Rachel Barton Pine's love affair with the viola d'amore began before she ever heard the instrument's uncommon voice.
"Reading about the history of the great violinists of the past, going back to the 1700's, I was struck by the fact that the greatest virtuosos of their era were also known as great players of the viola d'amore as well," Rachel said, speaking with me over the phone from her home in Chicago last month. "For example, Johann Georg Pisendel -- he was the foremost violinist in Germany at the time of Bach, and he is thought to have been the only violinist other than Bach to have played the Sonatas and Partitas during Bach's lifetime. And Leopold Mozart, (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart's father, of course, wrote about a viola d'amore in his treatise, calling it 'a special violin that sounds especially beautiful in the stillness of the night.' Pietro Locatelli, the greatest Italian virtuoso prior to Paganini, who actually wrote the prototype set of 24 caprices, the shoulders on which Paganini stood -- Locatelli was a great player of the viola d'amore."
Knowing that these great heroes of violin history played this other instrument that was a kind of violin, Rachel decided that she, too, should take up the viola d'amore. And when Rachel Barton Pine takes up something, she takes it on. She first laid her hands on a viola d'amore in 2007, and by now she's conquered this complicated instrument. This fall she released Vivaldi: The Complete Viola d'Amore Concertos, recorded with Chicago period-instrument group Ars Antigua and guest artist, lutenist Hopkinson Smith.
Of course, it wasn't an easy endeavor; in fact, just finding a viola d'amore to play can be a serious challenge.
"I joined the Viola D'Amore Society, in great hope and anticipation of one day laying my hands on one, but they're few and far between," Rachel said. "If you're curious about Baroque violin, you can generally cross paths with somebody who's got one so you can pick it up and play a few notes and see what it's like. Or you could even splurge and buy yourself a cheap one, to at least give you a general idea. The viola d'amore is such a complicated instrument that there is no such thing as a cheap one that plays decently. So you can't just buy one to be a toy and then decide if you like it or not. You can't just turn to your colleague who has one lying around and try it. Neither of those scenarios really exists."
What exactly is a viola d'amore? Well, there are a number things which it is not:
"The viola d'amore, despite its name, which has 'viola' in it -- is not a kind of viola," Rachel said. "It is not an alto member of the violin family. The viola d'amore is more accurately described as a type of violin. The string length is, in fact, a violin string length, and it's an instrument meant to be played by a violinist, as a supplemental instrument. It's kind of like the English horn; nobody starts lessons on English horn or only plays English horn. You're an oboist, but when a particular movement or moment needs that color, you swap out temporarily for an English horn, and then go back to the oboe. So that is kind of what the viola d'amore is, it's like an extension of the violin."
There are a number of differences between a violin and a viola d'amore -- a major one being that a viola d'amore has 12 to 14 strings!
"Most modern d'amores have 14 strings -- seven playing strings and seven resonating strings," Rachel said. "I have a modern d'amore, a beautiful instrument from the mid-1800s. And then I have my beautiful historic d'amore (pictured above), which has never been altered. In other words, it's still in its original Baroque condition. That is the Gagliano instrument from 1774, which I bought in 2010 at the Tarisio auction, about 10 years after I got my beautiful, never-been-modernized 1770 Gagliano violin, from Charlie Beare's shop. So I bought them 10 years apart, on different continents, both of them in pristine, unaltered condition. After I acquired the d'amore, I took both the Gaglianos to Paul Becker's shop (in Chicago). He took one look at them and said, 'Oh, my gosh -- the tops of both instruments are from the same tree!' I don't necessarily believe in fate, but in this case, I thought, this has got to be fate, the total sibling reunion here! It's unbelievable."
"My particular Gagliano is unusual among d'amores in that it has a violin-type scroll (see above). The vast majority of d'amores have scrolls in the shape of a blind cupid's head, (see right)" she said. "The origin of the name 'd'amore" is uncertain. In the Grove Dictionary, which usually knows everything about everything, it very helpfully says, 'Its origins are obscure.' There are two competing theories that have equal validity: one is that it's the 'viola of the Moors' because the idea of sympathetic strings is a very Middle Eastern device, and of course it always has the Islamic flame f-holes. On the other hand, the two sets of strings trembling in unison and the blind cupid's head scroll gives the theory that it's the 'viola of love.' So who knows what its name even means? Apparently musicologists don't!"
