Volume 1, August 2004
A Critical Review

by Shanon P. Zusman

Studies in Italian Sacred and Instrumental Music in the 17th Century. By Stephen Bonta. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2003. [xii, 338 pp. ISBN 0-86078-878-4 $99.95 (cloth).]

2. Scholarly context

[2.1] Stephen Bonta's inquiries into the early history of the bass violin stem from his doctoral research on Legrenzi's church sonatas. 5 Confronted with more than one term for the stringed bass instrument in Legrenzi's prints — including violone and viola da brazzo — and the fact that the term violoncello was only used rarely by Legrenzi's Italian contemporaries in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, Bonta sought to explore the possible meanings of these terms early on in his career.

[2.2] His first publication in this arena, "Further Thoughts on the History of Strings" (1976), reprinted here as Chapter IX, is in some ways a telling sign of what lay ahead. Looking at how string materials affect the overall sound and interpretation of a musical work, a term he defines as "Realklang," Bonta considers how string design may have directly affected the design of the instruments themselves ("Further Thoughts," ix-xi). Working with original sources, Bonta cites Mersenne's law on vibrating strings, as well as seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century descriptions by John Dowland John Playford, Thomas Mace and Sébastian Brossard, paying close attention to observations on the lowest pitched strings for lutes, viols and violins. Bonta goes on to hypothesize that the invention of wound strings, which probably occurred in the 1660s, would serve as "the answer to a vexing problem (or perhaps, more accurately, a vexing condition)," claiming that this invention had a radical effect on instruments of the violin family ("Further Thoughts," xvii). Bonta concludes, "With the invention of wound strings, which could produce a better bass sound even though shorter than their gut counterpart, the larger sizes [of the violin family] could be abandoned in favor of the smaller" ("Further Thoughts," xviii).

[2.3] Bonta's idea here was ground-breaking. Building on the work of Edmond Van der Straeten, David Boyden and Djilda Abbott & Ephraim Segerman, in particular, Bonta — armed with fresh research from numerous Italian archives — was led directly to the theory that the violoncello, before it was made in its present size, must have existed in a larger version, known to composers, publishers, performers and instrument makers as the "violone." His next two articles, "From Violone to Violoncello: A Question of Strings?" (1977) and "Terminology for the Bass Violin in Seventeenth-Century Italy" (1978), reprinted here as Chapters IV and V, respectively, look more closely at the multifarious terminology used to connote early stringed bass instruments, as specifically observed in Italian music of the seventeenth century.

Next: The term Violone and the early history of the bass violin