From the second half of the seventeenth century through the middle of the eighteenth century, a French viol school is documented by evidence in the form of surviving instruments, compositions, treatises, letters, iconography, and other kinds of primary sources. These French viols, using six or seven strings and tuned like a lute (i.e. in fourths with a third in the middle), were similar to the lauded school of fine English consort viols. The French prized English viols and imported them for their own use. There is evidence, however, of indigenous French viols performing consort and chamber music at the court of King François I as early as 1529. Claude Gervaise published his now-lost Premier livre de violle, likely the first French viol tutor, in Paris in 1554. Two other treatises—Philibert Jambe de Fer’s L’Épitome musical (Lyons, 1556) and Samuel Mareschall’s Porta Musices (Basle, 1589)—confirm the existence of earlier French viols that had five strings and were tuned in fourths throughout. Although no extant viol in this form survives, the treatises are further supported by manifold iconographical sources.
The French Consort Project, founded as a performance-based research project by scholar-performer Dr. John Romey, seeks foremost to reconstruct a consort of French Renaissance viols. The project presents a collaboration between scholarship, which focuses on an analysis of historical evidence, and practical knowledge gained through collaboration with renowned luthier of historical instruments John Pringle. The process of reconstructing the instruments has drawn on Pringle’s lifetime of experience restoring historical viols for museums and copying historical instruments for use by today’s leading performers of viola da gamba. In 2015, Pringle created a prototype of the first instrument, a bass tuned E-A-D-G-c’.
A second goal of the research pole of the project is to identify appropriate repertoire for performance by the consort instruments. Parisian chansons published by Pierre Attaignant and other publishers present possibilities to collaborate with vocalists, and the instrumental fantasies of Eustache du Caurroy (1610) and Claude Le Jeune (1612) offer an additional repertoire possibilities.
Once the experimental consort of viols is constructed, a revolving cast of professional musicians and singers who specialize in historically informed performance will plan an educational series of lecture-concerts using the instruments. The instruments will also be used as a tools for student learning, engagement, and experimentation by the Purdue University Fort Wayne Historical Performance Club and in the Music History sequence taught by Dr. Romey at PFW. Students will learn to play the viols in a historically informed manner, learn to read music from facsimiles of primary sources, and otherwise engage with the Parisian chanson repertoire as it was originally intended, namely as flexible popular music meant for social musicking.
Dr. Romey has presented the early fruits of this research at academic conferences and has published a book chapter about the early French viol consort. He is currently preparing three articles: an article to be submitted to the Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society of America about the amateur status of the viol in the 16th century and educational institutions in which the playing of the viol was taught alongside catechism, literacy, and a trade; an article to be submitted to the journal Early Music about the transfer of the viol northward from Italy to France, including a discussion of the Italian musicians working at the French court and the appearance of viols in the spectacular “magnificences” of Catherine de’ Medici; and an article in preparation about the role of the viol in the intellectual movements surrounding and performances at the Académie de Poésie et de Musique, including a discussion of its use in musique mesurée and appearances in the Ballet comique de la reine in 1581.