The viola d'amore is played on the shoulder, as a violin would be. Like a viola da gamba, it has sloped shoulders and a flat back. "Its sound holes are neither that of violins nor viols -- the viols have c-shaped sound holes, the violins have f-shaped sound holes, and the viola d-amore sound holes are always in the shape of an Islamic flame," Rachel said. "It makes it very attractive-looking, that's for sure. It does not have frets; it has six or seven playing strings and an equal number of resonating strings."
In the Baroque era, there were more than 24 different documented tunings for the viola d'amore. "Basically, whatever key you were playing in, you would tune the instrument to those notes, and tune the sympathetic strings, the resonating strings, to those same notes," Rachel said. "If you were playing in the key of D, then you have D's and A's and F#'s and all those extra resonating D's and A's and F#'s. It would just ring and ring and ring, kind of like built-in reverb. Then if you wanted to play in Bb major, you'd have to not only re-tune, but you'd also have to swap out for different thicknesses of gut strings -- you can only tune down a string so far before it starts to become a flubby rubber band, you can only tune a string up so far before it breaks! So you couldn't necessarily play a lot of viola d'amore pieces on the same concert, unless they were all in the same key. As I said, it was a supplemental instrument -- you really wouldn't play a whole concert on d'amore."
It wasn't until the late 1700s, the Classical Period, that the tuning became codified to the "D tuning" as follows: starting from the top string, the top string is "D," one whole-step lower than the open E of a violin; "A" which is the same as an open A on the violin; "F#" or "F natural" depending on if it's minor or major; "D" which is the same as an open D string of a violin; "A" which is one whole step above a violin G string; and then "D" which is one whole step above a viola C string. If you have that lowest string, "A," it would be one third lower than the lowest string of a viola.
"The D tuning has remained constant until the present day," Rachel said. And where does one find a set of d'amore strings in the modern world? "Dominant makes a set of strings for modern viola d'amore. If you want to string it up a modern viola d'amore, you can buy yourself a set of Dominants and you're good to go!"
And how do those resonating strings work? They are tuned to the same notes as the playing strings. "Basically they hook onto more or less where the button is, where the tailgut of the tailpiece goes. Then they run underneath the tailpiece; there are little tiny holes in the bottom part of the bridge that they run through. They continue their journey through the neck, the neck of a d'amore is hollow...this is why you can't get a cheap one, it's very complicated to build! They then continue up through the back of the peg box and then hook into pegs that are higher up towards the scroll than the pegs of the playing strings. That's why I think people look at it and think it's a kind of viola; the peg box is so long, it's an optical illusion. The string length is violin string length, but then its peg box goes on forever, which also makes it a heavy instrument."
With a system that complex, how does one install those resonating strings? "For most of the resonating strings, you have to have a shop do it," Rachel said. "The good news is that they rarely ever break and they certainly never have to be changed because they've worn out -- as long as they haven't broken they can stay on there for many years. So that's a good thing, it certainly cuts down on the costs."
How does one actually play such an instrument?
"First of all, it's a brain-twister," Rachel said, and it's not just because there are six or seven strings to play. "There are certainly six-string instruments out there, in the electric violin world. Leila Josefowicz plays an electric six-string for John Adams' Violin Concerto, and in the non-classical world everybody is playing five-string, six-string, even seven-string instruments. But those are a bit easier to wrap your mind around because they are tuned in fifths: E-A-D-G, then the C string of a viola, then an F string, and if you go really extreme you've got a Bb seventh string, which is one whole step lower than the C string of a cello. Because they're always electric, you don't have acoustical issues the same way as with an instrument with its natural sound box. The curve of the bridge can actually be steeper, which allows you to more easily isolate the strings with your bow. Because it's going through an amp, you don't have to worry about the ribs being in a certain place."
Playing the viola d'amore, with its unusual tuning, is a little like playing on a "scordatura" violin -- that is, a violin that is cross-tuned for pieces such as Rosary Sonatas by Biber, or the second movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, or Appalachian fiddle music. "But that's only four strings," Rachel said. "So to have cross-tuning, and six or seven strings -- now that's a big brain-twister!"
The instrument is also a challenge ergonomically, with its rather flat bridge. "When you think you're crossing over one string, you might in fact accidentally be crossing over two strings," she said. "The strings are simply closer together. So to know exactly where each one is, and know where you're going when you're going from string two to string five and then back to string three and over to string four and then string one....I'm not ashamed to say, the first few months of trying my hand at the instrument, I was still getting all mixed up, where my finger would be on string five and my bow would be on string six -- I was completely discombobulated!"
