History of the viola d'amore

The Viola d'Amore in general

Update 2022: After 3 decades of work with the viola d'amore, I still know very little about two historical versions of the instrument, the early version with 5 playing strings, which as made by makers like Tielke, Meares, and Wamsley, and the 6 string wire version with no sympathetic strings. The comments below are informed by my experience with the version with sympathetic strings.

In 1756 Leopold Mozart published A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. In the introduction, he distinguishes many different kinds of fiddles, the eleventh of which is the Viola d'amore:

" It is a distinctive kind of fiddle which sounds especially charming in the stillness of the evening. Above, it is strung with six gut strings of which the lower three are covered (i.e., are wire-wound like most modern strings), while below the fingerboard are stretched six steel strings, which are neither plucked nor bowed but are there merely to duplicate and prolong the sound of the upper strings."

While the presence of sympathetic strings for extra resonance has long been considered the defining feature of the viola d'amore, at the beginning of the history of the viola d'amore (the mid 17th century)  this was not the case. This is despite the fact that there were several sympathetically strung instruments at this time, including the viola bastarda and the lyra viol, and also, in folk music,  the hardanger fiddle and the hurdy gurdy. The earliest form of the viola d'amore seems to have had only five wire playing strings and no sympathetic strings at all. The English diarist, John Evelyn, writing in 1679, describes it as follows: "... but above all for its sweetness and novelty The viol d'Amore of 5 wyre strings, plaied on with a bow, being but an ordinary Violin play'd on Lyra way by a german, than which I never heard a sweeter instrument or more surprizing."

I do not think of the baryton as a "d'amore" instrument. As I understand it, the baryton is not a gamba with sympathetic strings but a gamba with two manuals. The point of the second set of strings is not to colour the sound of the playing strings (although probably there is some of that) but to provide a bass accompaniment in a completely different timbre: check this video out.

According to the German musicologist Kai Koepp, the viola d'amore without sympathetic strings existed long before the generally known type described above by Mozart. And it fits well with the rest of the d'amore family; none of the others, the oboe d'amore, the flauto d'amore, or the cembalo d'amore, had additional physical resonators.  The two types of violas d'amore co-existed for the second quarter of the 18th century. Fuhrmann, writing in 1706, describes the sound of the viola d'amore with wire playing strings using the exact words with which Mozart described the gut-strung version: "sounds most lovely in the quiet of the evening."

I played on wire playing strings myself for six months and went back to gut strings for recording, Dominants, for concerts  I first tried out wire playing strings in a performance of BWV 36; the string players noticed the difference in tone of the wire strings and commented on it, the wind players did not. For me, the sound quality of unwound wire (steel and brass) is beguiling. Harmonics, natural and artificial, are much more robust and easier, and, what's most interesting, the partnership of wire playing and sympathetic wire strings is far more successful.

For this reason, I have included a new page summarizing Kai Koepp's work in this area.

However, I will also be candid in reporting that wire strings seem softer than their gut counterparts, just as many writers of the period said. This perception is likely due to masking: it is a part of the nature of our hearing that lower frequencies can mask higher ones. I suspect that the softness of the wire strings is responsible for Vivaldi and Bach's treatment of the basso continuo when the viola d'amore plays solos.  And also, for recording, wire strings produce more squeaks than conventional strings.

Vivaldi seldom accompanies the viola d'amore by the bass section of his ensemble. Rather he almost always gives the "bass" line to the violin section (although he still writes those sections in bass clef, and so they sound an octave higher than written.) In the St John Passion, Bach uses the viola da gamba as a basso for the viola d'amore arias for a more transparent accompaniment.

In any case, the viola d'amore with resonating strings, played with gut or modern artificial strings, remains most familiar.  The property of resonance in sounding systems serves as a metaphor for love: one set of strings can be set in motion by the vibrations of another; two things, people or strings, trembling alike for one another. Resonance occurs even in soft passages if the resonating string closely matches the bow string pitches (within a fraction of a percent). For the resonance of desire to occur between people, particularly mysterious conditions have to coincide, deepening the fascination of the metaphor.

