The viola da gamba was an instrument in use throughout western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries; the modern(ish) violin became popular around the turn of the 17th century.

But instruments sometimes get associated with nations and ethnicities (e.g. in the mid 16th century, the Spain was strongly associated with the harp, much the way that today Ireland is associated with the harp), and somewhere along the way, I've picked up the notion that at the turn of the 17th century, there was some connection between viola da gamba consorts and England. I don't know where I picked up this impression. Is there anyone who can point me at substantiating or disproving evidence of this?

Likewise, I know that Playford's "Dancing Master" (first ed 1651AD) presupposes the basic dance music instrument is the violin (and one pretty similar to the modern one) (in stark contrast to the wind bands a hundred years previous, or on the continent), which suggests they were common in England at that time. Were they particularly associated with England at that time, does anybody know? Evidence one way or another?

  • I always associated the harp with the ancient times. Like in a symposium or something Commented May 9, 2014 at 5:36
  • You mean a symposium in ancient Greece? Commented May 9, 2014 at 5:54
  • The point is that the newer violin grew in popularity rapidly, and overtook the popularity of the viol (the treble instrument in the viola da gamba family). There was a considerable period of overlap, however, when you could expect to hear either one.
    – user1044
    Commented May 17, 2014 at 16:05
  • One significant English date in relation to this was the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Charles II had heard Louis XIV's "band of 24 violins" in France and decided he wanted something similar. The English tended to oscillate between enthusiasm for Italian and French culture rather than other European influences, and of course "Italian" also meant "violins" rather than "wind bands" or "celtish harps".
    – user19146
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 4:06

4 Answers 4


Viol consorts were certainly popular in England. This is fairly obvious from the number of English and England-based composers who produced vast quantities of music for such consorts. My inclination is to believe that they were more popular in England than most other places, but I may have a distorted viewpoint of that being an English viol player myself. Wikipedia's history notes that the viol consort seems to have originated in Italy although the instrument itself is an Italian development of a Spanish design, and it went to England later - this is supported by the trend we see for English composers of viol consort music to publish under Italianate names which they surely wouldn't have done if it wasn't for the popularity of Italian viol music.

However, in my group I can't think of a single genuinely Italian composer whose music we play regularly. Coprario, Byrd, Jenkins, Purcell, Ward, Ferrabosco - all English. There are some, but they just don't feature very highly.

I don't think you can describe the viol consort as particular to England or uniquely English in any way - but they were certainly very popular here and we wrote an awful lot of very good repertoire which survives and is often played today.

The violin was popular here at the same time, but used for different purposes. You see a lot of baroque violin concertos and sonatas, trio sonatas etc. which are contemporaries of the viol consort music, but the mixture of composers in my awareness is much more internationally varied. If the violin 'belongs' to anybody it belongs to the Italians - because they developed its modern form.

  • I urge you not to do a search on the BBC website for "viola-da-gamba" since for me it came back with the helpful suggestion "did you mean 'domestic violence'?" No, I don't think I did!
    – dumbledad
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 13:57
  • What?? How odd! Commented May 9, 2014 at 14:03
  • Wait, Coprario and Ferrabosco were English? I'm glad I asked! Commented May 9, 2014 at 22:40
  • Yeah Coprario's real name was John Cooper. He was trying to make his music look fashionable. The Ferrabosco family were immigrants, so there's a genuinely Italian one, and English descendants born here who kept the name. I can never keep them straight in my head though, rather like the Philidors (only some of whom were French, and who didn't write for the viol AFAIK) Commented May 10, 2014 at 14:48
  • @MatthewWalton AHAHAAH That's awesome. Commented May 10, 2014 at 18:35

Fact(?) I just learned: viola da gamba strings are tuned exactly like the lute. The lute was quite popular in England (in notable contrast to Spain; it was unfashionable in newly rechristianized Spain where it -- well the oud -- was associated with Muslim culture) and I wonder if there was a lute-gamba relationship the way that today there is a violin-mandolin relationship, where many violinists pick up mandolin because the fingerings are identical.

Also, this page relates:

The most significant expansion of the viol took place in 1540 with the employment of six Italian viol players – now Henry VIII's "newe vialles". This new group retained its own identity, quite distinct from the long-serving Flemish "old vialles". The great esteem for the viol at the Tudor court is also reflected in the inventory of Henry VIII's great collection of musical instruments (1547) which included "xix [19!] Vialles greate and small".

