Peter Holman’s long-anticipated Life After Death: The Viola da Gamba in Britain from Purcell to Dolmetsch was published at the close of last year. In this fascinating post, he outlines how he came to his subject and some of the research that has grown out of it:
The origins of this book go back to a day in the late 1990s when my Ph.D. student Ian Davies mentioned that he had come across a manuscript in London University Library that contained some eighteenth-century English sonatas for bass viol – or ‘viol da gamba’ as it was more commonly known at the time. He had come across it as part of his research into English cathedral music around 1800, and he knew I was interested in stringed instruments and their history. The London University Library manuscript turned out to include six sonatas for bass viol and continuo or two bass viols evidently composed or compiled (it includes arrangements of violin sonatas by Angelo Michele Besseghi and recorder sonatas by Francesco Barsanti) around 1730. However, it was evidently copied much later: it also includes a gamba part from a hitherto unknown sonata by Carl Friedrich Abel as well as trio sonatas from Maximilian Humble’s op. 1 of 1768.
Researching the manuscript for an article made me realise that the viol did not entirely drop out of use in England at the end of the seventeenth century, as was conventionally thought, and that there was scope for a larger study. At the same time I had become aware that I was in danger of repeating myself in writing about seventeenth-century music, and that it was time for a change of direction. Working in a later period would give me access to a far richer range of primary sources than was available before 1700. I was aware that others were developing interests in late gamba music in other European countries, notably Vittorio Ghielmi, Christophe Coin, and Michael O’Loughlin, for example. I also benefited from the interest and encouragement of the viol player and cellist Mark Caudle, an old friend and colleague in The Parley of Instruments; he is the dedicatee of the book. From the material I had assembled at an early stage, in 1998 we recorded a CD, The Noble Bass Viol (Hyperion CDA67088). It covered the repertory of compositions and arrangements for one, two and three bass viols with continuo from Purcell to Handel, including pieces by them and Benjamin Hely, William Gorton, Giovanni Battista Draghi, Gottfried Finger, Francesco Conti, and Arcangelo Corelli.
In beginning to research and plan a book on the viol ‘after the golden age’ I started with two areas where I knew gamba players had been active and there was surviving music for the instrument. The first was a group of musicians associated with Handel and the orchestra of the Italian opera company at the Haymarket Theatre. It was known that Handel wrote a gamba solo in the famous Parnassus scene in Giulio Cesare (1724), and that about the same time he wrote out the first bar of his G minor violin sonata HWV364 in the alto clef, labelling it ‘Per la Viola da Gamba’, presumably as an instruction to someone else to copy out the whole work in that form. Handel’s involvement with the gamba had been explored before, though the problem had always been that these pieces appeared to exist in a vacuum: no gamba player was known to have been active in London around 1724, and no other contemporary English gamba works appeared to have survived.
That quickly changed: in addition to the Williamson Manuscript (as it became known), colleagues working on Handel and his contemporaries, including the late Anthony Hicks and Lowell Lindgren, pointed me to a cantata by Pietro Giuseppe Sandoni for soprano, two gambas and theorbo, and cantatas by Tommaso Bernardo Gaffi and Francesco Gasparini arranged in early eighteenth-century England with gamba obbligatos. It also became likely that the various trio sonatas by J.C. Pepusch with gamba obbligato had been written for Pietro Chaboud, an Italian bassoonist and flute player who arrived in England around 1700 and played in the Italian opera orchestra. Chaboud may also have been responsible for a set of gamba arrangements of Corelli’s op. 5 violin sonatas, two of which were published in London in 1712, and the publication Aires and Symphonys for ye Bass Viol (London, 1710), which contains a set of arrangements for solo bass viol of arias from Italian operas in the repertory of the Haymarket Theatre. Arrangements tended to loom larger in the repertory of early eighteenth-century gamba players than their predecessors partly because Italian opera and violin music was all the rage at the time, and partly because gamba players in England had begun to read music in the (octave-transposing) treble clef, which made all music written for soprano instruments and voices available to them.
