From the beginning 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 and eventually seven strings and tuned like a lute (i.e. in fourths with a third in the middle), were similar in design and construction to the lauded school of fine English consort viols. The French prized English viols and imported them for their own use. French luthiers then emulated their classic viol form. There is evidence, however, of an indigenous French viol tradition—perhaps imported from Northern Italy—performing consort and chamber music at the court of King François I as early as 1498. Claude Gervaise published his now-lost Premier livre de violle, the first French viol tutor, in Paris around 1547 with a second edition in 1554; both are unfortunately now lost. 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 of this type survives, these treatises are further supported by manifold iconographical sources, sixteenth-century inventories of instruments, and court records.
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’. In 2020, after new research suggested a connection to Italian viols (see our Blog Post), Pringle began experimenting by making a new prototype using designs based on surviving viols from two Brescian makers—Zanetto Micheli (c. 1489–1560) and his son Pellegrino Micheli (ca. 1520–ca. 1606)—and French iconography.
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 obvious possibilities to collaborate with vocalists. Because Claude Gervaise, who composed the first viol tutor in France, also worked as editor and contributor to Attaignant’s series of Danceries, these pieces will be some of the first to be experimented with by our new consort. The instrumental fantasies of Eustache du Caurroy (1610), Charles Guillet (1610), and Claude Le Jeune (1612) offer an additional repertoire possibilities.
Once the 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 curriculum 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 playing the viol was taught alongside catechism, literacy, and a trade; an article to be submitted to the journal Early Music History 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 concerts featuring musique mesurée and appearances in the Ballet comique de la reine in 1581.