Treatises

French Renaissance treatises concerned with musical instruments are limited in number, yet all extant instrumental treatises mention the use of five-string viols tuned in fourths. Details about these viols across both contemporary sixteenth-century sources and seventeenth-century retrospective musings about these earlier instruments are remarkably consistent. These sources confirm the tuning schemes of consorts of viols, provide important technical advice, and clarify the multitude of social uses of these viols. In sixteenth-century France, the playing of the viol begins to spread to amateur musicians, as evidenced by the publication of Claude Gervaise’s Premier Livre de violle (Paris, c. 1547, now lost; 2nd ed. 1554, now lost) and Philibert Jambe de Fer’s L’Épitome musical (Lyons, 1556). Still in the sixteenth century, Samuel Mareschall published his Porta Musices (Basle, 1589), which also discusses five-string viols and provides a second system of tuning for consorts. Pierre Trichet’s manuscript Traité des instruments de musique (Bordeaux, c. 1640) suggests that French five-string viols tuned in fourths survived further into the seventeenth century than previously believed alongside Italian/English six-string viols tuned like a lute. Finally, in the seventeenth century, two retrospective accounts mention the early form of the viol in France—Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie Universelle (Paris, 1636) and Jean Rousseau’s Traité de la Viole (Paris, 1687).


Claude Gervaise

Claude Gervaise published his tutor for the viol—Premier Livre de violle contenant dix chansons avec l’introduction de l’acordes, et apliquer les doits selon la manière qu’on a acoutume de joüer, le tout de la composition de Claude Gervaise—around 1547.1Little is known today of Gervaise’s biography except that he composed chansons and instrumental dance music, and he worked as an arranger and editor for the music publisher Pierre Attaignant. See Lawrence F. Bernstein, “Claude Gervaise as Chanson Composer.” Journal of the American Musicological Society Vol. 18, no. 3 (Autumn, 1965): 359-381. BnF NAF ms. 12111 “Répertoire alphabétique de noms d’artistes et artisans, des XVIe, XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, relevés dans les anciens registres de l’État civil parisien par le marquis Léon de Laborde, dit “Fichier Laborde”. LXXIV Gerc-Girard. — 29740-30186″ refers to Gervaise as a Parisian “musicien compositeur,” and notes his wife’s name, Marguerite Perrin, and the baptism of their son Noël on 01 August 1555. This document names one of Noël’s god parents as Julien Le Maitre, an oboist and violinist also in the service of the court of François I. Although unfortunately no known exemplar survives, we know of some of its contents because the composer and bibliophile Sébastien de Brossard owned a copy of the second edition. In a catalog of his extensive music library created in 1724, Brossard documented his ownership of the second edition of Gervaise’s tutor, which was published by Marie Lescallopier-Attaingnant, the widow of the recently deceased Parisian music publisher Pierre Attaignant.

Sebastien de Brossard, “Catalogue. Des livres de musique theorique et prattique, vocalle et instrumentalle, tant imprimée que manuscripte, qui sont dans Le cabinet du S.r Sebastien de Brossard chanoine de Meaux, et dont il supplie tres humblement Sa Majesté d’accepter le Don, pour être mis et conservez dans Sa Bibliotheque. Fait et escrit en l’année 1724.” BnF Rés Vm 8 20, 257.

This recueil curieux, to use Brossard’s term, began with an introduction that included instructions for tuning and fingering the viol and concluded with ten chansons first presented in French lute tablature and then in staff notation. Brossard includes the following annotation for his entry for Gervaise’s Premier livre de violle:

All of these chansons are first presented in tablature using a, b, c, d & e for the viol, and then the subject is very well noted in music and ordinary notes. 32 sheets or 64 pages.”2Sebastien de Brossard, “Catalogue. Des livres de musique theorique et prattique, vocalle et instrumentalle, tant imprimée que manuscripte, qui sont dans Le cabinet du S.r Sebastien de Brossard chanoine de Meaux, et dont il supplie tres humblement Sa Majesté d’accepter le Don, pour être mis et conservez dans Sa Bibliotheque. Fait et escrit en l’année 1724.” BnF Rés Vm 8 20, 257: “Toutes ces chansons sont d’abord en tablature par a, b, c, d & e pour the violle, et ensuitte le sujet est tres bien notté en musique et nottes ordinaires. 32 feuillets ou 64 pages.