The other task was to try to identify the person or people who had played this new repertory of gamba music. Chaboud was the obvious candidate for the second decade of the eighteenth century, but there is no trace of him in London (or anywhere else) after May 1719. To cut a long story short, a number cellists in the opera orchestra, including Nicola Haym, François Goodsens, Pippo Amadei and Giovanni Bononcini, may have played the gamba, though only the German David Boswillibald, principally a double bass player, seems to have been active in Handel’s circle around 1724. In the book I put him forward as the person most likely to have played the solo in Giulio Cesare.
The other topic I researched early on was Carl Friedrich (or Charles Frederick) Abel, the greatest gamba player in the late eighteenth century. Abel had been studied by Walter Knape in the 1950s and 60s, who produced a thematic catalogue of his works, a biography and a complete edition. However, Knape’s work is flawed in a number of respects and is now out of date; the time seemed ripe for a new study of his gamba music and his life as a gamba player. I started by reading through The Public Advertiser, the main newspaper for concert advertisements, for each London concert season between 1759 (when Abel made his London debut) and his death in 1787, omitting the period between 1782 and 1785 when he was in Germany. Getting a clear idea of his concert career (and the careers of other professional gamba players at the time) was subsequently made much easier by Simon McVeigh, who kindly made his database Calendar of London Concerts, 1750-1800 available to me, and by the appearance of the online database Seventeenth-Eighteenth-Century Burney Collections Newspapers.
Another topic that developed early on was the life and work of John Frederick Hintz (1711-72), who seems to have been the only maker of viols in England between Barak Norman and his contemporaries in the early eighteenth century and the first makers in the early music revival at the end of the nineteenth century. He is now by far the best documented London instrument maker of the eighteenth century, thanks to the work of furniture historians and those such as James Lomax and Lanie Graf who have researched the early history of the Moravian Brethren in England; Hintz was successively a furniture maker, a full-time Moravian evangelist, and an instrument maker. The realisation that he specialised in making and selling unusual and rare instruments led me to look more generally at the cultivation of them in the late eighteenth century, helping me to understand the role of the gamba in musical life. It led in turn to studying others in the same field, such as the inventors John Joseph Merlin and Charles Clagget, and the steam engine pioneer James Watt – who made at least one gamba before he moved from Glasgow to Birmingham in 1774 and went into partnership with Matthew Boulton.
One of the pleasures of researching a rare instrument, one that was not used in mainstream public and private music-making at the time, is that many interesting people were attracted to it. James Watt is one unexpected example, and others are the American statesman Benjamin Franklin; the writer Laurence Sterne; the aristocrats Sir Edward Walpole, John, Viscount Bateman, Elizabeth Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, and her cousins Margaret Georgiana, Countess Spencer and Lavinia, Viscountess Althorp; the musician and writer Ann Ford; and the artists Thomas Jones, Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Cheesman, John Cawse, and perhaps John Constable. Many of these amateurs were inspired by Abel’s example and tuition to take up the gamba. Others doubtless thought that playing an unusual instrument would make them appear distinctive among their musical friends. For aristocratic women it was just about the only ensemble instrument open to them, since wind instruments involved distorting the face and playing the violin or violoncello involved adopting ungraceful postures. In addition, artists seem to have been attracted to the graceful shape of the gamba, which often featured in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century paintings they studied.
A parallel study of amateur gamba players in the early eighteenth century revealed much about musical life at the time. Having made a list of all those amateurs known to have played or owned gambas at the time, it became clear to me that they divided into roughly three groups according to social status. There was a small group of aristocrats who probably received musical tuition from household musicians or on the grand tour – which at the time often meant a period studying in Paris or Leiden as well as visiting Italy. At the other end of the social scale there was an interesting group of self-made and self-educated artisans and tradesmen, including the musical coal merchant Thomas Britton, the apothecary and botanist James Sherard, the writer Daniel Defoe, and the clock maker John ‘longitude’ Harrison. In between there was the great mass of members of the professions – clergymen, doctors and lawyers – who must have acquired their musical skills and knowledge of the gamba at university in Oxford or Cambridge or (in the case of lawyers) at the Inns of Court in London; dissenters, who were barred from the English universities, went abroad, often to Leiden, or to Scottish universities.
