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viola d'amore


About the Viola d'amore

The Viola d'amore is a bowed, stringed instrument that started appearing with frequency  on the European continent at the end of the 17th century, initially in the Salzburg, Munich, and Bohemian regions and later in Italy, France and other European countries.  Its origins are obscure, but it is likely that it evolved from instruments coming from the Middle East, Turkey and India, where instruments with additional resonating strings were common.  Its sound hole is in the shape of a "flaming sword," a symbol associated with Islam and Mohammed. The viola d'amore has the body shape of a viol, that is, sloping shoulders, flat back, high ribs and a rosette but is played like a violin or viola held under the chin.  Unlike the viol family, it does not have frets.  It usually has a carved head instead of a scroll, the most common one being a blindfolded cupid.

The majority of violas d'amore have fourteen strings -- seven playing strings and seven additional resonating or sympathetic strings that go through the bridge and between the fingerboard  and neck of the instrument, held by individual pegs in the elongated pegbox. The sympathetic strings are most often tuned to the same pitches as the playing strings. Instruments exist with different combinations of playing strings (four, five, six, and seven) and sympathetic strings (from four up to fourteen).  In Germany, violas d'amore without sympathetic strings existed for a  short time during the early 18th century.

During the Baroque period,  it was common practice to tune the viola d'amore in the key of the individual piece.  Joseph Maier listed 16 different tunings for viola d'amore in his 1732 treatise Museum musicum.Vivaldi used the tunings of D major, d minor, A major, a minor and F major in his eight concerti for viola d'amore. By the end of the 18th century, the tuning settled into one tonality, which is the one that is used  today and  most  often for classical, romantic and contemporary pieces.  That tuning, from the lowest seventh string up to the top first string, is:

A - d - a - d' - f#' - a' - d"

The bulk of viola d'amore music during the 18th century was written in scordatura notation, a system by which a violinist could more easily play on a viola d'amore with different tunings other than the standard tuning of a stringed instrument tuned in fifths. The top four strings of the viola d'amore could be tuned to different possible pitches but the written notation would use the open g, d, a, and e strings of the violin for those pitches, so that if the top string were tuned to d", the written note was an e" and it would sound d".  For the lower 3 strings, it was common to have those written in the bass clef, but sounding an octave higher. This system made it feasible for one not used to scordatura tuning to play more easily on the viola d'amore. On the other hand, some composers, such as J.S. Bach and Christoph Graupner did not use scordatura notation at all and so the written notes were those actually that were sounded.  

As witnessed by the large number of instruments made by luthiers and the composers who wrote for it, the viola d'amore was popular during the Baroque and Classical periods.  Included in this list of composers are  H.I. von Biber, J.S. Bach, Christoph Graupner, Georg P.Telemann, Antonio Vivaldi, Attilio Ariosti, Alessandro Scarlatti, Pietro Locatelli, Christian Petzold,  Joh. P. Guzinger, Joh. Heinichen,  Joh. Pepusch, Joh.C. Pez, J.J. Fux, Joh.  Mattheson,  Reinhard Keiser, Giovanni Bononcini,  Joh. Hasse, and J.J. Quantz.

During the Classical period, the instrument found some strong proponents, the most important being  Johann and Carl Stamitz.  Carl, who in addition to concertizing on the viola, was a well-known viola d'amore soloist and composer for the instrument. In addition to the Stamitz family, other active composers who left some fine music for viola d'amore are F.A. Hoffmeister, Joh. Albrechtsberger, Joseph Eybler,  Franz Benda,  L.T. Milandre, J.B. Neruda, Giovanni Toeschi, F.W. Rust,  Heinrich Vetter, Luigi Borghi, Joh. Krumloffksi, Joh. Suess, Joh. Hoffman,  and Giov. F.  Giuliani.