In this instance Gervaise was an innovator by publishing the first viol tablature in France. In his catalog, Brossard then proceeds with entries documenting ownership of volumes two through seven of Danceries à 4 parties—collections of dance music (Gaillardes, Pavandes, Bransles, and Allemandes) in four parts also published by the widow of Pierre Attaignant. He notes in the margin that Gervaise’s Premier livre de violle and volumes two through six of the Danceries à 4 parties are reliez ensemble (bound together) as a single collection. All of these volumes are listed in the catalog, which he organizes into sections by function and genre, as “instrumental music for viols, violins, flutes, oboes, and other instruments, on which one usually only plays a separate part and rarely two or more parts.”3Sebastien de Brossard, “Catalogue. Des livres de musique theorique et prattique, vocalle et instrumentalle, tant imprimée que manuscripte, qui sont dans Le cabinet du S.r Sebastien de Brossard chanoine de Meaux, et dont il supplie tres humblement Sa Majesté d’accepter le Don, pour être mis et conservez dans Sa Bibliotheque. Fait et escrit en l’année 1724.” BnF Rés Vm 8 20, 257: “musique instrumentalle Pour les violles, les violons, les flûtes les haubois [sic] et autres instruments, sur lesquels on ne joüe ordinairement qu’une partie separée et rarement deux ou plus de parties.” No premier livre de danceries has ever been located, so perhaps Gervaise’s Premier livre de violle was planned as a tutor that prepared amateur players of the viol to perform the dances contained in the successive volumes.4Daniel Heartz, Pierre Attaingnant: Royal Printer of Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), 372. Heartz had previously suggested that Attaignant’s Neuf basses dances published 1530 was envisioned as the first of this series. Gervaise composed the music contained in volumes two through six of the Danceries; Estienne du Tertre is listed as the composer of the seventh volume. It would seem, then, that, in addition to the chanson arrangements, the collections of Danceries were viewed as suitable repertoire for a four-part viol consort.

Sebastien de Brossard, “Catalogue. Des livres de musique theorique et prattique, vocalle et instrumentalle, tant imprimée que manuscripte, qui sont dans Le cabinet du S.r Sebastien de Brossard chanoine de Meaux, et dont il supplie tres humblement Sa Majesté d’accepter le Don, pour être mis et conservez dans Sa Bibliotheque. Fait et escrit en l’année 1724.” BnF Rés Vm 8 20, 258.

Brossard concludes the entry with a further annotation:

This collection is one of the most curious in my cabinet because of its antiquity and because it would only serve to make known what was the taste and the manner of instrumental music and the dances of that time.5Sebastien de Brossard, “Catalogue. Des livres de musique theorique et prattique, vocalle et instrumentalle, tant imprimée que manuscripte, qui sont dans Le cabinet du S.r Sebastien de Brossard chanoine de Meaux, et dont il supplie tres humblement Sa Majesté d’accepter le Don, pour être mis et conservez dans Sa Bibliotheque. Fait et escrit en l’année 1724.” BnF Rés Vm 8 20, 258: “Ce Recuëil est un des plus curieux qui soit dans mon cabinet, a cause de son antiquité et quand il ne serviroit qu’a fair connoître quel estoit le goût et la maniere de la musique instrumentalle et des dances de ce tems la.”

Here he clarifies that he was not performing this music but rather had acquired it as part of his collecting activities.


Philibert Jambe de Fer

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

Philibert Jambe de Fer (1515–1566) was a Huguenot composer and writer on music. In 1556, he published L’Épitome musical des tons, sons et accordz, es voix humaines, fleustes d’Alleman, flesustes à neuf trous, violes, & violons (Lyons, 1556), which included a chapter on the viol that today has become one of the most important primary sources of information on French Renaissance viols. The viol, he asserts hinting at its amateur status, was “an instrument played by gentlemen, merchants, and other men of virtue.”6Philibert Jambe de Fer, L’Épitome musical (Lyons: 1556), 62: “Nous appellons violes c’elles desquelles les gentilz hommes, marchantz, & autres gens de vertuz passent leur temps.”

