The Catalogue of Solo and Chamber Music for Viola da Gamba by Bettina Hoffmann lists the solo and chamber works written explicitly for the instruments of the viola da gamba family through the entire course of its historic development.
The historic limits of viola da gamba repertoire are rather clearly defined: the instrument appeared around 1500, a time when compositions were not yet intended for specific instruments. The earliest examples of a solo repertoire therefore date from a later period, the middle of the 16th century, and significantly in didactic contexts at first. The 18th century saw the viola da gamba’s decline, which concluded with a few scattered compositions written during the first decades of the 19th century. All the works dedicated to the viola da gamba as a solo instrument during this time span are taken into account. This excludes the repertoire of the revival of the viola da gamba, from the historicizing compositions of the second half of the 19th century to the present day, a repertoire which is already catalogued by the Viola da Gamba Society of America (currently not available online).
This catalogue restricts itself to the repertoire dedicated explicitly to the viola da gamba; this explicitness can be expressed as much by verbal indications as by the idiomaticity of the composition itself. It therefore does not include everything that could possibly have been performed by a viola da gamba player of the time, nor, even less, everything that can be played on or adapted to the viola da gamba; otherwise, the Catalogue would soon turn into a comprehensive map of nearly all Renaissance and Baroque music. The limit is therefore necessary even if it has some blurred contours that require explanation.
The organological aspects of the viola da gamba’s repertoire are relatively and – for the time – surprisingly clear. The instrument developed in its best stages a unique language of its own, idiomatically well connoted, which make the heart of its solo repertoire recognisable and distinguishable with good certainty from that for other instruments. This is indeed the first reason why this Catalogue could be conceived and compiled. Undoubtedly, however, there are a great many shadow zones in forms and compositions where the idiomatic profile of the instrument is lower; at the same time, it is necessary to bear in mind the terminological variables and the many synonyms for the viola da gamba, which can lead to the assignment of a part to the erroneous instrument, especially as regards violone, violoncello and viola da braccio. In such circumstances, a careful case-by-case evaluation is required, taking into account the specific music-historical and linguistic context.
Questions about the instrumentation really intended by the composer are reflected, for example, in the German and English chamber repertoires of the second half of the 17th century. Names as viol, viola etc., could be used for various members of the “da braccio” and “da gamba” family of instruments; terms as treble or bass could simply designate the register and range without indicating a particular instrument; and rarely does this music allow a clear distinction based on idiomatic considerations. This terminological looseness does not necessarily reflect the composer’s indifference regarding instrumentation; it was a period where the sonata for one or two violins, viola da gamba and basso continuo crystalized, spread, and appeared quite distinct from similarly structured sonatas. A study of the habits of composers and copyists, and of the range of the parts, though at times inconclusive, can be useful. Where these questionable cases arise, the Catalogue provides a short summary in the notes.
Much caution is required when evaluating the Italian Baroque repertoire for instruments called viola, violetta, basso di viola or violone. In Italy, all these terms were normally used in the XVII and XVIII century for the instruments of the violin family – the various forms of viola da braccio, violoncello, and double bass – and it is therefore necessary to have strong and very precise additional clues for stating that these terms meant the viola da gamba (Bettina Hoffmann, The Nomenclature of the Viol in Italy, «The Viola da Gamba Society Journal» vol. 2, 2008, pp. 1-16). Already in the first ‘modern’ canzoni of the early seventeenth century (by Gian Paolo Cima or Dario Castello, for example) instrumental indications such as viola or violone certainly mean the bass of the then ‘modern’ violin family and contain nothing pointing towards the viola da gamba. During the Baroque period, in many important musical centres the name ‘viola’ continued to be commonly used for the instrument we now call cello; in this sense it was used by some Neapolitan composers in the late 17th century and in the Venetian area, up to Giuseppe Tartini in Padua in the mid-18th century. The naive and historically misinformed translation of this term ‘viola’ as ‘viola da gamba’ instead of ‘violoncello’ or at least ‘proto-cello’ has distorted the image of our instrument’s repertoire and history.
