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April 07, 2007



I think, although I'm not certain, that the viola de gamba is actually related more closely to the bass violin that to the cello. Which is why the bass is tuned in a different interval than the cello, violin and viola.

David Noades

Thanks for the input although my research revelaed that it is related to the 'cello family as it is played between the legs. Please see the Viola De Gamba Society (yes there is one!) website for more information: Thanks, David


It soundeth like the Moody Blues gone horribly, horribly wrong...


Actually, Marais put the "voice over" in the score (in French). It's not made up just for this recording. I suppose even 18th-century audiences wouldn't have recognized it as music portraying an operation either (which, of course, speaks to the much larger and historically played-out problem of musical reprentation). Without the voice over, it just seems like an exercise in displaying the versatility of the instrument (which was very popular in its time; Bach wrote several gamba sonatas). With the voice over, it seems like we're being asked to see specific pictures in ink blots, which could be interpreted a million ways otherwise. What could be fun (in a nerdy way) is coming up with alternative "voice overs" for the music.


Good point, Will. The playing position used for the viola de gamba is similar to that of the cello, which is why it's so often referred to as a precursor. Its tuning is more akin to the modern guitar, so in essence it's more closely related to the double bass than to the cello or any other member of the violin family.

The double bass is tuned in fourths, where all others are tuned in fifths. Likewise, the viola de gamba is tuned in fourths with a major third added. And it traditionally has six strings, not seven. But also, the cello is just another name for the bass violin. Did you mean the violone?


Oh, and technically, there isn't really a "cello family." The cello is a member of the violin family, hence its proper name, the violoncello.


Original performances of these types of music (both the gamba suite and the solo piece that tells an inner story) were never given in formal concert halls. In a small music salon, either sponsered by the wealthy connoisseurs, or in a private home of other musicians (read: 17th-century jam session), the piece would be presented either as a characteristic virtuoso bit stand-alone, OR as a characteristic virtuoso bit WITH the witty annotations passed around/announced to the audience, just as on this recording. Doubt they would have used some 17th-century French version of docu-radio announcer voice, though. When it comes to evolutionary trees (so-to-speak) of string instruments, the gamba Family came first (the violone is its lowest-sounding member); it was supplanted by the violin Family (including the cello); the double bass continues (with modifications) from the gamba Family line; and the guitar is not related at all--having developed separately from the Iberian vihuela (north-African influenced).


Using terms like "related" to describe similar instruments is a bit dodgy. Most often, that word is used to detail a particular influence that an instrument or family has had over another instrument or family, and its use is often imprecise. After all, relations aren't usually extra-familial. I try to stay away from using it. In this case, however, I said that the viola da gamba is more closely related to the double bass, simply because the double bass is a member of the viol family, of which the viola da gamba is the head. And as I understand it, it's the viol family, otherwise known as the viola da gamba (or de gamba) family, that the violone is the lowest-sounding member of - not the gamba family.

Of course, the viol is just another name for the viola da gamba, and many have used the terms "da gamba family" and "gamba family," so it really seems a matter of preference ultimately. Still, "viol family" is the preferred choice nowadays.


Hey, Steve, since we're on the subject, I was researching your claim about the guitar being a descendant of the vihuela. Just to clarify, since you seem to have implied it, I never said that the guitar and the viol were "related"... only that their tunings are similar. Anyway, what struck me as odd about your statement is that guitar-like instruments have been used since perhaps as early as 3000 B.C.E., the four-stringed guitarra latina was around since the 13th century in Spain, yet the vihuela only dates to the mid-1400s. This, and I had always heard that the guitar derives as much from the ancient Iranian lute.

So, when I hear that the guitar "developed" from the vihuela, I must consider that we are speaking strictly of the modern guitar. Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't renaissance guitars already in use by the time the vihuela originated? I checked Wikipedia for information about the history of the guitar, and the information there is surprisingly sparse, but there were a couple of things that stuck out. First, regarding the vihuela, it says that it "is considered by some to be the (more ancient) precursor to the modern classical guitar," which does leave room for interpretation. And further, the renaissance guitar is referred to as the vihuela's "contemporary," which at least seems to support a theory with respect to the two instruments' co-existence.

"The Spanish vihuela 'de mano' appears to be an aberration in the transition of the renaissance guitar to the modern guitar. It had lute-style tuning and a guitar-like body. Its construction had as much in common with the modern guitar as with its contemporary four-course renaissance guitar. The vihuela enjoyed only a short period of popularity, the last surviving publication of music for the instrument appeared in 1576. It is not clear whether it represented a transitional form or was simply a design that combined features of the Arabic oud and the European lute."

Now, I'm no music historian, but reading this makes me think that the modern guitar owes as much to the lute and the renaissance guitar as it does the vihuela, which, as mentioned above, remained popular for only a short time. After all, the Persian lute, which is known to be an ancestor of the Spanish guitar, was invented by an Iranian, and the word "guitar" itself came to Iberian Arabic by way of Iran. Well, at any rate, just trying to get to the bottom of this. I'd be interested to know your thoughts.


My father was a physician and was given this recording by a detail man when I was a child. He presented the record to my brother and me. I remember it was particularly beautiful to look at as it was a translucent, dark red celluloid disc (78 rpm) which I loved to hold up to the light. We were both fascinated by the narrative which sounded as if taken from the Bible to our young ears. I can remember listening to this over and over again, frustrated because my brother would always start laughing unconstrollably at the description of the blood flowing. No accident, he became a doctor and I landed up fascinated by music.

About the viol da gamba. The viol family to the best of my knowledge was a separate family from the violone (or violin) family which includes violins, violas, cellos (or violoncellos) and double basses. The bass viol, and other viols da gamba were only half of the family which also included the viols da braccia -- viols played on the arm (in Italian gamba is leg and braccia is arm). The shape, stringing and tuning of the viol family is very different from the violin family. While it can be said that both are descended from or related to rebecs and other similar medieval instruments, it has to be recognized that both the violin family and the viol family are separate branches from the same bush.

Simon Hayman

There is another, more recent, version of Le Tableau de l'Operation de la Taille peformed by members of The Academy of Ancient Music incl. Christopher Hogwood. It was originally on vinyl (L'Oiseau-Lyre label) set called Musique Pour la Chambre du Roy (Music at Versailles 1697-1747) and on CD in early 90s.

Andrew Jones

I well remember listening to this record as a child! It was commissioned by my great Uncle
Peter Jones, a pharmacist and managing director of Norgene at the time. Peter is the voice of the sales-rep on the B side of the record

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