About the viola d'amore


Schilling, Gustav: Encyclopädie der gesamten musikalischen Wissenschaften oder Universallexikon der Tonkunst, Stuttgart 1838

Viola d´amore, franz. Viole d´amour, deutsch Liebesgeige, ein Geigeninstrument von äußerst lieblichem Tone, das sich besonders zum Vortrag cantabler Sätze eignet. […] In seiner Bauart liegt […] hauptsächlich das äußerst Süße und Weiche, das in Wahrheit Liebe- und Sehnsuchtsvolle, das Schmelzende des Klanges dieses Instruments […] Früher war das Instrument der Liebling aller Gebildeten, und kein musikalischer Zirkel bildete sich, in welchem die Viola d´amour gefehlt hätte; jetzt, wo alles spektakelt und lärmt, ist sie fast ganz vergessen worden. Freilich ist sie auch etwas schwierig zu behandeln, und lassen sich auf ihr nicht solche Trillerkunststückchen ausführen, als auf manchem anderem Saiteninstrumente und wie sie heutzutage notwendig sind, wenn der Virtuose noch irgend einen Bravoruf der Menge erpressen will.  Die Liebesgeige ist lauter Sanftmuth, lauter Gefühl, und nur wer ein für solche zarte Seelenhauche empfängliches Herz hat, wird große Freude an ihr haben. Ihre Freude wie ihre Trauer ist gemäßigt, aber tief das Herz ergreifend und das Innerste durchdringend. […]  


Detail from the Angels' concert in the dome fresco of the Trinity Church in Salzburg, AT, painted by Johann Michael Rottmayr in 1697. 6/6 string viola d’amore, probably based on an instrument made by the Salzburg violin maker Johann Schorn (1658-1718)
Photo by Gunter Sperka

Excerpt from the Angels' concert in the ceiling fresco above the organ of the St. Georg Minor basilica in Ochsenhausen, DE, painted by Johann Georg Bergmüller 1727-1729. 6/0 string viola d’amore, original unknown
Photo by Hans Lauerer

Description of the instrument

The viola d’amore, a solo instrument unsuitable for choral instrumentation, is a special type of violin (Leopold Mozart, Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule 1756) and as regards its construction method, it belongs to the gamba family. However, its ribs are lower because the instrument is played "da braccio", on the arm. The body’s size can vary and the shape of the viola d’amore can range from the simple gamba shape to wavy, curved outlines, such as those built by Paulus Alletsee, Thomas Hulinzky or Johann Ulrich Eberle in the 18th century. The neck is usually crowned with the head of a blindfolded Cupid (=blind love), but scrolls and other imaginative shapes are also used.

The sound holes are a special feature of the viola d’amore. In contrast to the C of the gamba and the F-holes of the violins, they are serpentine- or flame-shaped. Some instruments also have a rosette, but this has no tonal influence.

In contrast to the violin, violas d’amore have 5 - 7, but mostly 6 or 7 playing strings. They may have the same number of sympathetic strings but they may also have more, less or no sympathetic strings. Around 1700 instruments with six playing and six sympathetic strings were probably the norm, as first described by Daniel Speer in 1687 in Grund=richtiger/ Kurtz=Leicht=und Nöthiger/ jetzt Wol=vermehrter Unterricht / der / Musicalischen Kunst. Pinarolis Polyanthea Technica (1718) is the earliest known written source for sympathetic strings on the seven-string viola.

Normally the number and tuning of sympathetic strings is the same as for the playing strings. It is also possible to deliberately achieve a different mood as is used as a sound effect by contemporary composers. But there are also violas with twice as many or even more resonance strings than playing strings, which can then be tuned diatonically or chromatically. Such instruments are also called the English violet - although this naming is not completely clear ... Even today, depending on the music to be played, instruments with or without sympathetic strings are used.

The sympathetic strings pass through the hollow neck and are attached to pegs in the pegbox above the playing strings. The pegbox can at this point be open to the front or back. At the bottom the sympathetic strings can be attached in different ways: a) usually on pins in the lower block; b) on small buttons in a bridge glued to the top of the viola under the tailpiece (known from southern Germany from Johann Paul Schorn, Salzburg 1658-1718 and Anthony Posch, Vienna ca. 1677-1742); c) in hooks in the tailpiece. The suspension of the sympathetic strings on harp pegs "hidden" in the body, which can be tuned with the help of a small key on their attachment to the lower block, is rare. Matthias Kayssler built such an instrument at the beginning of the 21st century.

In the 17th-18th centuries the viola d´amore was covered with gut strings, the lower ones being wound with wire (mostly silver), as is also the practice especially in historical performances. Today there are also metal-wound plastic strings and pure metal strings. Only the sympathetic strings are always made of metal.

The viola d´amore has no fixed tuning like the violin (fifths). The tuning chord was, especially in the 17th-18th centuries, based on the key of the piece. As early as 1732, Johann Friedrich Bernhard Caspar Majer gave 17 different tuning chord in Neu=eröffneter Theoretisch=und Pracktischer / Music=Saal, in which second, third, fourth and fifth steps occur. A C minor or C major chord is mentioned by Johann Gottfried Walther in Musicalisches / Lexicon in 1732 as a possible basic tuning. Later D major / D minor became a kind of standard tuning (e.g. with Carl Stamitz, Giovanni Toeschi), which also was mostly used in the 19th century. Contemporary composers occasionally demand corresponding tunings for their works. These tunings are often very unusual and can also contain sixths.

