Volume 11, no. 1:
The Viol: History of an Instrument. By Annette Otterstedt. Translated by Hans Reiner. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2002. [294 pp. ISBN 3-7618-1151-9. £34.90.]
Reviewed by Mary Cyr*
1.1 Prior to the publication of the original German edition of this book in 1994, the only comprehensive history of the viol was Edmund J. Van der Straeten’s History of the Violoncello, the Viola da Gamba, Their Precursors and Collateral Instruments (London: William Reeves, 1915). Another predecessor is Ian Woodfield’s The Early History of the Viol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), which covers the period from the late medieval Spanish origins of the viol until the sixteenth century. Otterstedt’s Die Gambe: Kulturgeschichte und praktischer Ratgeber, published by Bärenreiter, was therefore an important addition to the literature on the history of this instrument. The present translation makes the work more accessible to English-speaking readers and is therefore very welcome. Annette Otterstedt’s approach to the history of the viol is similar to Van der Straeten’s in that it is arranged geographically, with biographical details about important composers within each chapter. Since Van der Straeten’s work deals only in part with the viol and is largely devoted to the cello, Otterstedt’s work stands alone as the only comprehensive study of viol technique, construction, history, and composers.
2.1 Annette Otterstedt’s musicological work has concentrated primarily on the viol. She has presented numerous papers and written articles on viol technique as well as published a major study of the lyra viol. In the present work, she has consciously chosen to avoid some of the scholarly trappings of her other works, adopting instead a storytelling voice, with frequent injections of humor and personal opinions. It is an approach that readers will either find enjoyable or tedious. Otterstedt’s objective is to view the viol’s history with a critical eye, to “disseminate doubt, not for the sake of dissension, but for kindling discrimination and enhancing knowledge” (p. 16). The work is more “about the viol, rather than about musicological technique … about music … about organology … about practical playing technique … about being entertaining” (p. 18). Such divergent objectives make the work seem scattered at times, and I found that her personal opinions sometimes get in the way of presenting the information. Occasionally, her critical asides even have an unpleasant tone, verging on diatribes against current performing traditions and certain performers (unnamed, thankfully).
2.2 Perhaps because of the existence of Woodfield’s in-depth study on the early history of the viol, Otterstedt moves quickly over the viol’s origins. Comparing her three-and-a-half-page treatment to Woodfield’s exhaustive study would be unfair, but one expects from Otterstedt a thoughtful summary of his work on the rebab and the Valencian viol in relation to the construction and playing technique of the viol. Instead, Otterstedt acknowledges the existence of Woodfield’s work but then sets off on her own path through the labyrinth of conflicting information. She ends up dismissing rather than examining information, declaring that “a rabab is no viol” (p. 20), and that the vihuela “has nothing to do with the viol” (p. 21). On the contrary, Woodfield has deftly brought both iconographical and historical evidence to bear upon the relationships of all of these instruments and has demonstrated some significant connections among them. Otterstedt does establish some important foundations for later discussion when she notes the different roles of the viol as both a solo and consort instrument as well as the defining characteristic of underhand bowing. She goes on to examine the relationship of the viol to the lute and the viol’s early history up to the sixteenth century in England and France. These latter contributions are useful ones that form the foundation for further discussion of the viol’s development during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
2.3 Otterstedt then discusses Alfonso Ferrabosco (ca. 1575–1628) and his contribution to the lyra viol. In this chapter, William Lawes, John Jenkins, and Christopher Simpson each merit separate consideration as well. She offers a concise and very knowledgeable appreciation of Ferrabosco’s lyra viol music. I found this section to be one of the most valuable in the entire book, since Ferrabosco’s lyra viol music is not well known among viol players and deserves more attention. Otterstedt’s understanding of lyra viol technique and of the implicit contrapuntal writing and elegance of Ferrabosco’s style comes through in her prose, and her evaluation is an important contribution to the history of English solo viol music. Unfortunately, later viol composers whose works deserve similar consideration—Schenck, Kühnel, and Marais to name only a few—are given only passing comment. The discussion of Marais is so brief as to be somewhat misleading when she suggests, for example, that “whilst Sainte Colombe utilized the A-string freely, his pupil Marais largely managed without it, and where he did use it, it often seems accidental” (p. 140). In fact, Marais uses melodic passages on the A' string in his first book, Pièces à une et à deux violes (Paris: author, 1686) but thereafter tends to use the A' string primarily as an open string for added sonority. In neither case is his use of the A' string “accidental”; each passage is carefully integrated into the texture and adds richness to the sonority.
