Thursday, June 9, 2011

Viola da Gamba

Viola da Gamba by susanvg
Viola da Gamba, a photo by susanvg on Flickr.
I went to a house concert - on the programme was music for two viola da gambas played by Les Voix Humaines. What a treat to hear music in an intimate setting! We were treated to pieces by Marin Marais, Sainte-Colombe, Couperin, Corrette and Lebègue - music which in turn invigorated, inspired, touched the soul and made one smile. This duo has been playing together for more than 25 years and the communication between them and blending of their sound and their musical ideas is perfect.

For the uninitiated, this may look like a cello but there are many differences. Like the better known violin family, viola da gambas come in different sizes. However, the shape is slightly different. All viola da gambas are played held on or between the legs (gamba - leg in Italian). They have frets which can be moved slightly to alter the tuning. They usually have 6 strings, though this is not always the case.. The one above has 6, the one below has 7 - an addition that was made to some French viols to add a lower note. Strings are made of gut, which require more frequent tuning as they are more prone to stretching and slipping than metal strings.

Playing the Viola da Gamba

You can see that the bow is held underhanded. Many viola da gambas have beautifully carved heads. Here is a closeup of the head on the top gamba.

Head of Charles I

It represents Charles I of England (he who lost his head). It is a historic viol made by Barak Norman in the late 1600s. Learn more about the viola da gamba from the site of Les Voix Humaines.


  1. What a wonderful post - I have never heard of the Gamba! It looks as though it would be difficult to play - both the position of the instrument and the bow seem awkward and possibly tiring to the body. I can always tell when you write about music how happy it makes you, Susan.

  2. This is an interesting post. The viola da gamba looks antique instrument...very beautiful!!I have found through your photos that stringed instruments are wonderful object for photograph. I like it very much.

  3. Thank you for all this interesting information, Susan. Once again you have taught me something new! Will look up Les Voix Humaines, as I would like to hear these wonderful instruments, too.