The world of HIP (historically informed performance) involves many curious instruments that were either forgotten about or superceeded in the ever-developing world of music making. At de Swaen concerts, you may have heard the chalumeau, oboe da silva, flauto damore, corno da tirarsi and the viola da spalla. This month, the opposite: a commonly played Baroque instrument but a rare visitor to the De Swaen stage, the viola da gamba.
We have seen the G violone, the gambas bigger (but not biggest) brother, several times this season in concerti by Vivaldi and Corelli. The G violone lies between the contrabass violone and the bass gamba. The contrabass is the only gamba that is still in current use as a modern musical instrument.
The viola da gamba evolved from the viol and saw many regional variations throughout Europe. Some of the most experimental gamba variations were created in France, where instruments were built with up to eight strings. Youll be hearing the six-string German style instruments today, with, of course, all gut, equal tension stringing.
Whereas the history of the violin and viola da braccio (arm viola) associated with peasants and beer-fiddling, the viola da gamba (leg viola) was favoured by the amateur players of the upper classes. With a good education in arts and science, and time on their hands, such musicians became fascinated by the phenomenon of sympathetic resonance. Even the Royal Society in London investigated why, when one string is sounded, another, tuned to the same pitch, vibrates as well. With careful tuning of open strings in combination with its ingenious system of moveable double frets, which can be split in order to vary tuning on the same note, the viola da gamba can be played with pure tuning in many tonalities, making it perfectly suited to such investigations; and beyond, towards resultant notes and truly lush harmony.
The Gamba is a large instrument with a large range. Although its construction is very light, its rich sound comes from these sympathetic vibrations. This concurs with our ideals of sound at de Swaen and the reason why we explore just intonation: Resonance.
Mike Diprose, February 2009