FRANKENSTEIN DA GAMBA?
Sitting next to its very formal neighbour, the Forster viola, in Old Tullie House, the viol da gamba looks downright relaxed. His ample frontage, deep ribs, sagging shoulders “rustic” construction and finish suggest an old chap in retirement. But who would have thought that an old chap like that would have had cosmetic surgery – or even something rather more severe – like a complete new head? This old chap is not entirely what he appears to be.
Of all the bowed instruments, the viol da gamba stands out; but not because it’s beautiful like the viola d’amore or the Amati violin. The viol is not a pretty instrument; it is best to say that it looks “country-made” and it looks downright wrong because the neck, head, scroll, and tailpiece, are not the ones it was born with. This is an 18th century instrument made into something more modern. So how? And, equally interestingly, why?
Brampton violin-maker Corrie Schrijver was a great help in deciding whether the instruments in Old Tullie House were in a condition that would allow their exhibition. They have been out of sight for all but a very brief time for at least 20 years; hers was the first expert eye on them for rather longer than that.
Corrie said it was plain the VDG’s neck has been re-shaped, that the surgery really had been very drastic and done entirely to turn an instrument that once had ten strings into one that has just four – an imposing, if peculiar, viola.
And yes, ten strings. Corrie pointed out the ten filled holes in the bottom of the viol and the long ebony saddle across the bottom, under the gut loop holding the new tailpiece. It was common for viols to have six strings, seven too, some eight. Is ten too many for a VDG?
Corrie wondered even if it was originally a “country-made” – aka “ a bit rough” – viola
d’amore, with perhaps six bowed strings and four sympathetic strings. No room to
explain here…look at this instead: http://www.violadamoresociety.org/Vda.html Whatever it was, why turn one instrument into another?
The VDG was part of a bequest to the museum by Sybil Mounsey-Heysham in 1949. She probably bought it from the famous London violin-maker W.E. Hill in the mid-1930s. Perhaps the surgery was done by Hills, to make the ten-string instrument into a more saleable, money-in-the-till, four-string viola? The unusual viola might well have appealed to an enthusiastic, moneyed, amateur-musician such as Sybil.
Is the work up the Hills’ standard? Possibly not, so perhaps I am miles out. Perhaps it is simply that the work was done earlier to make it playable as a viola, say for someone to learn on. Why buy a viola when there’s already the old VDG in the house that can be shaved down a little? Or maybe the work was the best compromise after some serious damage. It is doubtful we will ever know.
So is this VDG a monster or is just a bit of Hollywood nip’n’tuck going on here? The neck surgery is quite apparent and the attachment of the head is anything but invisible, so it is fair to say that our old chap certainly could not go on Graham Norton and deny having had work done. Let’s be kind and say facelift rather than Frankenstein, but either way, unlike the rest of the half-dozen instruments on show in Old Tullie House, it looks like this old thing had to adapt the most to survive.