The most beautiful old violas d´amore come from the end of the 17th to 18th centuries - a blueprint of Antonius Stradivari has also been preserved. Even today, many violin makers offer beautiful violas d´amore with five, six or seven strings, so that at concerts the players can use instruments that correspond to the works from the Baroque to the present day. A few names of the important violin makers are listed below, a detailed list for the 17th-19th centuries see Heinz Berck, Die Viola d´amore (2015):

Johann Paul Schorn, Salzburg (1682-1758); Anthony Posch, Wien (ca. 1677-1742); Paulus Alletsee, München (1684-1733); Johann Udalricus Eberle, Prag (1699-1768); Johann Georg Hellmer, Prag (1687-1770); Johann Joseph Stadlmann, Wien (1720-1781); Lorenzo Carcassi, Florenz (fl. 1750-80); David Bittner (1821-1857); Alfred Coletti, Wien (1878-1929). Today Josef Huber (Berlin), Arnold Posch (Hall in Tirol), Jonathan Hill (London), several masters in Cremona and several other violin makers build beautiful violas d´amore.

On the history of the viola d´amore

The origin of the viola d´amore is unknown. In 1649 the musician Ritter from Hamburg wrote in a letter to his Prince Wilhelm IV of a […]Viole mit 5 seiten, welche genennet wird Viole d´amour auf verstimte manier zu bebrauchen nebendst einer guten Violdegamb.. […] But this earliest mention of the name Viola d´amore implies that instruments with the possibility of different tunings of the strings already existed before. Further sources on the viola d´amore follow in the last quarter of the 17th century from England and Northern Germany, always for instruments without sympathetic strings. This type also existed in southern Germany; in Vienna around 1700 it is popular as a violino a cinque corde. Compositions for it have been preserved by Emperor Leopold I, among others.

At the end of the 17th century, violas d´amore with six playing and six sympathetic strings were probably the norm, first described by D. Speer in 1687. There are various theories about the origin of the sympathetic strings; they are mentioned in important English musical treatises for the gamba (1619 M. Praetorius, 1627 Francis Bacon, 1644 Marin Mersenne). Knowledge of sympathetic strings may have come to England through the trade routes from India. The viola d'amore could have taken them over from the English viola lyre, popular around 1700, whose famous virtuoso William Young also spent several years in Innsbruck. The first pictorial representation of a viola d´amore 6/6 can be found in the angel concert of the ceiling fresco by Johann Michael Rottmayr in the Trinity Church in Salzburg, where Johann Schorn built violas d´amore at the same time and Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) was active. His Partia for 2 violas d´amore is one of the most beautiful works for the viola. Seven-string instruments have been around since the beginning of the 18th century; they gradually push back the six-string instruments, which do not however disappear entirely.

Special heydays of the viola d´amore

For detailed lists of composers for viola d´amore see: Heinz Berck, Viola d´amore Bibliogrphie (1986), and Michael und Dorothea Jappe Viola d´amore Bibliographie bis 1800 (1997). Here is just a brief overview of the most important names!

Around 1700 in southern Germany, where it was especially cultivated in some monasteries, such as in Nonnberg / Salzburg. The most important composer was Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704). A manuscript from the Göttweig Benedictine Abbey in Lower Austria offers a wealth of musical pieces. All the anonymous suites contained therein are likely to have come from, in part, excellent composers from this musical background (new edition (by Helbling Verlag, Ed. Marianne Rônez). From Italy, Attilio Ariosti and Antonio Vivaldi should be mentioned, whereas the viola d´amore was of no importance in France.

1st half of the 18th century: Most of the music for viola d´amore comes from Hofkapellmeister Christoph Graupner from Darmstadt (1683-1760)

2nd half of the 18th century: This is the "classical" time of the viola d´amore, with Giovanni Toeschi (1735-1800), Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736-1809), Friedrich Wilhem Rust (1739-1796), Carl Stamitz (1745-1801) and Bohemian composers. Textbooks with pieces of music by Anton Huberty (approx. 1722-1791) and Louis Toussaint Milandre (fl. 2nd half of the 18th century)

Before and around 1900 - renaissance of the never completely forgotten viola d´amore. With the establishment of the Société des Instruments Ancien in 1875 (vielle, viola d´amore, viola da gamba, harpsichord) by Louis van Waefelghem (1840-1908) an important impulse was given, which was continued by Henri Casadesus (1879-1947), Frank Martin (1890-1947) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963). A number of textbooks emerged, including works by Jan Kral (1870), Karl Zoeller (1885), Markus Leo Goldis (1916), and in the 20th century A. Corras (1924) and Karl Stumpf (1957/1965).

20th century: A few selected pioneers of playing the viola d´amore are: Emil Seiler (D), Jaroslav Horák (CZ), Medardo Mascagni (IT), Myron Rosenblum and Daniel Thomason (USA, 1977, the founders of the Viola d 'Amore Society). Heinz Berck, the tireless researcher on all aspects of our instrumen, made an important contribution to the viola d´amore.

From the middle of the 20th century interest in the lovely viola increased again and many interesting new works are being created to this day, such as those by Bruno Maderna, René Clemencic, Sergio Mauri, Garth Knox and many others. Therefore the viola d´amore is today again a very valued instrument that is used by very many good players who are interested in old and new music.

Today, more and more musicians are scientifically concerned with the history and construction of the viola d´amore. In addition to the already mentioned bibliographies by Heinz Berck and Michael and Dorothea Jappe, the book Die so lieblich klinget. Beiträge zum Instrument, zur Musik für Viola d´amore und zu ihrer Geschichte 2016 (Ed. Marianne Rônez, Helbling Verlag) summarizes interesting lectures from the Viola d´amore Congress 2012 in Innsbruck and which give a good overview of the instrument - further contributions are sure to follow!

Marianne Rônez-Kubitschek and Ernst Kubitschek