Nicolas Houël (1584)

Sources For Rediscovering Lost Viola da Gambas


Iconography offers invaluable yet murky evidence for reconstructing early French viol consorts. Iconography, for example, offers no evidence of the internal construction of instruments.


Treatises and other primary sources provide evidence for historical tunings, which can be extrapolated as organological evidence to inform our reconstructions. Treatises further offer clues as to the social use of viols in the lives of sixteenth-century French women and men.


While ample evidence exists of the tunings and outward appearance of early French viol consorts, the question of what repertoire these instruments performed remains an unexplored issue. The Parisian chanson was in the sixteenth century a mass-produced popular form of polyphony that was flexible enough and could be performed on consort instruments.

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Rediscovering French Consort Tunings

La clef de noz violes à l’usage de France, sus la partie du bas, & du dessus, se prend sus la seconde corde d’en haut à vuyde, que nouse appellons G sol re ut, donc celay da bas, est le second contenu en la game, & celuy du dessus est le troizieme, faisant difference de l’un à lautre de huit voix, que nous appellons octave. Les tailles & haute contres accordent leur chanterelle justement sus la seconde du dessus, à vuyde: Comme le tout est contenu en la figure:

Philibert Jambe de Fer, L’Épitome Musical (Lyons, 1556)