Antonio Vivaldi and the Viola da Gamba

May 4, 2009

By the time the compositions of Corelli and Vivaldi swept across Europe and subsequently changed the musical language of the period, the viol had long fallen out of use in Italy and the violin reigned supreme, notwithstanding moulds for viols found in Stradivarius’ studio.  In terms of 18th-century French music, the gamba was prominent in basso continuo till quite late – perhaps up to but not including Rameau, since we’re aware of the intense struggle between French music (and the gamba’s central position at the time of Louis XIV) and Italian music, culminating in the LeBlanc essay defending the viol from the predations of Sultan violin and Signor ‘cello.

Since the wave of Early Music of the 1970s, Vivaldi and his Italian and German contemporaries have been “gamba-free” – we’ve left the field of battle to the baroque violin and the ‘cello, and latterly the basse de violon. But things have obviously mellowed somewhat in this new century, whereby Pandolfo has ‘dared’ to record the Bach ‘cello suites on gamba and Savall has recorded some Vivaldi concertos using gamba. We know that Bach introduced the gamba into his Passions for their special tone-colour, just as Monteverdi drew on a wide range of instruments for their special effects in his operatic works, so it’s hardly surprising we see the same thing at work in Vivaldi. It was grand to see Richard Mills used gambas in his contemporary opera, Batavia, for generally similar reasons.

With the passing of time comes more musicological research. In the case of Vivaldi, the operas have come under greater scrutiny lately (including the pastiches) and we’ve dug deeper into the diversity of instruments for which Vivaldi composed. In investigating tone color, it seems that Vivaldi used English viols at a poignant moment in Juditha Triumphans. It’s since come to light that during Vivaldi’s time in Venice, a certain Prudenza played gamba, probably along with ‘cello, and that the Ospedale had no less than seven gambas in its battery of instruments, probably as a mark of the institution’s conservatism if not its breadth and all-inclusiveness when it came to things musical. There is talk of a Vivaldi sonata in funebre drawing on the traditional links between viols and the funereal, not dissimilar to the associations the pastoral has with the recorder.

On his website, Ernst Stolz dares to play the ‘cello sonata R.43 on gamba, which in turns puts the spotlight on the authorship of some of these sonatas. 

At the end of the day, Vivaldi is great to play and noone except my neighbours are going to know that I am having some fun playing his works on gamba. I’ve enjoyed playing bass viol in scratch orchestra read-throughs of the Gloria and a newly discovered Nunc dimittis; it’s a great feeling to have the harmonies move under your feet. This comes across strongly in the DVD excerpts attached to the Biondi recording of the opera, Bajazet.

Will we see works by Vivaldi for violin(s) transcribed for viols? If professional violinists can play Bach keyboard concertos, then anything’s possible. PRB Productions have come up with the Four Seasons for flute, seven-string gamba and continuo. Transcriptions are supposed to ‘add’ to the insights provided by the music; it’s awkward for the players and the listeners when the idiomatic writing of one instrument doesn’t translate to another. But in adding to one’s personal understanding of Affekt and Baroque music in general, I’m happy to gain greater understanding by looking at the scores and for example playing one of the solo lines of the slow movement from the double mandolin concerto, RV 532, for its very Italian rocking rhythms.  I doubt any amateur trio of bass gambas would tackle such a thing, but I like it and it feeds into my knowledge of exactly what the French of the Louis XIV and XV courts were coming to grips with in terms of Italian music. That, and the Corelli Concerti grossi.



Richard Mills and Peter Golsworthy, Batavia, Opera Australia, August 2006.

Antonio Vivaldi:

‘Cello sonata, R43; Peter Wispelwey & Florilegium Channel Classics CCS 6294 (Sonatas 4,5,6,7,8,9).

Juditha Triumphans – sacrum militare oratorium (Venice 1716). Modo Antiquo. Tactus TC67290, where five viol players have been organised into a ‘Concerto de’ Viole all’inglese’ which includes the likes of Bettina Hoffman and Nanneke Schaap.

Bajazet (Verona, 1735) RV 703. Virgin Classics, 7243 5 45676 2 9.

Jordi Savall, La viola da gamba in concerto. Le Concert des Nations, dir Jordi Savall. Alia Vox, AV 9835.

Concerto in C for two recorders, oboe, chalumeau, violin, two viola all’inglese, two violins ‘in tromba marina’, two harpsichords and strings, RV 555. Europa Galante, dir. Fabio Biondi. Virgin Veritas 7243-5-45527-2, also King’s Consort dir Robert King on Hyperion CDA 67073, also Le Concert des Nations dir Jordi Savall.

Concerto for violin and gamba obbligato, strings and continuo in a, La Maggiore, RV 546.
Concerto to two violins and gamba obbligato, strings and continuo in d, RV 565 (op.3 no.11)
Concerto Il Proteo o sia il mondo al rovescio in F, RV 544.
Concerto for two violins and gamba obbligato, strings and continuo in g, RV 578 (op.3 no.2 – Venice, 1711)

Funeral concerto for violin, oboe, clarinet, three violas “all’inglese”, strings and basso continuo, in B-flat,  RV 579. Concerto Italiano, dir. Rinaldo Alessandrini. Opus 111, also Le Concert des Nations, dir. Jordi Savall, Alia Vox AV 9835.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: