigger, in order to accompany singers, so did the lira, a bowed instrument for playing chords, which had been played da bracchio,  on the arm. The lirone is too big for this so it is  held da gamba, on the legs, and with its up to fifteen strings, it can play all the harmonies that are needed for the music of its time. The very flat bridge makes it possible to play up to six strings at the time, but it is impossible to play anything else than chords. If you try to play just one string, it sounds 'like a mosquito about to die' (here I quote lirone player Erin Headly).

My lirone is tuned in fifths (going down) alternating with fourths (going up), like the basses on an accordion. (Come to think of it, the sound also reminds me of the accordion...) The sides and back are made of an extraordinary beautiful piece of walnut, the neck is made of pear. We took Gasparo da Salò's viola bastarda shape for the body, as this is a model that hardly needs any alteration in order to accomodate a 13-string neck. The Leipzig instrument museum has a lirone of this same shape, by Francesco Bertolotti da Salò, who was Gasparo da Salò's son. Wonder where Francesco got the inspiration for his lirone from...    


Thanks to its frets, the viol sounds really beautiful when plucked. But this can never sound as expressive as when the viol is bowed...
I use bows made by Gerhard Landwehr, Coen Engelhard, André Klaassen and by myself.