martes, 27 de julio de 2010



Published at The Viol (No.19, Summer 2010), newsletter of The Viola da Gamba Society.

There has been little research done on the viol in Spain, whereas its cousin, the vihuela de mano (the plucked vihuela) has become much better known during the past few decades.

In historic sources, the term vihuela de arco, or just vihuela, is used to refer to the viol, which can lead to confusion; depending on the context, the word vihuela could mean either the bowed or the plucked instrument.

The earliest mention of the vihuela de arco occurs in the Cancionero de Baena, which dates from the beginning of 15th century[12] but this probably refers to an instrument with a flat bridge that was used to provide a drone accompaniment. We can see a representation of this type of instrument in a carving by Damian Forment (1509) at El Pilar Cathedral, Zaragoza.

The origins of what we would call a viol are well known, thanks to Ian Woodfield’s Early History of the Viol. The instrument is thought to have developed when the bowing technique used while playing the Moorish rebab was transferred to a plucked instrument such as the vihuela de mano in the Aragon-Valencian kingdom. It was then taken to Italy with the household of the Borgia popes. Peter Holman[2] also suggests that this kind of instrument may have also been taken to the north of Italy and the Low Countries, by Jewish musicians expelled from Spain

In Spain the viol appears in Royal Court with the Flemish musicians who arrived with Carlos V during the first quarter of the 16th century. Carlos V kept two musical chapels: that of his home country, the Flemish Chapel, and that of his new kingdom, the Spanish Chapel.

Carlos Vs grandson, Philip II, is recorded as having himself played the viol, sometimes singing to his own accompaniment. We also learn that he played motets by Guerrrero on the viol with his friends.[3]

At court the viol had three main functions. It was used in the education of the 'cantorcillos' (choirboys), and it was taught to members of the Royal Family, where it was played during masques and similar performances. It was also used liturgically in the Chapel, particularly during Lent, Easter or Christmas[4]

By around 1620, violins had started to become more important than viols in the Royal Chapel; these were, however, still being used in the education of the 'cantorcillos' and were being taught to the sons of Philip III).

Even as late as 1623 Henry Buttler enters the Royal Chamber and Chapel to teach Philip IV the viol, but the instruments 'as a group were put aside by the violins'[5].

While there has been a certain amount of research into the use of the viol in the Royal Household, as yet there is less information available about the instrument in other contexts, for example amongst the lesser nobility.

We do find it mentioned in an inventory of the possessions of a Madrid banker in 1588.

- A viol and its case (una biuela de arco con su caxa) 8 duc.

- Another, old, viol without a case (otra vihuela de arco sin caja bieja) 12 rs[6]

We also know that the Dukes of Medina Sidonia had viol players in their service in Seville during the first half of the 16th century[7].

And it appears that it was quite common to play in consort, as we learn from this distinctly arcadian view of Valladolid (as recorded by Barthelemy Joly during his stay in the city at the beginning of the 17th century.[8]).

“Gentlemen approach the coaches filled with women or follow the promenade to other parts of this meadow; some amuse themselves with conversation or read a book under the shadow of trees, other listen to the concert of viols or sing themselves, tuning their voices to the sound of their guitars…”

It is also recorded that viols were used during royal visits to towns and cities[9] and also in cathedrals for liturgical music[10].


There are no renaissance or baroque Iberian instruments of the gamba family known to survive in public collections. There are some 18th century instruments of the violin family, and a violon, a 5 stringed bass instrument attributed to Domingo Pescador, at the Convento de la Encarnación in Avila.

It is, however, possible that some unauthenticated anonymous ‘Italian and Central European’ instruments may in fact be of Spanish/Iberian origin.

There are also two gamba basses, the Ash.02.Boyden 3 (Venetian viol) at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Domenico Ruffo at the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum in Innsbruck. Myrna Herzog suggests they could be from the same maker as they are very similar[11]. The one in Innsbruck has a label that says Dominico Russo (Ruffo?). No date nor place is recorded. Could this be the same Dominico as the one mentioned in the inventory of Philip II “five bowed vihuela of white wood with square inlays by the hand of Dominico in three boxes”. These two instruments have square inlays, in a style that might remind one of Moorish decoration. They are cello shaped, with rather square bouts, and are very similar to the instruments painted by El Greco.

