Still in the shade of the cello?

by Johannes Boer

It is already more than 40 years that I am carrying a viol case in the public space and incidentally have to explain what is in it. Most of the time the only explanation that meets some understanding is to compare it with a cello, with the addition that it was used in the time of JS Bach or Vivaldi. Just to liberate myself from feeling obliged to give further details.
And it is true that even after more than a century of viola da gamba revival, the common knowledge about the world this instrument represents is close to nil.
How long will it take that we will not need the cello anymore as a reference?True, it were only cellists (and one viola player, Arnold Dolmetsch) that revived the viol by the time it was reduced to a curiosity in museums. “Well, Döbereiner, how on earth can one downgrade himself so much and play the Gamba again?”

This collegial cellist’s question was asked to one of the main pioneers of historical performance around 1900, Christian Döbereiner, who thought to be the one who had kissed Sleeping Beauty awake, after it was considered being buried together with C.F. Abel more than 100 years earlier. He probably did not know that Arnold Dolmetsch’s daughter Hélène successfully played the by then neglected gamba aria of the Matthew Passion on a seven-string instrument in the 1895 performance guided by the violinist Joseph Joachim.
Father Dolmetsch was a unique exception in taking the position of a historical hardliner, while all others kept the general public entertainment in mind when making choices in what concessions should be taken towards the expectations of the audience.
The fretless cellamba’s with endpin were played with overhand grip by almost all pioneers in the early 20th century. Even by August Wenzinger as a student of the 1920’s/30’s authority on cello and gamba, Paul Grümmer, started that way and ended up with a bowing technique that was avoiding the use of directly control via the hair. I was rather astonished when I found out that Nikolaus Harnoncourt continued playing the viol with his cello bow grip and one must admit that his Marais-recording sounds very much like that.

No wonder that since the revival of the viola da gamba at the end of the 19th century there has been a cyclic struggle to defend the identity of the viol against the pretentions and the enterprises of the violoncello and the violin. Hubert le Blanc saw the decay of its noble position in the midst of the 18th century, but during the revival that struggle was picked up where it ended in 1740.
Now, after half a century of flourishing research about, and playing in a ‘historical’ way, there still is a lot of discussion among players and makers what the viola da gamba should sound like. And this includes discussions about the differences in style and period.
It is remarkable that we arrived at a huge variety of opinions and taste in this realm, but that the influence of the violin and cello’s sound ideals are still interfering in our choices.

Of course, already Johan Schenck was competing in 1688 with the violin as we can see in his Tyd en Konst-Oeffeningen challenged by the violinist David Petersen’s 1683 publication. Father and son Forqueray had their moments too, primarily to show they had even more to offer than the violin virtuosi of their time. As late as Ludwig Christian Hesse this competition went on.
But these were deliberate actions at a certain moment in the history of music. Not a propaganda for a certain over all approach of the instrument.

Nowadays we viol players are facing the obligation to fill concert venues that are atypical for our instruments. Too large and not always helpful for the smaller details of our sound spectra. The temptation to borrow characteristics of the ‘other’ string players family, instead of remaining close to the lute/guitar origins of our instrument (and despite the fact that our repertoire is begging for it) is a denial of our identity. It might take at least another century before the general public recognizes our existential uniqueness.












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