Recent Blog Posts on our Reconstruction
This week John Pringle finished the first viol of our planned four-viol consort. The viol arrived this week and will be paired with the two prototype viols John made over the last few years. John will next work on a bass for the consort. This first viol, with a 59 cm string length, will serve…
Second Prototype by John Pringle John Pringle has been hard at work making a second prototype based on our new research. He is using this prototype—a treble—to experiment with body design and table construction. Since we are not using a soundpost-bassbar system, John Pringle has decided on a central spine on the table, a solution…
One of the most daunting challenges in reconstructing a consort of Renaissance French viols is the lack of extant instruments that can be analyzed. While iconography and treatises are both crucial sources for understanding these instruments, taken together they still leave many questions unresolved. Besides questions surrounding the internal construction of the viols, one pertinent…
The aim of the French Consort Project is to rediscover the Renaissance viol in France and to bring the music alive again on instruments that allow us, as modern musicians, to explore the performance practices of a lost era. We are very fortunate to have John Pringle (http://www.pringleviols.com), one of the most experienced and knowledgable viol and historical string makers alive today, collaborating with the project. Without his enthusiasm and generosity, this project would never have been able to get off the ground.
The intention of this page is to post pictures of the instruments during reconstruction, and to post some research that informed our decision-making process. The collaboration began as Dr. Romey, lead-scholar and founder of the the French Consort Project, began to investigate the possible repertoire for a species of viol for which no extant examples survive. Romey and Pringle were in correspondence while this research was underway, and the idea to reconstruct an experimental consort of five-stringed French Renaissance viols tuned in fourths throughout was born. This relationship between scholar-performer and luthier formed the backbone of the project from the beginning, as the two collaborators informed and aided each other’s work.
Because no historical example of these early French viols has survived, there remains far more unknown details regarding the organology of these viols than there are certainties.1Tom MacCracken has continued to develop the database of extant historical viols first begun by Peter Tourin. The database is available online at: https://www.vdgsa.org/pgs/viols/viols.html Treatises can inform our understanding of consort tunings, playing technique, and descriptions of the sound quality of these instruments. Iconography can offer limited information about the size, shape, and construction of these instruments. None of these sources, however, allows us to peer inside of the viols where perhaps the most important information that shapes the sonic and acoustic qualities of a viol resides, namely if the viols had a soundpost and/or a bassbar.
Ian Woodfield has noted two surviving viols by Gaspar Tieffenbrucker, a luthier active in Lyons from 1533 until c.1571, which, if dated correctly, could be surviving examples of French Renaissance viols. Although he concedes that neither of these viols survives in its original condition, he discusses the “Plan de Paris” viol (named for a depiction of the city of Paris and St. Luke’s on its back) and another purported Tieffenbrucker viol in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.2Ian Woodfield, The Early History of the Viol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 201-202. The Riemann Musik Lexikon provides an entry for an instrument maker named Caspar or Gaspar Tieffenbrugger and notes the following spelling variations: Tieffenbrugger, Tiefenbrucker, Tueffenbrugger, Tuiffenbrugger, Deuffenbrugger, Duiffenbrugger, Dieffopruchar, Dieffoprughar, Duyfautbrochard, Dieffobrocard, Dubrocard, and Duiffoprugcar. This entry provides basic biographical information, such as his birth in 1514 in Tiefenbruck and his death in 1571 in Lyon. It also claims that a lute and three viola da gambas survive from his workshop and laments that six violins that were purported to have been made by his hand are fakes, probably created by the nineteenth-century Parisian violin-maker Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume.3Hugo Riemann, Riemann Musik Lexikon: Personenteil L-Z (London: B. Schott’s Sohne, 1961), 795. Tom MacCracken has demonstrated that each of the three viols that have had the name Tieffenbrucker attached to them in the past have been discredited. In addition to the “Plan de Paris” viol currently in the Brussels museum and the viol the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, there is a third viol that is privately owned in Paris. All three viols are elaborately decorated with paintings or inlaid ornaments on their backs. The Brussels museum now describes it’s viol as nineteenth-century instrument, with maker and place unknown, and a 1989 exhibition catalogue stated that the viol was “made up of pieces … dating from different periods … wishfully attributed.”4Tom MacCracken, private correspondence. It is likely that all of the supposed “Tieffenbrugger viols” are nineteenth-century instruments made (or pieced together from older pieces) by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume or his firm. These viols, unfortunately, are of no use to understanding the organology of French Renaissance viols.