When it comes to iconography, there has been very little research done in relation to viols, though we can find some examples in paintings from the baroque period (interestingly, all the ones I have come across are cello shaped). There are several notable depictions that originate from the School of Seville.[12]


In 1935 Ars Musicae de Barcelona was founded by Josep María Lamaña. Enric Gispert took over as director in 1957, and was succeeded by Romà Escalas, who was in charge until the group dissolved in 1980. Escalas is currently the Director of the Museu de la Musica de Barcelona where some of the instruments used by the group are housed.

In Madrid there were also a few groups. First there was Agrupación de Música Antigua de Madrid led by Alejandro Masó. Later came Atrium Musicae, with the Paniagua brothers and Cuarteto Renacimiento, with Ramón Perales de la Cal.

In the early days, these ensembles did not have much knowledge of technique, and the viols they used were far from the instruments that we know today.

A more historically informed approach to viol playing in Spain emerged with the recording of the Tratado de Glossas by Jordi Savall, along with Casademunt and Gálvez in 1970.

SEMA (Seminario de Estudios de Musica Antigua) can be considered as a group of the next generation. It ceased to exist ten years ago, though many of the viol teachers currently active in Spain are former members of this group, having previously studied abroad.

Nowadays there are a fair number of students of the viol in Spain. Some have not played another stringed instrument before, but many of them have come from the cello, the guitar or the double bass.

In some of the main cities one can find state schools that teach viol playing, both to primary-grade children (up to the age of 16) and to middle-grade young people (over 16 years old); one can get a degree in viol playing in Barcelona, Madrid and Sevilla.

There are also short courses at various times during the year organised by the University of Salamanca, and summer courses in other places, though some of these are going through difficult times with the lack of public funding in these times of recession

Viol makers can be found throughout Spain, especially around the main centres of viol teaching. Recently there has been a move towards making viols of a heavier construction, with high fingerboards and high tension strings, although the more lightly constructed instruments continue to be made. And we should not forget the Chinese viols, which have become popular due to their affordability.

As far as I know, there are no ensembles playing baroque or renaissance music using the more historical approach of all gut stringing. Even today, it is quite common to see well-known groups playing Spanish Renaissance repertoire on ornate seven string French viols.

There is still a long way to go, but thanks to the teachers and viol makers working in Spain, there has been a huge improvement in the last decades.

[1] Imperial, Francisco. 'Poesías [Cancionero de Baena] ca 1409'.

Brian Dutton; Joaquín González Cuenca, Visor (Madrid), 1993

[2] Peter Holman. 'Four and twenty fiddlers: the violin at the English court, 1540-1690'.

Oxford Monographs on Music 1996

[3] Luis Robledo Estaire. 'La musica en la casa de la reina, principe e infantas'. Pp210-211

Aspectos de la cultura musical en la corte de Felipe II

Fundación Caja Madrid. Madrid, 2000

[4] Luis Robledo Estaire. 'Vihuelas de arco y violones en la corte de Felipe III'

España en la musica de occidente Vol. INAEM 1987

[5] 'Vihuelas de arco y violones en la corte de Felipe III'

[6] Beryl Kenyon de Pascual. ‘Two Sixteenth-Century Spanish Inventories’

The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 49 (Mar., 1996), pp. 198-203

[7] Juan Ruiz Jiménez. ‘Power and Musical exchange:the Dukes of Medina Sidonia in Renaissance Seville‘.Early Music August 2009 pp.401-415

[8] Cristina Diego Pacheco “Beyond church and court:city musicians and music in Renaissance Valladolid” Early Music August 2009, Page 371

[9] Juan José Carreras “La música en las entradas reales”

'Aspectos de la cultura musical en la corte de Felipe II

Fundación Caja Madrid. Madrid, 2000

[10] Juan Ruiz Jiménez. “Ministriles y extravagantes en la celebración religiosa”

Políticas y prácticas musicales en el mundo de FelipeII

ICCMU 2004 Madrid

[11] Myrna Herzog. “Violin Traits in Italian Viol Building, Rule or Exception?”

The Italian Viola da Gamba. Edition Ensemble Barroque de Limoges 2002

[12] María Teresa Dabrio González. 'Los instrumentos musicales en la pintura andaluza.'

Cuadernos de arte e iconografía/ Tomo VI - 11. 1993