Makers of violas d'amore were freer in their approach to building the viola d'amore than they were with the violin, so the following features are not all found on all d'amores. Usually d'amores had flat backs reinforced inside with three cross braces. Like violas da gamba, the edges of the belly and back are most often flush with the ribs; like the violin, the viola d'amore never has frets. Often the long peg box is topped with a carved blindfolded cupid's head -  symbolizing the 'viola of love' derivation of the name.

The instruments used in Many Strings Attached were made in 1772 (?) and 1783 by Tomaso (Thomas) Eberle, an Italian maker of Austrian ancestry who is considered a follower of the Gagliano school. The 1783 instrument is one of the few 18th century Italian stringed instruments to have survived in entirely original condition; apart from its tailpiece and pegs, which are modern replacements, it is as it left its maker's shop. Its disposition of six playing and six sympathetic strings is typical of the Neapolitan preference for d'amores, and also is most appropriate for the partitas of Bach and Petzold.

The 1772 instrument, on the other hand, has been modernized much in the way all violin family instruments have been: its neck and peg box are modern replacements that enable the instrument to be set up with seven playing and seven sympathetic strings. The angle of the attachment of the neck to the body puts the instrument under more tension than the 1783 d'amore, much like a modern violin. The original bass bar has likewise been replaced with a larger, stiffer bar. The higher tension does not, in my experience, make the 1772 instrument louder or enable it to project better than the other, but the higher tension does improve the responsiveness of the lower strings and that, together with the closer spacing of the strings, works very well indeed for the highly idiomatic writing of the works from the Huberty Method.

It is very unusual to have two stringed instruments by the same maker, of any period, let alone anything as rare as the viola d'amore. To have one in the original setup and the other in a modern setup may well be unique. Both instruments are excellent, but for different reasons. The 1772 instrument has a rounder sound; the overtones seem to spin more. The 1783 d'amore also has a beautiful tone and is somewhat more penetrating.

Whether these differences are due to the different setups or to the unique character of the individual instruments themselves, I leave it to you to decide; please check out the sound files on the CD contents page. For my part, I am quite convinced that the old stringed instruments were not modernized to make them louder. Rather I think that changes were made as repairs became necessary, as instruments met with accidents and misfortune, and because new generations of repairmen had different ways of working. And they needed work, too.

Since the late 18th century, most of the music written for the viola d'amore calls for an instrument with seven playing and seven sympathetic strings, tuned in a D major chord, Adad'f#'a'd'', heard in my recording and in the sound file excerpts from the Huberty method. Other composers who used this tuning include Stamitz, Albrechtsberger, Vetter, and Hoffmeister. After the turn of the 19th century, the d'amore was less used. In 1838 Gustav Schilling wrote in the Enzyklopadie der ges. Musik Wissenschaft: "Previously, the instrument was the favourite of the cultured and scarcely any small musical gathering arose in which the Viola d'amore was missing. At present, when everything is more pretentious and noisy, it has almost entirely disappeared." But we know from Fetis that just at this point, the viola d'amore was becoming established as a representative of Ancient Music.

However, the viola d'amore continued to be heard, sometimes in the most unexpected places. In the opera Madame Butterfly, where the viola d'amore appears on stage (or so it seems to me was Puccini's intention, in the score, it says just off stage. And he did have Bisiach make a viola d'amore just for that moment.) In literature, Thomas Mann included a violist d'amore as the narator of his novel, Dr Faustus. (There is another novel featuring a violist d'amore, the Passion of Urhan.) On TV, and in the movies, the composer Bernard Hermann made use of the viola d'amore a number of times; hear what I am talking about here: the Twilight Zone episode Little Girl Lost, from 1962. The early 20th-century violist Henri Casadesus toured Europe regularly with his early music group, playing the viola d'amore. And on my tours as a member of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, I have met d'amore players in Jerusalem, in Mexico City, in Tuscaloosa, in Vancouver.