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 performance techniques, and clarify the multitude of social use 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, 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. 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).

Philibert Jambe de Fer

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

Philibert Jambe de Fer (1515–1566) was a French Protestant 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 is one of the most important surviving primary sources regarding French Renaissance viols. The viol, he asserts hinting at its “amateur status,” was “an instrument played by gentlemen, merchants, and other men of virtue.” Jambe de Fer was knowledgable of Italian schools of viol playing and sensitive to the differences between the Italian and French schools. 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.1Philibert 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 woodcut towards the end of the treatise illustrates a five-string French viol and reveals that each string had it’s own nomenclature, namely from the top string to the bottom: Chanterel, Seconde, Tierce, Quarte, and Bordon. Jambe de Fer uses the voice names dessus, hautes contres, tailles, 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 used in France, on the part of the bas and the dessus is taken on the second open string from the top, which we call G sol re ut, so this on the bas, is the second contained in the gamut, and the one of the dessus is the third, making the difference of eight notes that we call and octave. The tailles and hautes contres tune their chanterelle just as the second to he dessus, open: everything is contained in the figure:2Jambe 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 corde d’en haut à vuyde, que nouse appellons G sol re ut, donc celay da 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.”

Alone, this description would surely lead to arguments of interpretation, but, when viewed in conjunction with the image at the end of the treatise and the charts on pages 57-58, 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 bas and dessus instruments (with the bas tuned an octave lower than the dessus), and that the chanterelle, or the highest open string, was tuned to the same G for the tailles and hautes contres. This is confirmed by the tuning provided for the dessus and bas on the strings on the image of the viol at the end of the treatise, from lowest to highest: E A D G c’. Therefore, Jambe de Fer describes a consort tuned in the following manner.

Jambe de Fer also provides some clues as to the usable ranges of the instruments, which implies a limited virtuosity, at least in 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 the same 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 string.3Jambe de Fer, L’Épitome musical (Lyons: 1556), 60-61: “En chacune corde nouse faisons trois tons, ou voix, dont le plus bas desdicts est à vuyde: & mettant la main sus la premiere, ou seconde taste, nouse faisons un ton, ou demy ton, plus haut que le premier, selon que l’afsiete de Musique nouse 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 suyuate enmontat à le mesme ton que trouvons sus icelle quinte, ou cinquiesme taste, & si est plus clair sonant plus naturel & moins cotrainct. Vray est que pour fair quelque passage our diminution il est beaucoup plus facisle & comode de chercher ceste quinte taste que d’aller à lautre corde. En descendant vous estes cotrains, veuilles our no, 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, cinqu, voyre six tons, & plus s’il estoir 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 end à une partie que lautre, car toutes on 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 ils doivent asseoir leurs doigts.” His pedagogical 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 Swiss 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 is important because it confirms the use of viols in educational curriculum. Mareschall provides identical tunings as previously prescribed by Jambe de Fer, with the exception of his dessus tuning, for which suggests the entire instrument is tuned a whole tone higher. Jambe de Fer and Mareschall’s system of consort tuning are compared in the following table.

Mareschall’s dessus tuning was most likely tuned higher to facilitate less shifting for repertoire where the dessus 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. He was a leading French thinker of the seventeenth century,his work was central to the contemporary academic and scientific movements, and 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 bas instrument. 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.

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 the five-string fourths-tuned viols 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.4Jean 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.