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Writing for Viols

The consort of viols, first developed in early Renaissance Italy, provides a matched family of bowed string instruments in three sizes and pitches, that mirror the ranges of vocal ensembles: treble, tenor and bass. It enjoyed a long and fruitful history, reaching all parts of Europe, as well as the Americas and Far East, with a repertory that encompassed dance music, ‘songs without words’ (textless contrapuntal pieces in the style of the 16th century motet), fantasias, canzonas, intradas and pieces based on a cantus firmus (such as the English ‘In Nomine’). The consort reached a high point in England in the 16th and 17th centuries: from music by Tallis, Byrd and Parsons through to Lawes, Locke and Purcell.

The viol is closely related to the guitar, sharing many characteristics: 6 strings, frets, a similar tuning (in 4ths, with a 3rd), and a flat back. Indeed, viols are really more like the guitar than the violin family.  All three sizes are played between the legs (hence ‘viola da gamba’ in Italian) and all three are bowed with the bow held ‘underhand’, with the hand palm-upwards, rather than ‘overhand’, as we find on the violin family instruments. with the right-hand fingers tensing the bow hair.

This bowing technique gives the player a very direct contact with the string and creates possibilities for swelling the sound on a note, and a range of different articulations, from the ‘crunchy’ and relatively aggressive to an almost imperceptible start to each note. The usual tone is a smooth, even, legato sound, with each note articulated by a separate bow stroke, which in a carefully blended polyphonic texture allows the different lines to be clearly heard in a way that matches the parts of a vocal consort expressing different syllables. But slurs of course are also possible and were regarded by early composers as a specific form of ornament.

The frets ensure that each stopped note is similar in tone to an open string and this resonance is perhaps the defining feature of the instrument.  While the violin family relies on volume, the viol has a subtle store of resonance which is derived from the number of open strings and the purity of the fret-stopped notes. In general, the strings and frets are tuned in sixth-comma meantone temperament, giving major thirds in ‘home’ keys a warm character that equal temperament tends to iron out. It also means that enharmonic equivalents are less easy to negotiate, though some 17th century composers wrote music that travelled through many keys.

The frets also mean that vibrato is not a standard part of tone production.  It is considered as an ornament, added to certain notes for emphasis and special effect.  Two sorts of vibrato were employed: a 4th finger vibrato, similar to that used by the violin family; and a two-finger vibrato, where the finger above the one playing the note presses gently onto the string above the fret, bending the note sharp.  This produces quite a noticeable distortion of the pitch and is particularly characteristic of French baroque music (‘flattement’).

After 1700 fewer composers wrote for viol consort, though the bass thrived as a solo instrument of some virtuosity. In the last few decades, composers have again been writing new music for viol consort, with groups such as Fretwork commissioning nearly 50 pieces from composers such as: George Benjamin, Elvis Costello, Sir John Tavener, Michael Nyman, Orlando Gough, Gavin Bryars, Barry Guy, Sally Beamish and Tan Dun.

Technical details of the instruments, and some information on what is effective on them.
The three sizes:


Treble: the open strings are (in Helmholtz notation): d  g  c’  e’  a’  d’’ and the highest useable note is c’’’. Although the treble is the highest part of the consort, it is not like a violin: it doesn’t have the same virtuoso tradition, and the tone begins to sound relatively ‘thin’ high on the top string. The treble uses the treble clef, even when going low in range, where it is usually masked by the lower instruments in the consort.


Tenor: the open strings are (in Helmholtz notation): G  c  f  a  d’ g’ and the highest useable note is f’’. The tenor uses the alto clef, or the treble clef for higher music.


Bass: the open strings are (in Helmholtz notation): D  G  c  e  a  d’ and the highest useable note is c’’. The ‘great’ bass viol is tuned a 4th lower than the normal D bass. Bass viol parts are written in the bass clef, using the alto clef for the higher register (not the tenor clef, unlike the ‘cello).

Some available techniques include:



This can be effective - remember the viol’s relationship to the guitar. Chords can be plucked in spread chords. Please bear in mind that the logistics of changing from arco to pizz and back are a little more time-consuming than for a violin because of the underhand bowing technique.



Natural harmonics work well on the viol, with a pure and ringing, bell-like sound.  The longer the string length, the better they are, but the simple ones can also be effective on the treble, such as the octave above the open string.  They should be notated with the open string, then the fret above which the string should be touched (with a diamond note-head), and finally the sounding note.



This is an effective device, with similar effects to those for the violin family.


Col Legno

Tobias Hume in 1607 was the first composer to specify col legno: ‘Strike this with the back of ye bow’, he asks.  This can be effective with 6-note chords, over the whole instrument, though remember that it will take time to get from bottom to top.


Sul Ponticello and Sul Tasto

These create similar tonal effects to violin family usage.

Combining Viols with Voices

Many pieces were published in England around 1600 as ‘apt for voyces and vialls’: the two were thought to be interchangeable, working as alternatives or in combination. The ‘consort song’ for solo voice and four viols was specially cultivated by Byrd, while the verse anthem offered a range of possibilities for solo voices with viols to a glorious tutti sound. The viols’ transparent sound means that doubling voices does not prevent words from being heard, while the contrast between voices and instruments can be equally effective. For one new piece that successfully combines voices and viols, see Judith Bingham’s Requiem for William Lawes.

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