Frequently asked questions

Question 1:

When did you start playing the Viola D’Amore?

May 1991 at age 36. At that time I had been a professional violinist for 11 years. I mention that, because the viola d'amore is not a separate instrument in and of itself. I think it is easier to see it as an extension of the violin and viola. Nobody starts the viola d'amore at age 5. Even teenagers who want to try the viola d'amore get talked out of it.

Question 2:

What motivated you into learning the Viola D’amore?

I thought it might be interesting to learn an instrument with a limited repertoire, so that I could learn everything about it. I have not yet succeeded.

Question 3:

When was the term, Viola D’amore, first mentioned in the musical world?

1649. see Kai Koepp's articles in MGG (that's Musik in Geschischte und Gegenwart) and in the Bachjahrbuch 2000.

Was it a popular instrument?

No. It was and is still a rare instrument. Popular compared to what? Certainly we are not talking about piano of the 18th century. Many fewer violas d'amore were made, compared to violins. However, hundreds of violas d'amore survive from that time, many more instruments than musical pieces to play on them have survived. This I find a curious situation.

Did it gain momentum throughout the rest of the 17th and 18th centuries?

You might want to read Marianne Ronez in MGG on this question. It looks to me like there were really 2 periods in the 18th century when the viola d'amore was used a fair amount. The first, in the first half of the 18th century, saw the use of a viola d'amore without sympathetic strings, strung only with wire playing strings, used by Lutheran composers in concerted works, i.e., operas, passions, cantatas. In these works the viola d'amore usually had a small solo in a single movement in a work, usually in an obligato aria. The players were the “professional” musicians of their time, although these players were far more flexible than their modern counterparts, in terms of the number of instruments they could play.

Composers who used the viola d'amore this way include Bach, Telemann, Heinichen, Keiser, Mattheson, and especially Graupner.

The fun fact here involves the most commonly heard work for the viola d'amore, the aria “Erwage” from the St. John Passion of Bach. I have never yet heard of a performance of the Bach on the wire strung instrument! I have played it myself several times on the “wrong” viola d'amore, the one with sympathetic strings.

This is the familiar instrument mostly because of numbers of surviving 18th century instruments. The numbers might be due to the rise of the middle class. In the 2nd period of flourishing for the viola d'amore, which came in the late 18th century, a new class of amateur musician came into being, who wanted a beautiful instrument and could afford to pay for carved heads and more stings. This is the period during which the more common type of viola d'amore was built in large numbers, the type with gut playing strings and wire sympathetic strings.

However, this gut strung instrument was already used by Catholic composers in the early 18th century, this is the instrument of Vivaldi and Ariosti.

Question 4:

Could you tell me a brief description of viola d’amore use in the Baroque and Classical periods? Attilio Ariosti,
Antonio Vivaldi, Heinrich Ignaz von Biber – what were their contributions to viola d’amore learning and

For a real answer to this question please read the articles on these composers in Grove Dictionary of Music.

I will just point out here that these three composers all worked in Catholic areas of Europe. Vivaldi and Ariosti certainly used the 2nd type of viola d'amore, with sympathetic strings, this we know from descriptions or from portraits. I think it is probably that Biber also used this type, as Shorn was making violas d'amore with sympathetic strings in Salzburg by the time Biber's Trio for 2 violas d'amore was published in 1696.

My own theory is that these composers wrote mainly chamber music for the viola d'amore, because it is only in small halls that the sympathetic strings have a chance of being heard as a separate feature of the sound.

Question 6:

Why do you think the violin has become the preferred/favored instrument of choice?

The violin is quite an exception in the history of instrument making. It is a true survivor, and that is partly because it is so physically enduring and partly because it is such a musical chameleon. Just consider for a moment all the different kinds of music that get played on the violin, even today, everything from Classical, folk, jazz, to Indian and Egyptian musics.

Even quite simple (from an engineering point of view) instruments like the flute and recorder, don't age as well as the violin. People are playing vast sums for baroque Italian violins, which they can play in concerts and on recordings. Strad violins are heard everyday, but nobody plays Strad guitars, or Quantz flutes. That list could go on and on. Certainly the violins made in Mozart's time have survived his pianos.

How does the violin relate/differ to the viola d’amore? Please explain in detail.

The viola d'amore really is part of the violin/viola. In my opinion, what is different now, from the situation in the 18th century, is that the expectations of what players should be able to do has changed. The way I see it, nowadays players are taught string playing like a craft, which they are then given as a job to do, in an orchestra, say. And they do it well, according to the values of the “craft” they were taught: they play in time and in tune, with “good tone.”

