The viola d’amore: For a sympathetic ear

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The viola d’amore is undergoing a resurgence in popularity among early music groups, with a wealth of repertoire still to be rediscovered. Rachael Durkin tracks the development of this unique instrument, examining its many precursors along the way

‘I never heard a sweeter Instrument or more surprizing’ wrote the diarist John Evelyn in 1679, recounting his first encounter with the viola d’amore. But the five-string instrument strung with wire described by Evelyn is far removed from the 14-string viola d’amore commonly recognised today.

Played on the shoulder like a viola, the viola d’amore is most known for its two sets of strings: one bowed set of gut strings as is typical on a viol, and one set of metal strings which run untouched below the fingerboard and resonate in sympathy with the bowed strings above. To accommodate these strings, the viola d’amore has an elongated pegbox, commonly surmounted by a blindfolded Cupid that represents the old trope ‘Love is blind.’ The soundholes are often described as ‘flames’, quite different in shape from the c- and f-holes found in the viol and violin families. The viola d’amore is often tuned in D, but experienced players tackle works calling for scordatura tuning, taking advantage of the additional resonance afforded by the sympathetic strings when they are tuned to the same key.

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