The viola d’amore: For a sympathetic ear

16 December 2020 80 views 0

The viola d’amore is undergoing a resurgence in popularity among early music groups, with a wealth of repertoire still to be rediscovered. Rachael Durkin tracks the development of this unique instrument, examining its many precursors along the way

‘I never heard a sweeter Instrument or more surprizing’ wrote the diarist John Evelyn in 1679, recounting his first encounter with the viola d’amore. But the five-string instrument strung with wire described by Evelyn is far removed from the 14-string viola d’amore commonly recognised today.

Played on the shoulder like a viola, the viola d’amore is most known for its two sets of strings: one bowed set of gut strings as is typical on a viol, and one set of metal strings which run untouched below the fingerboard and resonate in sympathy with the bowed strings above. To accommodate these strings, the viola d’amore has an elongated pegbox, commonly surmounted by a blindfolded Cupid that represents the old trope ‘Love is blind.’ The soundholes are often described as ‘flames’, quite different in shape from the c- and f-holes found in the viol and violin families. The viola d’amore is often tuned in D, but experienced players tackle works calling for scordatura tuning, taking advantage of the additional resonance afforded by the sympathetic strings when they are tuned to the same key.

In Evelyn’s time the viola d’amore was likely very similar to a treble viol strung with five, and latterly six, wire strings, and was possibly inlaid with metal frets. There was no second set of strings. So how did this instrument come into being, and why did it change so drastically in a relatively short period of time? To answer this, we must look to wider organological history.

Our journey starts as far back as 16th-century England and the reign of Elizabeth I. In a relatively stable period of English history, the country became an exciting hub for organological innovation, particularly concerning instruments with plucked or bowed wire strings instead of gut. The enthusiasm for wire strings can be pinned to the import and adoption of the Italian cittern: a small plucked and fretted instrument strung with four or more courses (pairs of strings), and re-entrantly tuned similar to the modern ukelele. Wire strings were now used on instruments other than keyboards and harps, most significantly leading to the English invention of the bandora by John Rose the elder. The orpharion was also likely developed on English shores, although concrete evidence of this has yet to be identified. Both of these instruments are flat-backed, fretted and plucked, and became very popular in northern European countries.

It was in 1605 that the architect Inigo Jones returned from Italy with the theorbo: a type of lute with an extended bass range of single diapason strings. The theorbo’s expanded range and size quickly inspired further developments, such as Thomas Robinson’s 14-course citharen – essentially a type of cittern with additional bass diapason strings like the theorbo – of which no example is known to survive. The arrival of the Italian theorbo, like its smaller cousin the cittern, served as the foundation for notable experimentation with instrument design. While the cittern had inspired the use of wire strings on instruments other than keyboards and harps, the theorbo demonstrated the benefits of increased range and the ability of musicians to wield such cumbersome and complex instruments successfully.

This desire to explore the possibilities of design and playability ultimately culminated in the baryton. The baryton is strung with gut strings and bound with frets like the viola da gamba, and has a second set of wire strings behind the neck to be plucked by the left thumb; the wire strings also resonate sympathetically. Early examples had up to a further two sets of strings of wire and gut. The baryton was a complex instrument to master, and appears to have been the reserve of the aristocracy. Daniel Speer, in his farcical 1684 tale Bobbin Jack, jokingly wrote that the baryton was so rare that it could only be found in four places in the world, and that the cost of one was 100 florins. Evidence points to the baryton being invented, in part or in full, in England, but it found its home in Austria and Germany. A most eye-catching example dated 1686 survives from the workshop of Joachim Tielke of Hamburg, and is held by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Long after its invention and peak popularity, Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy fell in love with the instrument and attempted to play it, instructing a then-young Haydn to write numerous works, including 123 baryton trios. 


An orpharion used as a frontispiece for William Barley’s 1596 ‘A New Book of Tablature’

Less known is the baryton’s plucked sibling, the poliphant. We have no known extant versions of this instrument, but enough accounts and a crude sketch determines that it was similar to the baryton in its stringing and ability to self-accompany. Like the baryton, the poliphant had a set of wire strings behind the neck to be plucked by the left thumb, and a third and even fourth set of wire strings elsewhere on the body. To the best of our knowledge, the poliphant did not follow the baryton to mainland Europe, and its short existence started and ended in England. 


Photo: Tarisio

Neapolitan maker Vincenzo Sannino made this viola d’amore in 1948

The final piece of the puzzle is the rather enigmatic lyra viol. We know very little about this instrument, and it is unclear if any examples of it survive in museum collections today. But what we do have are allusions to a viol, possibly a lyra viol, equipped with a set of sympathetic rather than plucked metal strings. In the foreword to Musick’s Recreation on the Viol, Lyra Way (1661), John Playford wrote that the lyra viol known to him was strung with ‘Lute Strings and Wire Strings, the one above the other’. This sounds most similar to the viola d’amore we know today, but from surviving music for lyra viol we also know that it was close in size to the viola da gamba: they are therefore not the same instrument. Over 40 years earlier in 1619, Michael Praetorius described a similar instrument but called it a ‘viola bastarda’, and in the following decade Francis Bacon wrote of a similar but nameless viol. Earlier still, we find evidence of experimentation in England of adding wire strings to viols but again the instrument is not explicitly referred to as a ‘lyra’ viol. While it is unclear if the evidence points to a baryton or a viol with sympathetic strings, we can state with certainty that there was an interest in adding additional wire strings to a viol, either to resonate sympathetically or to be plucked rather than bowed. Most importantly, the interest appeared to be around the fusion of gut strings with wire resonance, and it is this combination of timbres that would eventually lead to the viola d’amore we use today.

