Introducing the Viola d'amore!

in #classical-music6 years ago (edited)


Wikimedia Commons

This is a follow up to my Tools of my trade post, with a more detailed and in-depth look into an extinct string instrument that is undergoing a revival via the Early Music movement.

Basic Overview

The viola d'amore was an instrument from the Baroque era that was often associated with affects of love and softness. It was played in the style of a violin, held in the hands and on the shoulder. It came in a variety of sizes, however it's shape was that of the viola da gamba family of instruments and not from the violin family. In fact, in many ways, it is most similar to the treble viol, with characterictic flat back and general body shape and features. The gamba family of instruments was also another branch of instruments from the Baroque era that fell out of use over the intervening centuries (aside from the double bass, which traces a similar heritage) losing out to the power and brilliance of the violin family of instruments.

The instrument came in a variety of string configurations, with 5,6 or 7 playing strings and the possibility of an equal number of resonating strings under the fingerboard and through the bridge. There is some debate about the existence of resonant strings in instruments from the Baroque era, and it is now commonly held that this was a more modern development.


Wikimedia Commons

Many instruments feature a blindfolded woman or a Cupid on the scroll of the d'amore, in keeping with the love theme of the name. However, the sound holes tend to be of a "flaming sword" shape, which could suggest either the "flame of love" or a harkening back to the Middle Eastern origins of the instrument (the curved swords of the Middle East).

String Tuning

Playing strings


Wikimedia Commons

Just as there is no standard number of strings for the instrument, there is also no standard tuning for the d'amore. Most of the compositions specify what tuning is required for the piece, and there is a large chunk of composers that suggest a d minor/major tuning (see image above). However, this chunk is not a majority of compositions, so it can not be considered a "standard" tuning, just a common one. As most of the pieces involve chordal playing of some sort, it is often best to follow the recommended tuning from the composer, or you will quickly run into physically "unplayable" problems!

If there is no specified tuning, then it is up to the player to develop one that works or to use the "common" tuning mentioned before. I have a personal preference for a tuning that mimics the bass viola da gamba (however an octave higher), this being A2-D3-G3-C4-E4-A4-D5 (from low to high). In this notation, a4 is the reference pitch A=415Hz commonly used in Baroque performance practice.

Resonant strings


Wikimedia Commons

The resonant strings are perhaps a modern addition to the viola d'amore, the first reference to a d'amore with resonant strings occurs c.1730. There are two options for tuning the resonant strings; the first option is that they mirror the top playing strings to add colour to the open strings, the second option is that are tuned in the tonic (home) key of the composition, thus lending their strength to the tonic key of the piece.

It is interesting to note that the resonant strings travel behind the pegbox, over a nut at the back of the neck and then under the fingerboard through holes in the bridge out to be re-attached near the tailpiece. Needless to say, this configuration makes it very difficult to change strings and to fix mechanical buzzes and other problems! Also, another interesting feature is the reverse direction of stringing the string, so turning the tuning peg in the normal sharp direction (for a violin) results in a flatter pitch!

Scordatura and notating of music


Partia VII from Harmonia artificioso-ariosa (Biber, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von)

Unfortunately, there was not a standard way of notating music for the instrument. Every composer and player had their own tablature (scordatura) that was unique to their compositions or adaptations of music. Some, chose to write only in the normal sounding pitch, and allowed the player to figure out a system. Others chose to indicate the string tunings and then would notate in a normal scordatura, writing the music as if it was a normally tuned violin/viola and allowing different pitches to be heard instead. Needless to say, when coming upon a new piece, it can be difficult to decode the intent of the writer without some sort of guide.


from 6 Cantatas and 6 Viola d'Amore Lessons (Ariosti, Attilio)

Ariosti came up with an unusual system of notation where he used different clefs to denote different hand positions (1st, 2nd, 3rd positions and so forth) on the instrument. It was a novel approach that overcame the difficulty of knowing which position a particular notation would require, however the cost was that the player often already had a strongly ingrained notion that clefs would be associated with pitch and NOT hand position that would need to be overcome.


My personal scordatura of choice is one that divides the instruments into two instruments. So, the top 4 strings are treated as a violin for fingering, whilst the bottom 4 are treated as a viola for fingering purposes. This leads to a crossover string in the middle that can be belong to either notation, either as the lowest of the violin strings or the highest of the viola.

Technical differences and similarties to the violin.

Although the instrument is held like a violin and often the scordatura notation borrows the fingerings of a violin, the differences between the two instruments is vast. The violin supports much more weight applied to the string via the bow because of the greater seperation of the strings. The viola d'amore on the other hand has strings that are incredibly close together, thus the weight of the bow can not be as strong. The compensation for this is that the bow must move faster in comparison to the weight (as compared to a violin/viola).

If the player doesn't use a scordatura, then a new fingering regime must be learnt for every piece that utilises a different string tuning. Hoewever, if a scordatura is used, then time must be spent on writing and editing a proper score to use.


"for its swetenesse & novelty the Viol d'Amore of 5 wyre-strings, plaid on with a bow, being but an ordinary violin, play'd on Lyra way by a German, than which I never heard a sweeter Instrument or more surprizing..."
John Evelyn, Diary entry 20 Nov 1679

(the d'amore is) especially charming in the stillness of the evening.
Leopold Mozart, "Violinschule" (translated from German)

It is difficult to describe exactly how different the viola d'amore sounds in comparison to violins, so it is much easier to show by example. Below are some videos of some d'amore music that were chosen to highlight it's particular qualities.

Hope you enjoyed discovering an old type of instrument that you just don't see too often these days!


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Please don't this, it is spam.

I flagged it.

Thanks, not too hard I hope, it seems he was just new.

Alright. I removed the flag.

Such a gorgeous instrument! Thank you for this long and informative post.

It's a pain in the arse to play, but it is well worth it!

haha I was just thinking that. Not to mention changing all these strings and tuning it..

And accidentally smacking things with the pegbox end when you forget how long the bloody thing is!

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It looks amazing and its similarity to the viola da gamba is clear, which I hope to have the opportunity to play someday.

Yes, it is really similar to a treble gamba, I hope you get to play one soon! Gamba's are really quite lovely instruments!

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WOW! I am loving learning about all these instruments you play! Thanks for guiding me to this post.

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