Back to Historical String Index

Medieval String Instruments

The music of the late middle ages requires a great variety of bowed and plucked string instruments. Among bowed strings, we offer some nicely made but quite inexpensive rebecs and vielles (fiedels) by Bernard Lehmann; their distinctive reedy tone qualities provide an essential ingredient of the medieval instrumentarium. We also offer fine bowed psalteries by the Kelischek Workshop and Folkcraft Instruments. Among plucked string instruments, we have a handsome psaltery by Kelischek and three different models of psalteries by Folkcraft, each with its own distinctive tone color. We also have a number of different models of medieval and renaissance hurdy-gurdies by George Kelischek.

Back to Top of Page

Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque Lutes

The lute, which was introduced from Arabic lands to Europe in the late Middle Ages, emerged as the principal plucked string instrument of the late renaissance and baroque periods. Its unique structural and acoustical properties spawned a substantial body of music for solo lute as well as songs with lute accompaniment. Whereas the renaissance lute and its flat-backed Spanish relative the vihuela were relatively standardized in construction, the baroque period saw the development of many different sizes and string configurations, as well as archlutes, theorbos, and hybrids such as theorboed lutes. For the beginning student, we recommend the excellent, relatively inexpensive Lehmann renaissance tenor lute as a good initial investment. Advanced players interested in the more specialized forms of lutes are encouraged to custom-order an instrument made to their exact specifications. We often have a number of used lutes on hand as well.

Back to Top of Page

Violas da Gamba

The viola da gamba, also called viol or gamba, is the amateur string player's equivalent to the recorder. It is relatively easy to play at the beginning stages, providing a sense of accomplishment and quick entry into the social and musical world of chamber music making. It too possesses a large body of literature of all levels of difficulty, from rather easy renaissance consort music to extremely difficult virtuoso baroque solo literature. Its fretted fingerboard provides accurate intonation more quickly than on instruments of the violin family, and it does not require as much physical strength or practice to produce acceptable results. Like the recorder, the earliest twentieth century viols were highly modernized instruments which, in spite of their external shapes, owed more to modern violin making than to historical viol construction and design. Many of these modern gambas, which are of relatively heavy construction, are still being made and used by professional and amateur players. During the last decade, however, some builders have been constructing more authentic reproduction sixteenth century Italian, seventeenth century English, and late baroque French and German viols, all of which have their own special tonal properties and bodies of literature.

The earliest gambas seem to have been the Italian instruments of the very early sixteenth century. Brescian instruments frequently had rounded corners, whereas the later Venetian instruments had one pair of rounded corners and one pair of pointed ones. Like renaissance recorders, they are primarily consort instruments and seem relatively undistinguished when heard alone; they are heard to best advantage in gamba groups and in mixed ensembles with other renaissance wind, brass, or keyboard instruments. It is not certain whether these earlier gambas had soundposts or not, and current makers have experimented with both types of construction. As the reconstruction of these early gambas is still largely in an experimental phase, it is not possible to draw firm conclusions; most of these instruments, however, seem to function far better with soundposts.

The golden age of the viola da gamba was achieved in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century England, where instruments of great sophistication occasioned the composition of a vast body of solo and consort music. English viols of this period are of extremely light construction, have thin tops which are usually of three to five pieces and bent rather than carved, have no inside corner blocks, and cloth rather than wooden liners. These instruments are of large scale, wonderfully resonant, yet capable of a remarkable clarity and transparency which permits the careful articulation of each voice in a complex five or six-part consort fantasia.

The German instruments of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century represent the very last stage of development of the viola da gamba before it was eclipsed by the louder, more orchestrally suited members of the violin family. These instruments are of heavier construction than the English instruments, have two piece carved tops, corner blocks, and wooden liners. They have a stronger, more compact tone and therefore function well as solo and continuo instruments but are less well suited to consort playing. The French instruments of this period have some characteristics of both the English and German instruments; they have a wonderfully sensuous sound which is ideal for the French solo and ensemble literature. Many French bass gambas have an additional seventh string which extends the lower range to A below great C.

The great majority of gamba players still seem to prefer instruments of modern construction, loosely patterned after German or English models, rather than more highly specialized reproduction renaissance or baroque gambas. For viols in the German style, we recommend the instruments by Helmut Buchsteiner based on original instruments by Tielke, the most famous of the late seventeenth century makers; these instruments are beautifully made, extremely stable and highly playable. These instruments are set up and serviced in our workshop before delivery.

Copyright, Antique Sound Workshop, Ltd., 1996, 1997, 1998, & 2000. All rights reserved.

Back to Top of Page

Return to Antique Sound Workshop home page