The Viola da Gamba: Cultivating Quiet Music

03/20/2015 04:55 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015

Last November The New York Times Magazine published a "Brief History of Failure" as part of its Innovations issue, featuring a selection of unheard-of inventions and contraptions assumed to have gone silent over time ("A Brief History of Failure," November 12, 2014). Positioned just below the pneumatic rail was the musical instrument that I play -- the viola da gamba -- the Renaissance and Baroque instrument currently in the midst of an important musical revival and a cornerstone of the historical performance movement.

Curious to learn more about the specific motivations for the article, which offered as a caveat that "what follows is -- depending on how you want to think about it -- either a gallery of technologies we lost or an invitation to consider alternate futures," I investigated the drawing that was used to showcase the instrument. An anonymous German print from the New York Public Library's collection of historic images, dated 1701, it features a viol from three angles in raking light, its bestial head and frets on scientific display. Earlier this month, I was amused to see that this was the very image used to advertise a panel on historic instruments that I presented at the NYPL with the musicians of the period ensemble, New Vintage Baroque. In this context the image softened as it was contextualized historically. Why, I wondered, was there such a disconnect between how two of the city's cultural institutions understand and are discussing this instrument?

After the publication of the Times piece, a torrent of letters to-the-editor were penned by my fellow performers and enthusiasts of the viola da gamba, bemoaning the newspaper's choice to deem the instrument passé. As it turns out, hurt feelings could have been spared with a simple Google search, bound to reveal information about the hundreds of recordings made by Catalan musician Jordi Savall, or All the Mornings of the World (Tous les Matins du Monde), a poignant film starring Gérard Depardieu as the young virtuoso, Marin Marais -- a film that got many of my generation out and into the world of early music. (Even the Wikipedia page describing the viol is quite good.)

While there is never an excuse for poor research, the assumptions made speak to a larger issue, which is that there continues to be a divide in the music world between how early music is understood -- in other words, a divide between those institutions who view it as a somewhat Phrygian extension to the canonical musical museum, and those who view it as necessary to the survival of art music. Whether one sees that NYPL drawing as "specimen," or as "illustration," the de facto desire to be a martyr for an esoteric endeavor can often lead to further commandeering that endeavor into the realm of the subversive.

The viol has a complex and beautiful story. I discuss it at length in The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: it was an instrument fought over by kings, poeticized by humanists, and collected by the great patrons of art in Italy. The British painter Gainsborough was among many well-known avid players: through his extensive correspondence with composer Carl Friedrich Abel, we learn of his love of the instrument, specifically his desire to "take [my] Viol da Gamba and walk off to some sweet Village when I can print Landskips and enjoy the fag End of Life in quietness and ease."

Yet those of us who grew up playing music are likely to be more familiar with the so-called "modern" string instruments, those that populate today's great orchestras. The string players of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, the Cleveland Orchestra, and our own New York Philharmonic, all use "violin family" instruments -- violins, violas, and cellos -- in a modern setup, with innovations that have evolved over the last two hundred years to fill the late Romantic and modern concert halls with sound: steel strings, end pins, chin rests, and modern bows.

Viols possess none of these artifacts of industrialization. Their delicate bodies are made with thin slabs of wood, strung with gut strings and frets, and are played da gamba, or on the leg. In short, these are instruments meant for the cultivation of a delicate, refined beauty, the sort which may seem difficult to come by in today's loud and fast-paced world, but whose quiet existence is there, inviting us all to consider its "alternate future."