St George

I have been asked many times why an instrument as appealing as the viola d'amore died out. And I have usually answered that it didn't. However, I expect this question will return because people love a come back story.

Here is how I see the history of the viola d'amore:

The principal hurdle for the would-be player of the viola d'amore is its rarity; its rarity is also the source of its expressive power and historical survival.

You cannot buy a viola d’amore at a violin shop. Music shops and public libraries do not carry sheet music.  Music students cannot study viola d’amore in conservatories or at Universities. If and when you find one, it is hard to judge if it is set up correctly. There is unlikely to be a string player nearby to offer an opinion.

In my opinion, rarity also made the viola d'amore the choice of composers for the most expressive moments in music. For example, Bach’s arias in his John Passion, written in the 1720s,) the texts of which considers the meaning of the scourging of Christ. For another, the disappearance of a young child from her bed in a Twilight Zone episode called Little Girl Lost, (1962,?), the viola d’amore appears in diverse works to underline moments of rare emotion. Over the centuries, composers found in the viola d'amore an instrument with the expressive force they needed for moments of intense emotion.

This page is evidence in the first decades of the 20th century, to support my view that the viola d'amore has always been busy somewhere.

The more I learn about the history of early music, the farther back it seems to go. Here is an image of the George St. George, on the left, and his son Henry:

Photo: Collection Joseph Peknik III

George St. George was born in Leipzig in 1841. He moved to London in 1862. He made violas d'amore, and also edited viola d'amore music. His instrument restoration work can even be seen in the Hart House Collection of viols here in Toronto; he repaired one of these viols and put a lable in at that time. (This collection of viols can be heard on a recent cd.) His son Henry was editor of The Strad for a period, and also author of The Bow, its History, Manufacture and Use (London, 1909.)

Update July 2019

Recently I have had the opportunity to get to play at St George viola d'amore. Here is a link to pictures of it.

St George attached the neck to the body with a dovetail. And he got the neck on crooked. Well, he was 71.

But the instrument sound good, as you can hear in the first movement of this video.

It is also the most stable viola d'amore  I have used, from the point of tuning. I think that may be due to the post through the tailpiece type of tailpiece attachment. There are more violas d'amore from this period, with more refined versions this same kind of attachement.