In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Viol

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Databases
  • Journals
  • Conference Proceedings/Festschriften
  • Sources Before 1800
  • Iconography
  • Instrument Collections

Music Viol
Rebekah Ahrendt, Catherine Slowik
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0223


The viol is a five-, six-, or seven-string instrument made of wood and most commonly played with a bow, though it may also be plucked or struck. It comes in a variety of sizes, from high treble or pardessus down to contrabass (violone). As its Italian name, viola da gamba, implies, the instrument is customarily held upright between the legs. Common morphological characteristics of instruments in the viol family include a flat back and a slightly curved top. A bridge, usually fairly low and gently arched, supports the strings. The usually thin and wide neck features adjustable frets (typically seven), though other combinations are possible. Instruments related to the viol, such as the baryton or lirone, additionally accommodate a range of sympathetic strings. The belly of the instrument includes a soundhole on either side, often C-shaped, F-shaped (like a violin), or flame-shaped; anomalous sound holes are also present in historical exemplars, as are rosettes or other carved features. According to some early commentators, the viol was the first Western stringed instrument to utilize a soundpost, a feature that contributed to the resonant sound for which the viol family is noted. The origins of what we in the 21st century call the viol are still somewhat obscure; the most commonly accepted narrative places the earliest recognizable iterations of the instrument on the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century. From there, the viol spread to Italy, where it quickly gained popularity among elites. And thence extends a tradition stretching nearly unbroken until today of an instrument cherished by kings and commoners, children and the elderly, amateurs and professionals alike. Part of the instrument’s appeal lies not just in its comfortable and elegant playing position but in its great musical flexibility. It may be played solo in melodic or polyphonic chordal styles or in consort with other viols, other instruments, or voices. The bass viol—the preeminent soloist of the family—was also a favored continuo instrument, while treble models such as the pardessus or quinton made violin repertoires accessible to new publics. All told, the rich musical possibilities and complex social life of the viol have generated reams of commentary and scholarship. This article primarily focuses on major sources regarding the instrument and its construction; performance practice is only lightly touched upon, and repertoire is largely ignored.

General Overviews

The viol has been the subject of a number of book-length treatments, some of which focus on specific periods in the instrument’s history or national making traditions, and some of which attempt to treat the subject comprehensively. Hayes 1930 is an early monographic description of the viol and its literature including accounts of treatises and related instruments. Besseraboff 1941 offers a comprehensive organological view of early European instruments with a substantial section on the viol family, and is useful for situating the instrument in the context of the “problems” of museum organology in the first half of the 20th century. Bol 1973 gives a detailed account of the French viol and its literature, with special attention to the bass viol. Woodfield 1984 discusses the development of the instrument up to c. 1600, while Holman 2010 looks at the period between 1787 and c. 1900, a period often understudied in other texts. Two monographs, Otterstedt 2002 and Hoffmann 2014, offer modern scholarly accounts, including studies of the instrument’s history and repertoire, discussion of the various members of the viol family, and commentary on performance practice concerns. Of the encyclopedia entries devoted to the instrument, two deserve special mention. Otterstedt 1998 (Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart) provides a comprehensive geographical and chronological overview (in German) and treats related instruments, while Woodfield and Robinson 2001 focuses on the viol proper and links to articles about related instruments and playing styles. For a briefer introduction to the instrument, see Weinfield 2014 under Iconography.

  • Besseraboff, Nicholas. Ancient European Musical Instruments: An Organological Study of the Musical Instruments in the Leslie Lindsey Mason Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1941.

    Excellent organological description of the viol and related instruments, accompanied by detailed illustrations. Provides a brief history of viol making and details important makers by period and country. Includes discussion of playing techniques and “‘cellamba’ crimes” committed by contemporary players who inappropriately applied cello techniques to viol-family instruments. Also gives descriptive accounts of viols and related instruments in the MFA Boston collection. Draws heavily on Hayes 1930.

  • Bol, Hans. La Basse de viole du temps de Marin Marais et d’Antoine Forqueray. Bilthoven, The Netherlands: Creyghton, 1973.

    Bol’s work shaped a generation of research and performance, and remains an important resource today. The first monograph dedicated to the “golden age” of the French viol, it details the history of the instrument in France in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The appendices—indispensable in the days before facsimiles were widely accessible—provide transcriptions of contemporary published prefaces and detailed lists of repertoire, tunings, and ornaments.

  • Hayes, Gerald R. The Viols and Other Bowed Instruments. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.

    A somewhat dated but extremely practical manual in two parts describing the viol as a consort and a solo instrument. Details the materials of the instrument, its types and their features, method of playing, iconography, and solo and chamber music; includes a highly influential table of viol sizes. Reprinted in 1969 (New York: Broude Brothers Limited).

  • Hoffmann, Bettina. Die Viola da Gamba. Beeskow, Germany: Ortus Musikverlag, 2014.

    A comprehensive and encyclopedic treatise on the instrument, including a thorough historical and sociological account. Includes sections dealing with various tunings and stringing systems, performance practice, and repertoire. The second chapter, “Anatomie einer Gambe,” is particularly useful from an organological perspective. In German, self-translated from the Italian (La Viola da Gamba, Palermo: L’Epos, 2010). An English translation is forthcoming from Routledge in 2017.

  • Holman, Peter. Life after Death: The Viola da Gamba in Britain from Purcell to Dolmetsch. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2010.

    The first major work to consider the period between the “death” of the viol in 1787, with the death of Carl Friedrich Abel, and Arnold Dolmetsch’s efforts in the early music revival at the end of the 19th century. Offers a history, drawn from extremely diverse sources, of repertoire, instruments, and practices of amateur and professional musicians in this period.

  • Otterstedt, Annette. “Die Viola da Gamba.” Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 2d ed. Sachteil 9 (1998): 1571–1597.

    A history of the instrument and its repertoire organized chronologically and by region, followed by an extremely clear account of related instruments and ways of playing. The bibliography is comprehensive and especially strong for non-English language literature.

  • Otterstedt, Annette. The Viol: History of an Instrument. Translated by Hans Reiners. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 2002.

    Revised translation of Die Gambe: Kulturgeschichte und praktischer Ratgeber (Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1994). An accessible and colloquial introduction to the viol’s history and construction from c. 1500 to the end of the 19th century. Provides practical, historically situated advice and technical details regarding instrument maintenance, tuning, transposition, and playing technique.

  • Woodfield, Ian. The Early History of the Viol. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    Essential overview of the instrument’s origins in Spain in the 15th century. Describes related early bowed stringed instruments, the structure of the early viol and playing techniques, and the music played by early practitioners.

  • Woodfield, Ian, and Lucy Robinson. “Viol.” Oxford Music Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Covers the instrument’s structure and history, including a detailed account of stylistic trends in viol repertoire. Includes cross-references to articles on related instruments and significant makers and players in the instrument’s history. The bibliography gives a thorough overview of primary organological sources and treatises and modern scholarship, which is organized by region. By subscription only.

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