Jambe de Fer was knowledgable of Italian schools of viol playing and sensitive to the differences between the Italian and French playing techniques and tuning systems. He claims, for example, that the Italians call the instrument viole da gambe and names three different positions for holding the instrument: between the legs, on a seat or stool, and on the knees.7Philibert Jambe de Fer, L’Épitome musical (Lyons: 1556), 62–63: “The Italians Les Italiens les appellent viole da gambe par ce qu’elles se tiennents en bas, les uns entre les james, les autres sur quelque siege, ou escabeau, autres sus les genoux mesme lesdictz Italiens, les Francois ont bien peu en usage ceste facon.” By “on the knees,” he might have been referring to a horizontal position of holding the viol across the lap, which appears in many sixteenth-century images of viols, but he assures the reader that this posture is relatively uncommon in France. Regarding tuning of the instruments in France, he claims that the French viols had five strings and were tuned in fourths, while the Italian viols had six strings and were tuned in fourths with a major third in the middle, like a lute.8Philibert Jambe de Fer, L’Épitome musical (Lyons: 1556), 58-59: “La Viole à l’usage de France n’a que cinq cordes, & celle d’Italie en à six, la viole Fracoise s’accorde à la quarte de corde en corde sans exception aucune. Celle d’Italie s’accorde justemet come le lucz, assauoir, quarte, & tierce.” A damaged image toward the end of the treatise (pictured below) illustrates a five-string French viol and reveals that each string had it’s own nomenclature, namely from the top string to the bottom: chanterelle, seconde, tierce, quarte, and bordon. Jambe de Fer adopts the voice names dessus, haute contre, taille, and bas to refer to the tuning of each of the four viols that would have played a particular musical line. Regarding the tuning, his prose is admittedly a little convoluted:

The key to our viols as used in France: on the part of the bas and the dessus, take the second open string from the top, which we call G sol re ut, so this one from the bas, is the second contained in the scales, and the one of the dessus is the third, making the difference of eight notes that we call and octave. The tailles and haute contres tune their chanterelle just as the second of the dessus, open, as everything is contained in the figure:9Jambe de Fer, L’Épitome musical (Lyons: 1556), 59: “La clef de noz violes à l’usage de France, sus la partie du bas, & du dessus, se prend sus la second corde d’en haut à vuyde, que nous appellons G sol re ut, donc celuy du 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.”

Jambe de Fer, L’Épitome musical (Lyons: 1556).

When viewed in conjunction with the image at the end of the treatise and the charts on pages 56-57 (see below), it becomes clear that Jambe de Fer was merely stating that the seconde, or the second open string from the highest string, was tuned to a G for the instruments playing the bas and dessus, with the instrument paying the bas tuned an octave lower than the dessus. Further the chanterelle, or the highest open string, was tuned to the same G for the instrments playing the taille and haute contre. This tuning scheme is confirmed by the image of the viol at the end of the treatise, from highest to lowest: c’ g d A E’. Jambe de Fer therefore describes a consort tuned in the following manner:

Jambe de Fer, L’Épitome musical (Lyons: 1556), 56.
Jambe de Fer, L’Épitome musical (Lyons: 1556), 57.

Jambe de Fer also provides some clues as to the usable ranges of the instruments for consort playing. He explains that there are three pitches on each string, including the open string, and that generally the fifth fret is useless because it is identical in pitch as the neighboring open string, which has a more clear, natural, and less constrained sound. He concedes that in some passages or diminutions it is easier to use the fifth fret to avoid string crossings, and that it is sometimes necessary to play the fifth or sixth fret on the chanterelle.10Jambe de Fer, L’Épitome musical (Lyons: 1556), 60-61: “En chacune corde nous faisons trois tons, ou voix, dont le plus bas desdicts est à vuyde: & mettant la main sus la premiere, ou seconde taste, nous faisons un ton, ou demy ton, plus haut que le premier, selon que l’assiete de Musique nous le monstre. Pareillement nous faisons lautre qui est le troisiesme, sus la tierce, our quarte taste, car d’aller jusqu’a la quinte c’est chose perdue, parce que la corde fuy uante en montant à le mesme ton que trouvons sus icelle quinte, ou cinquiesme taste, & si est plus clair sonnant plus naturel & moins contrainct. Vray est que pour fair quelque passage our diminution il est beaucoup plus facisle & conmode de chercher ceste quinte taste que d’aller à lautre corde. En descendant vous estes contrains (veuilles ou nõ), de tomber sus autres cordes apres avoir fait les trois tons sus celle que par vous lors est empeschee la chanterelle à puissance (pour estre la derniere) de faire quartre, cinq, voyre six tons, & plus s’il estoit necessaire:mais il ne se void guyere Musique si contrainte qu’elle passe les six voix (ou tons) dessus nommez. Ladicte Viole contient en soy de dixsept, à dixhuit tons, & plus s’il est necessaire, autant en à une partie que lautre, car toutes ont autant de cordes l’une que l’autre, & de taste tant que lon veut:aucuns bons joueurs n’en y veullent nulle, comme bien assurez sans marque, ou ilz doivent asseoir leurs doigts.” His advice implies a two-octave usable range on each of the viols.


