The viola da gamba orchestra

August 19, 2009

Granted it’s often difficult enough to get a half-dozen players together at any one time, but playing in a gamba orchestra is always a fun if not informative experience.

Large ensemble viol orchestras are now an established feature of annual gamba gatherings in the US and the UK and for many years were also a feature of Australian viol gatherings which have more or less always hovered around the 25-player mark.

The UK of course specialises in commissioning student works able to be played with large forces and the sheet music arising from these events is mercifully published as well.

In America there are special orchestral sessions devoted to sight-reading the five- and six-consorts of Jenkins and Lawes. Of course, these are seen very much as a fun activity so the physical setting is an interesting factor – often in large classrooms, not in a concert hall setting. The sessions are usually crowded, one-off after-dinner occasions for the benefit of the players alone, not involving repeat playings with a potential audience in mind. The aim is simply to start together and finish together, and more or less play and feel the Jenkins/Lawes together; the ‘conductors’ play along as well – there is no sense of a symphony orchestra on a concert platform, with a conductor waving his arms about, and audience listening on in raptures.

The purposes then are manifold: a useful tool for ‘warming up’ players prior to small ensemble playing, for tackling repertoire that some might not otherwise either play regularly or feel confident about tackling (as in the case of the Jenkins and Lawes) and for keeping the momentum going in the area of contemporary music (again where individual players might not ordinarily play the new music or where they might want to try it before buying it).  

I haven’t seen all that much actually written about gamba orchestras and orchestra playing, either as a twentieth-century phenomenon or the early seventeenth-century in France, when – unless I’m very much mistaken – the royal court favoured large orchestras or lutes and viols. I am under the impression these massed forces may have been the precedent for the king’s 24 Royal Violins, but I need to go away and check my facts, especially the context in France around the time Mersenne was writing.

In addition to a dirth of writing on the subject, I’m not aware of anyone ever having tackled any sort of recording of gamba orchestras.

Now that clip-on tuners are available (and popular and practically universal in the last few years, especially here in Australia), the common complaint about tuning and keeping so many people in tune at the one time must surely fall away. To my mind, the other great excuses for not playing orchestrally are that it can’t compete with the one-to-a-part consort experience and that some players only ever want to play ‘original’ old music for viols and avoid modern contemporary music written for viols. 

Viols will never be as public a phenomenon here as are guitar orchestras and mandolin orchestras. The former is on an adhoc basis, rather like a choir, where there are set rehearsals leading to performances; the latter is significant because the local one here has managed to sign up a vast number of composers to write music for it. The other interesting precedent is the use of massed ‘cellos – which have managed to be taken seriously in terms of concert performances and recordings.

I hope to return to this post over time and add more information about gamba orchestras and orchestra playing. It raises so many ‘ethnomusicological’ questions about performance, concertising and repertoire, past and present!

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