Extending the Longevity of French Renaissance Viols

In his Harmonie universelle, contenant la théorie et la pratique de la musique (Paris, 1636), Marin Mersenne reproduced the woodcut of a five-string viol from Jambe de Fer’s L’Épitome musical des tons, sons et accordz, es voix humaines, fleustes d’Alleman, flesustes à neuf trous, violes, & violons (Lyons, 1556) and noted that this was a kind of viol that was used in the past.

Torn page from the only surviving copy of Jambe de Fer’s L’Épitome musical des tons, sons et accordz, es voix humaines, fleustes d’Alleman, flesustes à neuf trous, violes, & violons (Lyons, 1556).
Reproduction of Jambe de Fer’s viol in Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle, contenant la théorie et la pratique de la musique (Paris, 1636).

Mersenne provides tuning only for the viol designed to play the bas voice. He then presents an image of a six-string viol and explains that this is the viol that can be constructed in a variety of sizes, up to seven or eight feet in length, and is currently used in France.

The six-string viol from Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle, contenant la théorie et la pratique de la musique (Paris, 1636).

Using Mersenne as the authority, scholars have therefore concluded that the five-string fourths-tuned instruments were no longer in use by 1636.

Studies of the history of the viol and surveys of French treatises that mention viols have largely overlooked, however, an important manuscript treatise written by Pierre Trichet in Bordeaux sometime between 1631 and 1638. The manuscript is today in the Bibliothèque Saint Geneviève in Paris (ms. 1070). François Lesure published an edition with an introduction of Trichet’s treatise: Pierre Trichet, Traité des instruments de musique (vers 1640), edited by François Lesure. (Neuilly-sur-Seine: Société de musique d’autrefois, 1957; Reprint Minkoff, 1978). Trichet was a bibliophile who exchanged letters relating to organological issues with Marin Mersenne.1Some of Trichet’s library today resides in the Bibliothèque de Bordeaux. Trichet exchanged two letters with Mersenne in 1631. In the first letter he suggests that he had received a letter from Mersenne dated to 15 October the previous year. See Paul Tannery, Cornelis de Waard, and René Pintard, eds., Correspondance du P. Marin Mersenne, religieux minime, vol. 3 (Paris: G. Beauchesne et ses fils, 1946), 1–9 and 156–159. In the second letter, Trichet discusses the l’ame (soul, i.e. the soundpost) of the viol. He published an inventory of the contents of his cabinet de curiosité (curiosity cabinet) in both Latin and French in 1635.2Pierre Trichet, Synopsis rerum variarum tam naturalium quam artificialium, quae in Musaeo Petri Tricheti Burdigalae reperiuntur. Denombrement de diverses et curieuses choses du Cabinet de Pierre Trichet Bourdelois ([Bordeaux]: n. p., 1635) and Dénombrement de diverses et curieuses choses du cabinet de Pierre Trichet, bourdelois ([Bordeaux]: n. p., 1635). His published inventory claims that Trichet owned a library of some 4000 volumes, 4400 engraved portraits, 400 antique medals, and a collection of musical instruments. At the time Trichet created his inventory, he owned around twenty instruments, including “une basse-contre de viole.”

Pierre Trichet, BnF (c. 1640)

Trichet’s manuscript treatise Le traité des instruments (c. 1640) was never published, likely a result of the appearance of Mersenne’s more comprehensive and scientific publication on music. In his treatise, Trichet explains the etymology of the names of instruments and discusses their description and their use. Although his discussion of the viole spans only four folio pages, the penultimate paragraph contains valuable information suggesting the continued use of French five-string viols tuned in fourths:

Before finishing this chapter it is necessary to explain the tuning of viols, both separated and conjoined to make a consort. It will therefore be noted that the strings of viols having five strings always by fourths. As for those with six strings, ascending their tuning consists of two fourths; afterwards we make a major third, and then two other fourths, which should always be understood as the distance that there is from one string to the other struck open. As for the tuning that the viols must have with each other, we must first assume that the basse-contre agrees according to the precepts that I have just deduced, then we will tune with the chanterelle the second string of the viol [performing the] taille by putting it in unison.3François Lesure, “Le Traité des instruments de musique de Pierre Trichet” Annales musicologues, Moyen-âge et renaissance 4 (1956): 127: “Avant finir ce chapitre il convient expliquer l’accord des violes tant séparées que conjointes pour faire concert. On remarquera donc que les chordes de chasque viole ayant cinq rangs se montent toujours de quatre en quatre ; quant a celles de six rangs se montent leur accord consiste en deux quartes: par après l’on fait faire une tierce majeure, et puis deux autres quartes, ce qui se doit toujours entendre de la distance qu’il y a d’une corde a l’autre frappée a l’ouvert. Quant à l’accord que doivent avoir les violes entre elles, il faut premièrement suppose que la basse-contre soit bien d’accord selon les préceptes que je viens de desduire, puis l’on accordera avec sa chanterelle la seconde chorde de la viole de la taille en la mettant à l’unisson.”

Trichet therefore confirms the continued use of five-string viols tuned in fourths in France as late as 1640. He suggests that they coexisted alongside six-string viols tuned like a lute. While, in the eyes of modern scholarship at least, Mersenne effectively killed off these instruments by referring to them as something “used in the past,” Trichet offers important evidence for their continued use. Perhaps in fashionable Paris, where Mersenne resided, the five-string French viols had become passé. In Bordeaux and likely other provincial urban centers, however, amateur musicians, like Trichet, assuredly would not have discarded their instruments, especially expensive sets of viols meant for performing as consorts, once the Italian/English six-string viols began to replace them. If these five-string viols continued to be played well into the seventeenth century, then we must reassess our historiography and begin to rethink what repertory they might have performed during the first half of the seventeenth century.