A friend asked me the other day, “You said you play the viola da gamba. But what exactly is a viola da gamba?”
I gave him my standard answer: a viola da gamba is a musical instrument that descended – we think – from a large Spanish guitar during the Middle Ages. We don’t know how or when this happened; there are no writings from that time, just a few examples.
We know the instrument is tuned much like a guitar (in fourths with a third in the middle). Fashioned of thin wood, the gamba makes a wonderful resonant sound when plucked. Someone centuries ago decided to play his guitar with a bow.
The viola da gamba made its way to England and to Italy in the 15th century. The player holds the instrument between his legs. The Italian word “gamba” means “leg.” The early violin players played their instruments on the arm. The Italians called the early violin the “viola da braccia,” or viol of the arm. The word viola was a generic term in Italy for a bowed string instrument. The violin was a street instrument, the gamba an instrument played in the chambers of houses and palaces.
Both instruments swept over Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. By 1700, the violin had taken over. By 1800, the last of the great players had died. But three centuries of music exists for the viola da gamba. Rediscovery of this music in libraries and ancient houses ignited a revival in the 20th century, which continues today. Now there are thousands of players and hundreds of CDs.
what’s really thrilling is the sound of the viola da gamba. To really understand why people around the world have been building and playing these ancient instruments, you have to hear the sound. Well played, the gamba sounds like the human voice.
So here’s what I did: I bought my friend a couple of CDs. You have to listen to the music to appreciate the viola da gamba. Most of the music is centuries old, but it comes to life in the hands of the great players.
The music of the gamba, you will discover, is not like any other classical music.
So if you’re curious, invest $25 or $30 in a couple of records. I found these at Houston’s only CD store for classical music, Joel’s Classical Shop, 3514 South Shepherd at the corner of Shepherd and Richmond.
● Tous les matins du monde (Alia Vox AV 9821), which is the soundtrack to a French movie of the same name. The name means “All the mornings of the world,” taken from a book about the life of Sainte Colombe, a French gambist of the 17th century. (If you’re really curious, the movie exists on DVD and Blu-Ray as well as Netflix). Joel’s can probably order it for you.
This CD contains music of St. Colombe (we don’t know his first name) and Marin Marais, his onetime pupil who became the principal gamba player to Louis XIV. The performer is Jordi Savall, who leads the gamba revival.
● Music for the Sun King (Naxos 8.553081). This is French court music written by Marin Marais, livelier than the movie music, which tells a sad story. This music covers the spectrum
If you want to hear more, we’ll have more suggestions next month.