We know from letters, diaries, inventories of music and surviving manuscripts that these amateurs often used the gamba as a solo instrument, though it was also indispensible for providing the bass line in the music clubs that were springing up all over the country at the time; amateurs did not start to take up the violoncello in England until about 1730. In general, there was a transition at the time from using the gamba as a bass instrument, reading music in the bass and alto clefs, to a solo instrument in the tenor register reading from the treble clef. This was also associated with a change of name, from ‘bass viol’ to ‘viola da gamba’ or some Anglicised variant such as ‘viol di gambo’. After about 1720 most people outside elite musical circles normally used ‘bass viol’ to mean a four-string unfretted instrument. This was particular true in parish churches, where people would have been familiar with the Sternhold and Hopkins ‘old version’ of Psalm 150, which includes the phrase ‘Praise him upon the viol’. However, this usage was not confined to church: Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1789 that the six-stringed instrument ‘called Viol de Gambo’ is ‘about the Size of a Bass Viol, but is not the same’.
I originally planned to confine the book to the eighteenth century, but it soon became apparent that gamba playing continued sporadically throughout the nineteenth century. In 1889 the historian, lawyer and gamba player Edward Payne (1844-1904) stated in a lecture to the Musical Association (now the Royal Musical Association) in London: ‘I could prove, if it were necessary, that the art of playing it [the gamba] has never died out in this country, but that the traditions of the instrument have survived in a constant succession of amateur players’ – by which he seems to have meant Thomas Cheeseman (1760-?1842), John Cawse (1779-1862), and himself.
The last professional player in England in the continuous tradition, the Dutch cellist Johan Arnold Dahmen, died in 1813, though other professionals occasionally took up the gamba for particular concerts throughout the nineteenth century, mostly as part of the developing early music movement. They include an unnamed player in a concert directed by the harpist Nicholas Bochsa in 1836; the cellist Richard Hatton in a Concert of Ancient Music in 1845; the viola player Henry Webb in at least one of Ernst Pauer’s historical concerts in 1862; and the cellist Walter Pettit (1836-82), who became well known in the 1870s for playing the obbligato parts in J.S. Bach’s passions on the gamba. By the 1880s gamba playing by amateurs and professionals was fairly common, so that when Arnold Dolmetsch organized his first old music concert in 1890 his innovation was not to revive the viol per se, but to attempt to assemble a complete viol consort and to use it to play English seventeenth-century consort music. Even so there were compromises: his first viol consort included a viola and a viola d’amore. However, Dolmetsch was a turning point, and the model he developed of the scholar-performer came to dominate the British early music scene during the twentieth century.
As always with a major research project of this sort there are loose ends to tie up and further avenues to explore. One is the history of early music: I am hoping to write an article on the harpsichord in nineteenth-century England, and I have been asked to give a paper on the twentieth-century British early music scene at a conference in Salzburg in December. I have also been using material I have accumulated on other eighteenth-century ‘exotic’ instruments. I am editing Geminiani’s treatise on the English guitar for Christopher Hogwood’s Opera Omnia of the composer, and I have recently written a study of John Russell’s fine painting of the actress Dorothy Jordan playing a lute-family instrument. In addition, I am planning a study of Handel’s use of the archlute and theorbo, which will reveal the identity of the person I believe was his regular lutenist in the 1720s and 30s. I have also started work on another research project on the history of conducting and musical direction in Britain, in collaboration with Fiona Palmer. I hope it will result in another volume in the Boydell series ‘Music in Britain, 1600-1900’, provisionally entitled Before the Baton: Conducting and Musical Direction in Georgian Britain.
Life After Death: The Viola da Gamba in Britain from Purcell to Dolmetsch by Peter Holman is available from all good booksellers.