Due to the lack of historically verifiable instruments, no information survives regarding the internal construction of early French viols. Whether or not these viols had a soundpost, however, has crucial acoustical consequences. A bowed string influences a bridge in two directions: parallel to the motion of the bowing plane (sideways) and into the top plate of the instrument (up and down). An instrument’s soundpost provides an immovable support under one foot of the bridge (generally on the treble side) which allows for a mixture of the effects of both sideways and up-and-down motions. When a bowed chordophone is constructed without a soundpost, the bridge rotates symmetrically with the sideways motion; one foot of the bridge moves downward while the other rises. These two motions tend to counteract each other and cause the instrument to lack an audible fundamental, produce less volume, and speak with nasal timbre. The presence or absence of a bass bar has similarly important consequences. A bass bar is piece of wood fixed lengthwise inside the belly of the instrument and acting as a girder to strengthen the belly against the pressure of the left foot of the bridge. In surviving Italian viols from this period, many instruments have a bass bar carved into the top (not attached as a separate piece of wood as in modern violin organology). Bass bars on these viols acts as a stiffener while the treble side vibrates unimpeded.5Arthur Benade, Fundamentals of Musical Acoustics (New York: Dover Publications, 1976), 527-351. I am also indebted to private correspondences from Herbert W. Myers and Ray Nurse on the issue of soundposts in viols. Bass bars therefore imply that a soundpost might have been present as well. Unfortunately these crucial organological questions remain at present unanswerable. John Pringle has made our first experimental viol with a carved bass bar but without a soundpost.
Although early no French Renaissance viols survive, studying the techniques of luthiers working on viols in other European regions allow us to better understand what construction techniques were known and possible at the time. Most scholarly activity on Renaissance viols has been concerned with instruments from either the Brescian or Venetian schools. The Brescian school has been studied by Ray Nurse, who has also reconstructed replicas of extant instruments. Brescian instruments are in the so-called hourglass or guitar shape and range in body length from forty-seven to ninety centimeters (body length is a more reliable measure that string length to compare between instruments due to the mutability of the position of the bridge).6I am indebted to Ray Nurse for his generosity through private correspondences and for providing me with copies of drawings and measurements he made of surviving Renaissance viols from the Brescian, Venetian, Bolognese, and Ferrara-Bolognese schools during a European tour examining Renaissance instruments. These instruments have rounded backs and bellies and most likely were originally constructed with soundposts. The Venetian school, on the other hand, more closely resembles the shape of the purported Tieffenbrucker viols mentioned above, the so-called “four-cornered” viol shape with rounded lower bouts and sloping upper bouts that are wider at the back than at the front. These viols have been discussed at length by Martin Edmunds in his “Venetian Viols of the Sixteenth Century Reconsidered,” who produces measurements of body lengths of extant instruments that range from forty-five to seventy centimeters.7Martin Edmunds, “Venetian Viols of the Sixteenth Century,” in A Viola da Gamba Miscellany: Proceedings of the International Viola da Gamba Symposium, ed. Johannes Boer and Guido van Oorschot, 15-26. (Utrecht: STIMU, 1994). Scholars and luthiers still debate whether these viols originally had soundposts. Since this shape, along with a less thoroughly studied Brescian school of instruments with pointed corners by Gasparo da Salo and other luthiers, most closely resembles the French iconography, these are important questions to consider regarding the tonal characteristics of the early French viols.
I try to create in my instruments first and foremost a tool which will perform to the most exacting requirements of the musician, but which will also please the eye as well as the ear.— John Pringle