Il Giardino Armonico plays Vivaldi's Concerto for Viola d'amore and Lute, RV 540

Vivaldi – Concerto for Viola d’amore and Lute in D minor, RV 540 (Il Giardino Armonico)

Italian early music ensemble Il Giardino Armonico (The Harmonious Garden) performs Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for Viola d’amore and Lute in D minor, RV 540. Soloists: Enrico Onofri (Viola d’amore), Luca Pianca (lute).

There are three movements:

  1. Allegro
  2. Largo
  3. Allegro

Viola d’amore

Enrico Onofri playing viola d'amore
Enrico Onofri playing viola d’amore

The viola d’amore (English: love viol) is a 7- or 6-stringed musical instrument with sympathetic strings used chiefly in the baroque period. Like violin or viola, it is played under the chin in the same manner. The instrument was especially popular in the late 17th century, although a specialized viola d’amore player would have been highly unusual, since it was customary for professional musicians to play a number of instruments, especially within the family of the musician’s main instrument. Later, the instrument fell from use, as the volume and power of the violin family became preferred over the delicacy and sweetness of the viol family. However, there has been renewed interest in the viola d’amore in the last century. The viola players Henri Casadesus (30 September 1879, Paris – 31 May 1947, Paris; violist, viola d’amore player, and music publisher) and Paul Hindemith (16 November 1895 – 28 December 1963, the German composer, violist, violinist, teacher and conductor) both played the viola d’amore in the early 20th century, and the film composer Bernard Herrmann (born Max Herman; June 29, 1911 – December 24, 1975; the American composer known for his work in composing for motion pictures) made use of it in several scores. It may be noted that, like instruments of the violin family, the modern viola d’amore was altered slightly in structure from the baroque version, mainly to support the extra tension of steel wound strings.

The viola d’amore shares many features of the viol family. It looks like a thinner treble viol without frets and sometimes with sympathetic strings added. The six-string viola d’amore and the treble viol also have approximately the same ambitus or range of playable notes. Like all viols, it has a flat back. An intricately carved head at the top of the peg box is common on both viols and viole d’amore, although some viols lack one. Unlike the carved heads on viols, the viola d’amore’s head occurs most often as Cupid blindfolded to represent the blindness of love. Its sound-holes are commonly in the shape of a flaming sword known as “The Flaming Sword of Islam” (suggesting the instrument’s development was influenced by the Islamic World) but more likely representing the flame of love. This was one of the three usual sound hole shapes for viols as well. It is unfretted, and played much like a violin, being held horizontally under the chin. It is about the same size as the modern viola.

It usually has six or seven playing strings, which are sounded by drawing a bow across them, just as with a violin. In addition, it has an equal number of sympathetic strings located below the main strings and the fingerboard which are not played directly but vibrate in sympathy with the notes played. A common variation is six playing strings, and instruments exist with as many as fourteen sympathetic strings alone. Despite the fact that the sympathetic strings are now thought of as the most characteristic element of the instrument, early forms of the instrument almost uniformly lacked them. The first unambiguous reference to a viola d’amore without sympathetic strings does not occur until the 1730s. Both the types continued to be built and played through the 18th century.

Largely thanks to the sympathetic strings, the viola d’amore has a particularly sweet and warm sound. Leopold Mozart, writing in his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, said that the instrument sounded “especially charming in the stillness of the evening.”

The first known mention of the name viol d’amore appeared in English writer, gardener and diarist John Evelyn’s (31 October 1620 – 27 February 1706) Diary (20 November 1679): “for its swetenesse & novelty the Viol d’Amore of 5 wyre-strings, plaid on with a bow, being but an ordinary violin, play’d on Lyra way by a German, than which I never heard a sweeter Instrument or more surprizing…”