bout the Viol da Gamba
A viol da gamba is a bowed string instrument. The latter half of its name, gamba, means leg, and refers to the fact that the instrument rests on ones legs. This differentiates it from the viol da braccio, or arm viol, which is held in ones arms like a violin. The braccio family of viols evolved into modern violins, violas, cellos, and double basses.
The viol is related to the fiddle, both in name and in construction. It is thought that the fiddle was introduced to Europe from the Middle East. By the tenth century A.D. references to bowed fiddles appear in Spanish manuscripts. These and other early references depict the instrument being held vertically, and placed on the thigh or held between the legs. The bow was held with the palm facing upwards. Not long after its introduction to Europe a new manner of holding the instrument developed. The fiddle was now held in the arm and the bow was gripped with the palm facing downwards. By the fourteenth century the vertical playing position was abandoned.
Viol da gambas first appeared in the latter half of the fifteenth century. They marked a return to the old method of holding fiddles. They differ from viol da braccio in several respects. Gambas are fretted, while braccio are not. (Most instruments have seven frets spaced to play semitones.) Braccio have four strings, while gamba usually have six strings. Consequently the neck of the gamba is wider than that of the braccio. The strings on the gamba are tuned like the lute, in fourths with a major third in the middle. The braccio is tuned in fifths. Gambas have much deeper ribs than braccio, as they were not restricted by being held in the arms. The back of a gamba is flat, while the braccio has a curved back. The upper part of the back of the gamba is sloped. The edges of the soundboard and back of the braccio extend beyond the ribs, while the viol's back and soundboard do not. Braccio have f shaped holes in the soundboard, while gamba usually have c shaped holes. The bow of a gamba is arched, while modern violin bows are concave. Unlike modern cellos, viola da gambas and baroque cellos do not have a footpeg. Rather, they rested on ones calves.
As was common practice in the Renaissance, viol da gamba were made in several sizes. The treble gamba was tuned d-g-c'-e'-a'-d''. The tenor gamba was a fifth below the treble, while the bass gamba was an octave lower than the treble. They were frequently played in consorts. The vocal polyphony of the sixteenth century works very well on viol consorts. Viol da gambas were also used in broken consorts, consisting of a variety of different instruments.
Early viol da gambas did not have sound posts. Instead, the soundboard was supported by a thick ridge that ran vertically down the inside of the board. As the gamba evolved it gained a soundpost and bassbar like those used on violins. The baroque gamba also developed a high bridge, sloping neck, and a seventh bass string.
During the Renaissance the viol da gamba was an instrument of the upper classes. It was played by nobility and other well-to-do amateurs. The viol da braccio on the other hand was more associated with the lower classes. It was commonly played by professional musicians. This situation changed somewhat in the baroque with the advent of professional viol soloists. Sainte-Colombre, Marin Marais, Antoine Forqueray, and De Machy were a few of the important virtuosi who also wrote music for the viol By the middle of the eighteenth century the viol had largely been supplanted by the cello.
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