We cannot say precisely where the viola d’amore was invented. In light of the organological developments in England around the turn of the 17th century there is good reason to suggest that it was invented there: a curious reference to a ‘litle vial with wier strings’ in the payment records of Sir Hamon and Lady Alice Strange (1609) may be an early form of viola d’amore. However, the first definitive reference to the viola d’amore is found in 1649 when Duke Wilhelm IV of Weimar received word from Hamburg that ‘a viol with 5 strings’ called a ‘Viole de l’amour’ had been procured for him, and that it was to be used in an ‘out of tune manner’. Further references in poetry and diary entries in the 1670s places the instrument in Frankfurt an der Oder and the German state of Thuringia. At the end of the decade the instrument was in England, seen and recounted by John Evelyn, being one of the more detailed accounts available of the early version of the instrument. Most importantly, we learn from his diary that the viola d’amore had five wire strings, was played on the shoulder, and that it was played ‘lyra way’, likely implying a use of frets, tablature, and possibly open tunings. Although it is relatively rare, we do find some music surviving for five-string viola d’amore. For example, the parts for Anders von Düben’s (1673–1738) Huru kort och ont är dock vårt liv (‘How short and evil, however, is our life’) indicates that the viola d’amore was new to him or

the players: the parts for the two violas d’amore are relatively simplistic, with chords indicated by the notation of just the top note followed by the string numbers for the open strings below; and the second viola d’amore part is accompanied by tuning instructions annotated with string numbers.

Towards the end of the 17th century, the number of strings on a viola d’amore increased to six. We do not know exactly why this happened, but it may have occurred from the repurposing of redundant treble viols, or attempts to improve the resonance of the lower range. The wire-strung viola d’amore was a quiet instrument, and its sound was often referred to as sweet, although violist Jean Rousseau in 1687 was less impressed, and thought that the strings had ‘a nasty tone’ which made a ‘very sharp sound’. Soon after the turn of the century, the viola d’amore’s top string had been changed from wire to gut, but again we can only speculate that this was done to improve tone, tuning or the general resilience of the string. We also find examples of, and references to, a second larger version of the wire-strung viola d’amore, presumably to provide a lower voice when played in pairs as they often were. It is the wire-strung viola d’amore with six strings that was most likely known to Johann Sebastian Bach who included the viola d’amore in a small number of compositions, such as Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (BWV152) written in 1714 during his first year at Weimar.

Around this time, the viola d’amore’s development becomes a little confusing to follow. A description by German composer Daniel Speer in 1687 clearly outlines a viola d’amore with sympathetic strings, and extant examples of instruments appear at the turn of the century. But we also have ongoing descriptions, and surviving examples, of violas d’amore with just wire strings right into the first quarter of the 18th century. Helpfully, accounts and instruments fall into two broad but distinct geographical areas, illustrating clear contrasting timbral preferences: the north of Germany preferred the old wire-strung viola d’amore, while southern Germany and Austria preferred the new and improved viola d’amore with sympathetic wire strings below the fingerboard. This new instrument, like the old wire-strung version, was made in two sizes. The larger version is known today as the ‘englische violet’ and was tuned slightly lower than the more standard viola d’amore. It was also strung with a double set of sympathetic strings, meaning the pegbox had to accommodate at least 21 strings, and surviving examples typically have a festooned body instead of a viol-shaped one. Likely due to their attractive appearance, a selection of englische violets are fortunately preserved by museums today.

Why these changes occurred in the south can be explained by the Italian preference for bowed gut strings, which heavily influenced southern Germany and Austria. Of particular note, the baryton was much loved in Austria with its bowed gut strings and plucked, resonant wire strings. It is therefore highly likely that the baryton influenced the viola d’amore’s transition. Certainly, the creation of a set of sympathetic strings on the viola d’amore would preserve its sweet, metallic resonance when the bowed strings were changed from wire to gut. This allowed the instrument to integrate more readily with ensembles of other gut-strung instruments like the violin, but still retain much of its novel timbre.


The new version of the viola d’amore would go on to become very popular in Germany and Austria, although less so in Italy. Here in the UK, the viola d’amore with sympathetic strings was performed in London by the Italian composer Attilio Ariosti (1666–1729): a portrait of him with his viola d’amore (below) survives in the British Museum. But unlike in Germany and Austria, the viola d’amore never truly became a serious instrument in the UK. Instead, it served as a novelty act and was performed on by touring musicians such as Giuseppe Passerini, who also performed on the englische violet. Carl Stamitz (1745–1801) was the last serious viola d’amore player to work in London, although he reputedly played on an instrument with six strings and frets until his departure in 1780; perhaps Stamitz opted for an old wire-strung viola d’amore instead. After Stamitz’s time in the UK, the instrument was seldom heard here until the next century as part of the early music revival movement.

Today, the viola d’amore is once again increasing in popularity as a tool for historical performance, and unlocking much material not heard before in a modern concert setting. In addition, it is being recognised as a versatile and unusual instrument for contemporary composition, resulting in many innovative combinations with non-Baroque instruments, and most recently exploring the seemingly endless possibilities with electronics. This increased interest has seen a resurgence in viola d’amore production by luthiers such as London-based Jonathan Hill, who produces both accurate historical copies and fusion instruments which challenge the instrument’s more traditional design and function. Informed restorations are also seeing instruments returned to their original design, reversing conversions into violas carried out in the 19th and 20th centuries. It feels like we are very much at the start, rather than the end, of a new era of viola d’amore playing and appreciation, an era which will likely challenge us to view ‘forgotten’ instruments as relevant and capable tools for modern music making.