The introduction of regular viol tuitions into the curriculum of London choir schools not long after the arrival of the Italian consort marked a new era of growth in England. Adolescent viol players occupied an especially prominent place in ceremonies and theatre performances and their long-term influence was considerable. Once they had become adults, they were able to enter into a wider musical community with their viol playing skills. Furthermore, musical genres associated with choir schools (such as the In Nomine-plainsongs, the consort song and the consort anthem) retained, together with the fantasia, a prominent place in the English repertory for the viol. The most famous viol composers in the 16th century were William Byrd, Alfonso Ferrabosco, Orlando Gibbons or Thomas Hume, followed in the 17th century by Thomas Tomkins, John Jenkins, and above all Henry Purcell.

The English viol found its classic outline with the instruments made by the John Rose father and son from London. Father Rose was a well established viol maker by the mid-16th century and successfully exported his instruments to Italy. His son's viols in the elegant classical shape shared the same basic features of Venetian instruments and were extravagantly decorated. A distinctive feature of the English viol design, the use of five pieces of wood for the belly, was probably developed by Rose himself. In the 17th century the instruments of Henry Jaye (fl. ca. 1610-1667) were the most highly prized.

From late 16th to the first half of the 17th century, a number of highly talented English musicians found employment in Germany, Austria, the Low Countries and Spain. Among them were virtuoso violists, who had a considerable effect on the development of continental viol playing and composing. The French virtuoso Jean Rousseau praised them by declaring that it was the "English who were the first to compose and play chordal pieces on the viol, and who exported their knowledge to other Kingdoms."

This last is pretty hard evidence that at least one important non-English gambist thought that he was playing an instrument that was in his mind associated with England. Additionally suggestive evidence is the fact that at least one English instrument maker was managing to export his instruments to Italy, which strongly suggests there were Italian instrument buyers who thought the best violas da gamba came from England.

  • 1
    I recently started to learn to play viola da gamba, having come from playing guitar. The connection for me is obvious. I do know one player who plays both viola da gamba and lute, but most viol players I know have come from playing regular cello or violin and are totally ignorant of the gamba/guitar/lute connection. My friend, well-known USA viola da gamba and Baroque cello virtuoso Brent Wissick told me, point blank, "the viola da gamba is a lute that you play with a bow." music.unc.edu/facstaff/wissick
    – user1044
    Commented May 10, 2014 at 12:03
  • I know a lutenist who also plays viol (and theorbo, and renaissance guitar...). When I had lute lessons with him for a short period he was definitely of the opinion that my existing ability to play the viol would be of help. Commented May 12, 2014 at 8:05

The viola da gamba, and specifically the viol consort, is certainly more closely associated with England in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century than the violin. By the early seventeenth century, England seems to have already had a long tradition of consort playing going back to the mid-sixteenth century. Since music manuscripts from this period seldom indicate instrumentation, however, there is some disagreement among historians over whether this music was mainly intended for consorts of viols, or whether it might equally well have been performed by consorts of wind instruments or even sung without words. The most important genre from this time is the In Nomine, whose significant composers include John Taverner, Christopher Tye, William White and others. (If you have access to JSTOR, you might be interested in an article on this subject by Warwick Edwards entitled 'The Performance of Ensemble Music in Elizabethan England', from which I have taken much of this information.)

Interestingly, viol consort playing seems to have gone out of fashion in the 1580s or 1590s, when Italian madrigals were more popular among English musical amateurs. However, there was a revival of interest in viol consorts in the early seventeenth century, when composers started to take up old forms, including the In Nomine, which had been popular fifty years earlier. John Coprario, Orlando Gibbons, and the later works of William Byrd belong to this second generation of consort composers. This music is more clearly intended for viols than the sixteenth-century repertoire, since the ranges used often make it impractical for wind instruments. Publications of vocal music from this period also sometimes include the indication 'apt for viols or voices' to indicate that they might be either sung or played by a consort.