2.4 A chapter devoted to women who played the viol contains many new facts about little-known players, and the section on the origin of the “unfeminine” attributes of viol playing also makes fascinating reading. In the discussion of the viol in the nineteenth century, the author veers away from the topic of changing taste and launches into a critical diatribe against modern-day groups that perform in period costume. Some of her asides may even be somewhat damaging in their effect, such as the statement that “anyone who, for example, plays the works of Ortiz, Simpson, Marais, and Bach on an eighteenth-century southern-German viol is an ignoramus who really merits contempt” (p. 152). Making players aware of differences between styles of viol construction at different periods is laudable, but few of Otterstedt’s readers are likely to own four different instruments on which to play the composers she mentions. Is it not preferable to encourage players to become familiar with the different styles of viol building before choosing an instrument, even if they can afford to buy only one?
2.5 Since the publication of this study, Michael Talbot has solved the long-standing mystery of Vivaldi’s viole all’inglese, which Otterstedt believes not to be viols. Talbot evaluates a wealth of information and concludes that Vivaldi’s designation probably did designate the viol, and his article includes citations of several vocal works that include parts for viole inglese as well as instrumental pieces.1
3.1 The book is nicely illustrated with seven color plates and 63 musical examples from treatises, manuscripts, drawings, and photographs. Chapters on the bow and its history add depth to the study. Notes at the end of each chapter lead the reader to some of the original sources, although there are some omissions too. The translator, her partner Hans Reiner, has himself written extensively on viol construction and has co-authored some studies with Otterstedt. To his credit, the prose reads as if it were written in English, which is quite a feat considering the many idiomatic phrases in the author’s vocabulary.
3.2 The bibliography is adequate, though not extensive. Although the author provides a list of periodicals devoted to the viola da gamba, she includes almost none of the articles from these periodicals in the bibliography. The result is that a number of scholars who have written extensively about the viol, such as Andrew Ashbee, Gordon Dodd, Julie Anne Sadie, Frank Traficante, and Ian Woodfield, scarcely figure in the bibliography at all. Julie Anne Sadie’s The Bass Viol in French Baroque Chamber Music (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1980) is an important study that is also missing. Players will want to supplement this section with Taco Stronks’ bibliography2 as well as Ian Woodfield’s further updates entitled “Recent Research on the Viol,” published annually since 1988 in the Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society of America.
3.3 These few shortcomings aside, Otterstedt’s work is an important contribution to the history of the viol and its technique. Some players may even find that her passion for storytelling increases the book’s attractiveness; if so, the work will have garnered an even wider audience for the viol.
* Mary Cyr (email@example.com) is a viola da gambist and Professor of Music at the University of Guelph. She has made recordings of music for viola da gamba by Bach, as well as lyra viol solos and cantatas by Buxtehude and Rameau. She is the author of Performing Baroque Music (Amadeus Press, 1992) and is currently preparing a new scholarly edition of the cantatas and instrumental music of Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre.
1 Michael Talbot, “Vivaldi and the English Viol,” Early Music 30 (2002), 381–94.
2 “A Viola da Gamba Bibliography” in A Viola da Gamba Miscellany: Proceedings of the International Viola da Gamba Symposium: Utrecht, 1991 (Utrecht: STIMU, 1994).
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