Samuel Mareschall

Samuel Mareschall, Porta musices (Basle, 1589)

Samuel Mareschall, in his Porta Musices (Basle, 1589), also describes five-string viols tuned in fourths. Mareschall was a Flemish composer, writer on music, organist, and teacher who was born in Tournai in 1554 and died in Basel in 1640. Porta Musices is a short treatise and viol tutor that was probably published to be used as part of the curriculum at the Gymnasium where he was hired as Professor Musices. This treatise confirms the use of viols in educational curricula. Mareschall provides identical tunings as previously prescribed by Jambe de Fer, with the exception of his dessus tuning, for which he suggests the entire instrument should be tuned one whole tone higher. Jambe de Fer and Mareschall’s system of tuning consorts are compared in the following table:

Mareschall likely tuned his dessus higher to facilitate less shifting for repertoire in which the top voice would often be forced to play notes on the fifth through seventh frets. His tuning, however, sacrifices some of the sympathetic resonance characteristic of a viol consort consisting of paired identical tunings at a unison or octave.


Marin Mersenne

Marin Mersenne, Harmonie universelle: livre quatriesieme des instrumens a chordes (Paris, 1636)

Marin Mersenne (1588–1648) was a French mathematician, philosopher, and music theorist. A leading French thinker and polymath of the seventeenth century, his work was central to the contemporary academic and scientific movements. He devoted a considerable amount of his writings to the science, theory, and practice of music. In 1636, Mersenne published his Harmonie universelle, in which he reproduced the woodcut of a five-string viol from Jambe de Fer and noted that this was a kind of viol that was used in the past.

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. Therefore, the five-string fourths-tuned instruments were no longer in use, at least in Paris, by 1636. Mersenne provides the tuning of only the instrument playing the bas voice. Because he extrapolates the tuning from Jambe de Fer’s woodcut, it is questionable if Mersenne was even familiar with the tuning of an entire consort of these viols. It is possible that he felt listing the tunings for all of the viols was unnecessary for an instrument which had fallen into disuse.


Pierre Trichet

Studies of the history of the viol and surveys of French treatises that mention viols have largely overlooked an important manuscript treatise written by Pierre Trichet in Bordeaux sometime between 1631 and 1638.11The 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.12Some of Trichet’s library today resides in the Bibliothèque de Bordeaux. Trichet exchanged two letters with Mersenne in 1631 but the surviving letters suggest that he was in contact with him earlier. 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. He published an inventory of the contents of his cabinet de curiosité (curiosity cabinet) in both Latin and French in 1635.13Pierre 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.14François 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 of 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.


Jean Rousseau

Jean Rousseau, “Dissertation sur l’origine de la viole,” in Traité de la viole , qui contient une dissertation curieuse sur son origine (Paris: Christophe Ballard, 1687)

Another French writer who produced some retrospective thoughts regarding five-string viols tuned in fourths is Jean Rousseau (1644–1699) in his 1687 Traité de la viole. Rousseau was an important viol player, theorist, and composer, and was one of the generation of French viol players who studied with the famed Sainte-Colombe. In his treatise, Rousseau states:

The first viols that were played in France had five strings, were very large, and were used for accompaniment. The bridge was very low and was positioned below the sound holes. The bottom of the fingerboard almost touched the table, the strings were very thick, and they were tuned in fourths throughout. We know that the chanterelle was tuned C Sol Ut, La Seconde was G Ré Sol, La Tierce or Third was D La Ré, the Fourth was A Mi La, and the Fifth, which they also called the Bourdon, was E Si Mi. The shape of this viol strongly resembles that of the basse de violon.15Jean Rousseau, Traité de la viole (Paris: Christophe Ballard, 1687), 19: “Les premieres Violes dont on a joüé end France estoient à cinqu chordes & fort grandes, leur usage estoit d’accompagner: le chevalet estoit fort bas & placé au dessous des oüyes, le bas de la touche touchoit à la table, les chordes estoient fort grosses, & son accord estoit tout par Quartes; Sçavoir la Chanterelle en C Sol Ut, la Seconde en G Ré Sol, la Tierce ou Troisiéme en D La Ré, la Quatriéme en A Mi La, & la cinquiéme qu’ils appelloient Bourdon estoient en E Si Mi. La figure de cette viole aprochoit fort de la Basse de Violon.”

If Rousseau had only mentioned the tuning of the instruments it would be possible to presume that he was merely reproducing information from Jambe de Fer’s treatise. The fact that he comments on the relative size of the instruments (compared to the size of viols used in France in the second half of the seventeenth century), as well as setup characteristics such as bridge position, string thickness, and the overstand of the neck, suggests that he must have been familiar with surviving instruments to some extent either firsthand or secondhand.