The violin was also making inroads into English musical life in the early seventeenth century, but initially it was used for different kinds of music, often music with a somewhat lower status than the music played by viol consorts. Playford's Dancing Master is a good example: the violin was considered to be an easy enough instrument for a dance teacher -- someone not primarily a musician by profession -- to play tunes on for dancing lessons. (Caveat: I am less familiar with the history of the violin, and I know that some writers assign it a more prominent place in English musical history. E.g., there is a book by Peter Holman entitled Four and twenty fiddlers: the violin at the English court, 1540-1690, for example.)

In Italy at the same time, by contrast, the violin was being developed into a solo virtuoso instrument by composers including Biagio Marini, Marco Uccellini and others. To some extent, in England (and in France) the bass viol continued to play the role taken by the violin in Italy, as the virtuoso professional's solo instrument. The practice of playing chordally on the viol (sometimes called 'lyra viol'), as mentioned in another answer, seems to be an English development from the early seventeenth century. Later in the century, from around the same time as the Dancing Master there is a publication by Christopher Simpson entitled The Division Viol, which is an instruction manual for learning to improvise solo divisions on the bass viol.

John Cooper or Coprario, as mentioned in Matthew Walton's answer, is an interesting example of an early seventeenth-century English musician with one foot in the 'old' world of the viol consort and the other in the 'new' world of the violin. As well as fantasias for consorts from two to six viols, he also wrote in the newer genre of the 'fantasia-suite' for violins, bass viol and organ. These combine aspects of the old consort tradition with dance styles, and arguably show an Italian influence in their sonata-like instrumentation.

The English viol consort tradition continued in some form as late as Henry Purcell's consort fantasias and In Nomines of c. 1680, but by that time it was already considered old fashioned. The lutenist Thomas Mace gave a famous description of the old tradition, and complained about the new fashion for violins, in his Musick's Monument of 1675:

[...] in my Younger Time, we had Musick most Excellently Choice, and most Eminently Rare; both for Its Excellency in Composition, Rare Fancy, and Sprightly Ayre; as also for Its Proper, and Fit Performances [...] We had for our Grave Musick, Fancies of 3, 4, 5 and 6 Parts to the Organ; Interpos'd (now and then) with some Pavins, Allmaines, Solemn, and Sweet Delightful Ayres; all which were (as it were) so many Pathettical Stories, Rhetorical, and Sublime Discourses; Subtil, and Accute Argumentations; so Suitable, and Agreeing to the Inward, Secret, and Intellectual Faculties of the Soul and Mind; that to Set them forth according to their True Praise, there are no Words Sufficient in Language; [...] And These Things were Performed, upon so many Equal, and Truly-Sciz'd Viols; and so Exactly Strung, Tun'd and Play'd upon, as no one Part was any Impediment to the Other; but still (as the Composition required) by Intervals, each Part Amplified, and Heightened the Other; The Organ Evenly, Softly, and Sweetly Acchording to All. [...] But now the Modes and Fashions have cry'd These Things down, and set up a Great Idol in their Room; observe with what a Wonderful Swiftness They now run over their Brave New Ayres; and with what High-Priz'd Noise, viz. 10, or 20 Violins, &c. as I said before, to a Some-Single-Soul'd Ayre [...] (p. 233-236)

Mace is something of a cranky old man here -- he wrote his book when he was already 60, and almost certainly going deaf, as well as saddened by the declining public importance of his own instrument, the lute -- but it still shows something about the relative place of the viol and the violin in seventeenth-century England, at least as seen by an old-fashioned musician.


A recent episode of BBC Radio 3's The Early Music Show focussed on the life and work of London based composer Carl Friedrich Abel. Abel lived from 1723 to 1787 and was particularly associated with ... the viola da gamba. So much so that Lucie Skeaping (the show's presenter) commented that when he died it marked the end of the popularity of the bass viol. Sadly though there is no transcript available for the show so I cannot check the detail of what I remember. His sonatas for viola da gamba are hauntingly beautiful.

  • They're incredible. As a bass viol player, Abel is the composer I really want to get stuck into for solo repertoire. Unfortunately it's also rather difficult, and my teacher's much more into Marais. Commented May 9, 2014 at 9:32
  • The radio programme is not available to me from that website, alas. Do you recall if it happened to talk about why Abel decided to move to England? Of course I'm wondering if there was more love (== gigs) for gambists in England than on the continent, or even just in Germany. Commented May 9, 2014 at 22:43

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