There aren't really any teachers of the d'amore; Rachel taught herself to play the instrument. "If you know how to play the violin, it's just a question of letting your muscles sort themselves out," Rachel said. "There are no shortcuts, you've just got to try it and drill it and eventually be able to do it. For me, it was just a question of finding a few easy pieces and working on them. It was like going back to Suzuki Book 1 because every single finger had a number over it! You can't just look at the note and know where that note is! You're almost reading tablature. And even now that I've been playing it for years, and I think this is true of most d'amore players, we still have an awful lot of finger numbers and Roman numerals for string numbers in our music. It's certainly not an instrument where you could sit down and sight-read chamber music! Every piece you want to play, you've got to work it out. Especially because there are some pitches that could be played on any one of four strings. So you have to decide, in terms of pattern, which one makes the most sense? It's just so tricky."
"But the voice is so unusual, that's what makes it worth it," she said. "It's not just about having these unusual tunings and being able to do chords that just don't even exist on an instrument tuned in fifths. More importantly, it's about the tone of the instrument. It has its own unique voice and it's absolutely mesmerizing. In fact, one of the best descriptions of d'amore that I ever heard was from a girl who was taking some coachings with me. She picked up the d'amore and played a few open strings and said, 'That's just so refreshing!' I thought that 'refreshing' was a great adjective. There are many adjectives that one could use: It's silvery, it's delicate."
"What Vivaldi did with the viola d'amore is absolutely fascinating," Rachel said. "Vivaldi was inspired by Pisendel's playing, and it's thought that he might have even written some of the concerti for Pisendel. Certainly Pisendel had copies of a lot of the concerti in his library in Dresden. But one of my favorite things about Vivaldi's story with the d'amore is that he also wrote for his talented female students at the Pietá, the orphanage where he worked. There was one particular young violinist -- one of the best of the bunch -- named Anna. She is known to also have been a virtuoso of the d'amore and to have played Vivaldi's concertos, some of which may have been specifically written for her. So I love knowing that there was a woman in the Baroque period who definitely played these concertos. That's another reason why I was inspired to put a woman on the cover."
"Actually there's a book I should mention, which has the unnecessarily racy but memorably alliterative title, Vivaldi's Virgins by Barbara Quick. It's very well-researched, and the descriptions of the general aspects of life in that time and how the Pietá functioned are very accurate. Obviously the backstories of the particular young ladies in the plot are fictionalized, even when she is writing about young ladies like Anna, who were real people. But I think it's fun that the book describes Anna, playing the d'amore!
"Another book about the Vivaldi era in Venice, if you can deal with the sex scenes, is Cry to Heaven by Anne Rice. I still to this day think is one of the most vivid descriptions of vocal lessons of the Vivaldi era that anybody has ever written. She did her homework well, and she's a good writer. It really does bring the musical scene of the times to life, focusing more on the phenomenon of the castrati. But instrumental and vocal studies were not so far apart back then as they are these days, and I found that as a violinist, I gained a lot reading that particular book."
Though viola d'amore is an instrument of the Baroque era, it did not become frozen in that time period. Composers have continued to write for d'amore, even into the modern era.
"Other instruments from the Baroque era -- the Lirone or the viola da Gamba -- a lot of those early instruments have remained instruments of early music," Rachel said. "The viola d'amore is different. Great composers have written for this instrument. During the Romantic era it went a little bit underground, but then coming out into the 20th century it started to pick back up. More than half its repertoire is from the 20th and now 21st centuries. Hindemith wrote a concerto for it; Casadesus wrote chamber music for it, Janacek wrote for the instrument."
As for makers, "every great Baroque maker -- Gagliano, Testore, you just name a maker and they made a d'amore," Rachel said. "Stradivari left a pattern for a d'amore; it's not known whether he never got around to making it, or whether he made one or more and they didn't survive. Absolutely every other great Italian maker that you can name, made d'amores." And like the violin, the viola d'amore has been modernized. "A lot of violas d'amore made in the 1700s, just like violins made in that era, have been renecked with longer fingerboards, different bridges, different tailpieces -- like you do with violins to make them modern violins, even if they started life as Baroque violins. And of course any violas d'amore made these days, for the most part, are made as modern d'amores. So there is such a thing, to that same degree."
"I think any violinist would have fun, trying his or her hand at the d'amore," Rachel said. "For those of us who love the sound of the violin, it's just another kind of sound that is so incredibly satisfying and intriguing. If you're willing to put in a bit of the effort necessary to figure out where your fingers go, the rewards are definitely worth it, and the repertoire is so beautiful."
But where to find one to try?
"Well I am always most delighted to let people try mine," she said. "You need never hesitate to ask."
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