Early bowed instruments around 1500, Part I (Italy)

Transformations of Instrumental Sonority: The Development of String Instruments in the Transition from the Late Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period on the Example of the Early Viola da Gamba


In 2011–2013 a research project of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (SCB), financed by the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SBFI) with support from the Freiwillige Akademische Gesellschaft Basel (FAG), explored a central phase of transformation in European cultural history from ca. 1470 to 1550. The project focused on the new string instruments that evolved around 1500, in particular the viola da gamba, to describe the general change in concepts of sound that occurred at that time. In spite of the instrument’s great importance in courtly musical culture, research into the early viola da gamba had stagnated since Ian Woodfield’s pioneering study from 1984. Employing an interdisciplinary approach, the project established the lacunae and dealt with the research topic in four related work areas: music history, iconography, organology, and practical music-making.

The central document, although of rather late date, is Silvestro Ganassi’s Regola Rubertina (Venice, 1542/43), which describes in detail the early viola da gamba in terms of its structural characteristics and manner of playing as well as repertoire and social context. Thus, substantial aspects of the wide-ranging subject of the “transformations of instrumental sonority” could be dealt with in an exemplary manner. In addition to a fundamental music-historical contextualization of the abovementioned source and its author, these also included a broad iconographical collection of string-instrument depictions in connection with a critical art-historical and context-orientated evaluation. Another goal of the project was the reconstruction of a viola da gamba after Ganassi. This was based on a combination of textual, iconographical, and organological sources and their evaluation. In the course of this work, appropriate early instruments in various European museums (Vienna, Nuremberg, Leipzig, Paris and Lisbon) were examined and, where possible, remeasured. Of particular importance was the clearly asymmetrical belly thicknesses – found both in iconography as well as on the instruments – whose acoustical effect was simulated, and whose acoustical relevance was confirmed, on the basis of a 3D model at the Vienna Institute of Music Acoustics (IWK). Based on these findings, a concept was developed for a definitive model (with asymmetrical belly thicknesses, and without sound post and bass bar) that was realized by three different instrument makers in order to also investigate the influence of different working methods on the outcome. Finally, these instruments were tested in practice, employing information on the manner of playing as conveyed in Ganassi and other sources, and were heard for the first time in public on 3 May 2013 at a concert with ensemble arcimboldo (video clip) on the occasion of a symposium. The program featured virtuoso Venetian repertoire from the artistic circle around Silvestro Ganassi, Adriano Willaert, and the singer Polissena Pecorina, who was regarded as the circle’s muse.

All in all, the project would like to contribute to a differentiation of the view of history in order to be able to better understand the different sonic and instrument-making concepts that existed side by side in a complex amalgam during the period around 1500. The project understands itself in the widest sense as a contribution to fundamental musical research. A second phase of the project, sponsored by the Swiss National Foundation, is to begin in October 2013. Under the title “Groß Geigen, Vyolen, Rybeben  – North-Alpine string instruments around 1500 and their practice,” North-Alpine traditions will be examined in greater depth.

Translation: Howard Weiner



Project staff:

      • Prof. Dr. Thomas Drescher (direction)
      • Thilo Hirsch (co-direction)
      • Dr. des. Martina Papiro
      • PD Dr. Martin Kirnbauer
      • Kathrin Menzel M.A.




Involved musical instrument makers:


Consultative bodies:




Project duration:

    • September 2011 - June 2013