This list provides some examples of works excluded from the Catalogue because they appear not explicitly dedicated to viola da gamba.
It may be useful to repeat that the exclusion of pieces from this Catalogue certainly does not mean exclusion from the actual repertoire of the viola da gamba, i.e. from everything that could have been performed also by the viola da gamba, a repertoire that was undoubtedly much larger, especially in that period where music was intended often for “sundry Instruments” and where the instrumental choice was largely up to the performer himself. In the mentality of the musicians of the time, the many English duets for two unspecified instruments, to give but one example, were certainly suitable for viols, no more and no less than the plethora of French collections of petits airs, brunettes, and menuets of the late 18th century, which list the pardessus de viole among the many possible instruments, with an eye more to the commercial advantage than to artistic preference. Yet the Catalogue must keep track of the latter and ignore the former, to safeguard clarity of cataloguing and comprehensibility on the part of the user.
In addition to the repertoire for all sizes of the narrow viol family, the Catalogue also covers that for the lyra viol and viola bastarda, terms that in some cases indicate an organologically different instrument whose repertoire remains nevertheless intimately linked to that of the viola da gamba. The viola all’inglese, used in particular by Antonio Vivaldi and other composers related to Venetian ospedali, is also included because we know at least that it was an instrument tuned like a viola da gamba; the addition of resonance strings can only be hypothesised (Bettina Hoffmann, introduction to Antonio Vivaldi, Opere per viola all’inglese, Firenze, S.P.E.S., 2006). This also applies to the rare gambetta, gambetta inglese, or violetta da gamba inglese, used at the Court of Augusta during the second half of the 18th century, probably a alto viol in G and perhaps provided with resonance strings.
It is a different matter regarding the repertoire for the baryton, which is not included here. The instrument – though closely related and sometimes confused with the viola da gamba – has developed a separate repertoire and is already the object of specialized research.
If the organological and temporal limits of this work impose themselves altogether naturally, it is, on the other hand more difficult to define the parameters of solo music. A clear demarcation line had to be drawn with respect to the immense repertoire for viol consort, a field where the Thematic Index of Music for Viols of the Viola da Gamba Society of Great Britain, edited by Gordon Dodd and Andrew Ashbee, deserve high praise for their decades of cataloguing. Particularly in the English repertoire of the 17th century, it’s indeed not always easy to distinguish between the polyphonic music for small consorts and the first monodic chamber works.
To sum up, the Catalogue defines solo and chamber music in the following way:
– Compositions for viola da gamba solo
– Compositions for two violas da gamba (regardless whether they stand closer, because of the writing and style, to polyphonic music)
– Compositions for one or two violas da gamba and basso continuo or a keyboard instrument
– Concerti for viola da gamba and orchestra (also with other solo instruments)
– Chamber music with more instruments where the viola da gamba takes a solo role and where it is not relegated exclusively to the function of the basso continuo. Excluded here are therefore those pieces, usually of English origin, where the viola da gamba accompanies a harmonic instrument (lute, harpsichord), doubling the bass line of the basso continuo
– Pieces for lyra consort, since the lyra viol assumes within these ensembles a clearly defined solo role.
See here for an example list of works excluded from the Catalogue because the viol has no solistic function.
The Catalogue was initially conceived for the instrumental repertoire only, but recently and gradually the vocal repertoire with viola da gamba obbligata is integrated as well. This part is therefore still incomplete, but will be continuously updated. In particular, vocal works are not yet indexed by scoring, for the moment they are thus searchable by single voices or instruments, but not by precise combinations of forces.
Lost works are included, so that this catalogue can serve as a point of referral for followup research.
In any cases of doubt on the inclusion and exclusion criteria outlined here above, I have prefered to err on the generous side, including pieces rather than leaving them out.