The disadvantage to this kind of musical pedagogy, to my mind, is that the players are more rigid in the music and instruments they can play.

I have never yet seen any reference to the “Tone” of any 18th century player, not for Vivaldi, nor Geminiani, not for any of them.

By contrast, here is what Hawkins (The Science and Practice of Music, 1776) had to say about Geminiani: “Suffice it to say, that united in his playing were all the skills that render the listener subservient to the will of the artist”.....this is a paraphrase, but you can look up the original.

Question 5:

What is the difference between violin and viola d’amore tuning?

It is perfectly possible to tune the viola d'amore in 5ths like a violin or viola. If you do so, you can play music for 5 stringed instruments, like the Bach 6th cello suite, or the Herrando sonatinas for 5 stringed viola. Or you can satisfy some presenters requests to play, say, some Marais piece on the viola d'amore, which was written for some other instrument altogether.

The point of re-tuning the instrument is to extend the range of instrumental possibilities, technically, in terms of passages and sounds not available on the violin, and emotionally, by giving the instrument a new tone color.

Could you tell me about scordatura
(accordatura) tuning – its origin, its use in violin and viola d’amore music? How do you read scordatura?

The term “scordatura” is not a term used during the time when the viola d'amore was flourishing. It means mis-tuned. But I don't think the 18th century musician thought of the viola d'amore as mis-tuned, that's why they used the term "accordatura." I think they thought of the new tunings as a chance to have some harmless fun creating some new passages. It was only in the beginning of the Industrial revolution, when the 19th century was creating Methods for the Violin, and large conservatories in which students were taught the craft of playing, that scordatura appears as a term. 1801 is the year, I believe, but you can check that in MGG as well.

How many strings are on the viola d’amore and what is the purpose for the sympathetic strings?

There are a variety of number of playing strings on violas d'amore, anything from 5 to 7.

I don't understand your word “purpose”, but what happens when you bow the gut strings of a viola d'amore, is the wire sympathetic strings respond, prolonging and coloring the sound. This is called resonance, and is a property of vibrating systems. To understand resonance better, visit a science museum. Usually you can find a large pendulum which you are invited to set in motion with small magnets on strings. If you pull in harmony with the period of the pendulum, you can set it in motion with quite small amounts of energy.

It is fairly common in the musical world to take advantage of resonance. Other instruments with physical resonators include the marimba, the xylophone, the hardanger fiddle, the sarangi, and others.

Fun fact: physical resonators for the harmonica have been patented 7 times in the last 200 years!

Question 7:

Why was the Viola D’amore created?

Phew! I don't know what to say. Why do musicians play music or people listen to it? Good questions, but ones for a Professor of Evolution, or a Neuro-psychologist, I think.

Question 8:

Was there a decline Viola D’amore performance and composition? If so, when did this occur?

You will find numerous dictionary articles saying the viola d'amore declined in the 19th century.

I think the reason you will find this decline narrative again and again is that none of the writers actually knew all the facts. But this is not the first time the facts and the narrative go separate ways! Please see Peter Holman, Life After Death, for a full account of the activity of the viola da gamba, and also the viola d'amore, in the 19th century.

There were certainly players and composers in the 19th century who took the viola d'amore to new high points. Jan Kral was one of them. Please see my recording of one of his works on youtube. This is a fine musical work which could not really be played on any other kind of instrument.

Question 9:

Why do you think there has been a sudden revival in Viola D’amore music and performance?

I do not think there has been a sudden revival, on the contrary, I would not be at all surprised to discover that the viola d'amore was heard more often in the early 20th century than it is now. This “revival” of the viola d'amore is another recurring narrative that does not fit the facts, facts that anyone can find if they try a little bit. Basically, the “early music” movement has its beginnings with Fetis in Paris in 1832. From the time of the opening of the Eiffel tower in 1889, Pleyel was making hardsichords, and chamber groups of 'ancient' instruments were touring. A good example of this kind of activity was Henri Casadesus' ensemble of Ancient Instruments, which usually was a par desus, a viola d'amore, a viola da gamba, a harpsichord and a violone. He toured with this group from 1906 to 1940, and wrote most of the music himself. I excuse him, he didn't have free only access to 18th century manuscripts. If you put in a little effort, you can hear his recordings at a major library, like the Library of Congress.

The revival narrative is an enduring one, but maybe that just says something about peoples' love for the underdog, and for hopeless causes!