Interest in the viola d'amore waned during the 19th century, likely having to do with the growth of the orchestra, the dominance of the violin as a solo instrument and the inability of the viola d'amore to compete with the larger sounds concepts of the day. Nevertheless, there were some champions of the instrument, notably  Chretien Urhan (1790-1845), the solo violist of the Paris Opera Orchestra. Berlioz asked him to play the viola solo in the first performance of his Harold in Italy and Meyerbeer wrote the famous viola d'amore solo for him in his opera Les Huguenots.

As far back as the Baroque period, opera composers seem to have been attracted to the sounds of the instrument and used it to special effect. Operas in the Baroque that used viola d'amore for the "affekt" were by Joh. Mattheson (Boris Goudenow and Henrico IV ), Reinhard Keiser (Desiderius, Kayserlische Friedenspost,and Masaniello furioso), Joh. J. Fux (Gli ossequi della notte), A. Ariosti ( Marte Placato), Giov. B. Bononcini (Turno Aricino), G.F. Handel (Orlando furioso -- an aria with 2 "violette marine"), Alessandro Scarlatti (Il Tigrane -- an aria with "Violetta d'amore"), A. Vivaldi (Tito Manlio), Joh. Wilderer (Il Giorno di salute) and Joh. A. Hasse (Euridice). The viola d'amore appeared with some frequency as well in cantatas, oratorios and other religious works of the period.

Later, viola d'amore solos appeared in operas by Massenet (Le jongleur de Notre-Dame), Erkel (Bank ban), Puccini (Madama Butterfly), Pfitzner (Palestrina) and G. Charpentier (Louise). Charles Martin Loeffler was a fine viola d'amore player who wrote some excellent music for viola d'amore. Perhaps, one of his best-known works is a symphonic poem -- La Mort de Tintagiles which uses the viola d'amore in much the same way that Berlioz used the viola in Harold in Italy.

Thanks to a number of outstanding players and composers in the late 19th- and early-20th centuries,  the viola d'amore received a new burst of energy and life.  Louis van Waefelghem, Walter Voigtlander, Paul Shirley, Henri Casadesus and Paul Hindemith take much credit for this renascence. Casadesus and Hindemith concertized on it and wrote some valuable viola d'amore music. Hindemith's Kleine Sonate for viola d'amore and piano (1923) and Kammermusik No.6 for viola d'amore and chamber orchestra (1927) are two important works in the repertory. Casadesus wrote his 24 Preludes and much other music with viola d'amore which are still performed.  Other composers of the 20th and 21st centuries who have added to the repertory are: Frank Martin (Sonata da chiesa for viola d'amore and organ or string orchestra, written in 1938), A. Ginastera (the operas Don Rodrigo and Bomarzo), Janacek (the operas Katya Kabanova, The Makropulos Affair and the original versions of the Sinfionetta and the String Quartet No. 2), Prokofiev (Romeo and Juliet,ballet), Aurelio Arcidiacono, Siegfried Borris, York Bowen, Hans Gal, G.F. Ghedini, Armin Kaufmann, Vaclav Nelhybel, Dika Newlin, Cyril Scott,  Matyas Sieber,  David Finko, Richard Lane, Vazgen Muradian, Irving Schlein, and Hans-Werner Henze, just to name some.Some important viola d'amore players who performed widely and helped make the viola d'amore a living instrument during the 20th century were  Karl Stumpf (Vienna) -- our late, honorary president who had a special course in viola d'amore at the Vienna Akademie für Musik; Vadim Borissovsky (Russia); Emil Seiler (Germany);  Jaroslav Horak (The Czech Republic);  Walter Trampler (Germany/USA); Renzo Sabatini (Italy); Harry Danks (England), and Medardo Mascagani (Italy). These players were crucial to the existence of the viola d'amore and to assuring its place in musical life today.

Today, the viola d'amore has a healthy life, with many outstanding performers playing a multitude of solo and chamber concerts, more printed music available than ever before, more luthiers who are constructing fine instruments, more viola d'amore player-teachers who are offering specialized courses in viola d'amore performance and the acceptance of the viola d'amore as a legitimate instrument in the family of stringed instruments.

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