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Because of its beautiful, flexible sound and large range, the viol can play whatever music you want, from Gregorian chant to jazz and beyond. The resurgence of interest in the instrument over the last half century has brought a wealth of new compositions.

Historically, the instrument came to prominence in the Renaissance when polyphonic consort music for matched sets of instruments was the fashion among the nobility of Europe. The vast majority of surviving consort music composed specifically for viols comes from England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some of the representative composers include William Byrd (1542–1623), Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625), William Lawes (1602–1645), John Jenkins (1592–1678), and Henry Purcell (1659–1695). During the same timeframe in England Tobias Hume (ca. 1569–1645) and Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger (ca. 1575–1628) were writing solo lyra viol music and Christopher Simpson (ca. 1605–1669) was epitomizing the solo division viol style.


Consort music written facing different directions so players could gather around a table in GB-Lbl Add. MS 31390

Alongside English consort music, the other really vast repertoire is French solo music. This music spans from before Sainte-Colombe (d. 1691-1701), who was one of the all-time great teachers, and acknowledged as the founder of the French viol school. He is credited with putting metal wound bass strings on his viol and adding the seventh string and was the teacher of Marin Marais (1656–1728), composer of five substantial books of solo viol music and chamber musician at the court of Louis XIV, and his archrival Antoine Forqueray (1672-1745) who wrote some of the most fiendishly difficult viol music ever.

An Allemande by Marin Marais

In Germany, Dieterich Buxtehude (ca. 1637-1707), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) all wrote idiomatically for the viol as a solo instrument, ensemble instrument, and an obbligato feature in some of their vocal music. The eighteenth-century German tradition was brought to England by Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) who collaborated regularly in London with Johann Christian Bach, and was widely seen at the time of his death as the last great player of the instrument.

While there were quite a few women who were accomplished players of the viol in the 16th-18th centuries, there are very few compositions attributed to them. Leonora Duarte (1610-1678?) was an exception and the only known female composer for viol consort in the Early Modern period.

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