A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Gamba, Viola da

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GAMBA, VIOLA DA (gamba, Ital. for leg),
Page 579 (A Dictionary of Music and Musicians-Volume 1).jpg
—a knee-violin, as distinguished from viola da braccio (braccio, Ital. for arm), or the viola to be played on the arm—is an obsolete stringed instrument, played with a bow and held between the knees: a predecessor of the violoncello. It is of about the same size as the violoncello, but has a flat back, like a double-bass; the openings in the belly have not the f-shape, but are variously cut, generally in a thin crescent. The finger-board was originally provided with frets, which were afterwards discontinued; it was mounted with 6 catgut strings, which were ultimately increased to 7, the 3 lowest covered with wire. The two kinds were thus tuned:
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \clef bass \cadenzaOn \relative d, { d4 g c e a d \bar "||" d,, g c e a d g s } }

The Gamba was for a long period the most popular of all bowed instruments, and, especially in England (which by some is believed to be its original home), Holland, and Germany, appears to have been the favourite instrument of society. Shakespeare, in 'Twelfth Night,' mentions as a special accomplishment of Sir Andrew Aguecheek that 'he plays o' the viol-de-gamboys.' In the pictures of Gerard Dow, Terburg, and other great Dutch masters of the 17th century we see again and again richly dressed ladies and gentlemen playing the gamba. At one time few noblemen's or gentlemen's houses were without a 'chest,' containing a set of four or more gambas of different size, often expensively got up, carved and inlaid with ivory or tortoise-shell. This popularity of the gamba lasted up to the middle of the 18th century, when the violoncello began gradually to supersede it. Burney, who heard it played by Abel, the last great performer upon it in London, describes its tone as 'radically crude and nasal,' and adds that 'a human voice of the same quality would be considered intolerable.' This is certainly a somewhat strong statement. In tone and character the gamba does not materially differ from the tenor of our own days; and its banishment from the modern orchestra is easily accounted for by the fact that its higher notes are equally well and more easily produced on the tenor, while the effect of the lower strings is much finer on the violoncello. The gamba was handled very much in the same way as the cello, except that some virtuosi had additional strings attached at the back of the neck, on which they played a pizzicato accompaniment with the thumb of the left hand. Sebastian Bach was the last great composer who wrote for the gamba, and he appears to have had a special predilection for it. We have from his pen three Sonatas for Clavier and Gamba (Bachgesellschaft, vol. ix.) and a number of obligato accompaniments for airs in his Cantatas and the Passion Music. He also employs it in a Concerto grosso for 2 viols da braccio, 2 viole da gamba, violoncello, violone, and harpsichord, and on other occasions uses it to attain special orchestral effects. A striking instance is the exquisitely beautiful introduction to the Cantata 'Gottes Zeit' (Bachgesellschaft, vol. xxiii.) where we find three separate gamba-parts combined with violins and flutes, which must have produced a very peculiar effect. But while in little Leipzig the gamba was still favourite, it was already out of fashion in London, and we look in vain for it in the more forcible and practical scores of Handel. By the end of the 18th century most gambas were converted into violoncellos, and for that reason but rarely met with now-a-days.

Michael Praetorius in his 'Syntagma musicum' (published 1619) distinguishes between 'viola di gamba' and the 'gross viola di gamba,' which he also calls 'violono' or 'contrabasso di gamba.' This latter one we must suppose to have been the earlier form of the double-bass, which, as a fact, does belong to the gamba tribe, and not to that of the violin, as is shewn by its flat back.

C. F. Abel (died 1787), a pupil of Bach, and Lidl, an Englishman (died 1789), were the last virtuosi on the gamba. Burney, and Mozart in his letters, both speak of the Elector Maximilian III. of Bavaria as an accomplished gambist. A Mrs. Ottey (1723) and a Miss Ford (1760) are recorded among English players of reputation.

The Italian instrument-makers made gambas only down to the middle of the 17th century, when after the general adoption of the violin, they seem at once to have supplanted it by the violoncello. In England, France, and Germany they were made up to the middle of last century. Joachim Tielke of Hamburg (1660–1730) had a great reputation as a maker.

[ P. D. ]