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).]

5. Principal objections to Bonta's conclusions

[5.1] Bonta does not recommend the G violone — which is acknowledged by earlier Italian theorists as the bass member of the gamba family — for numerous reasons: 1) the lowest string G' would never have been used, which he claims "runs counter to Merula's use of the violin, which regularly encompasses all four strings"; 15 2) the larger size would have "hampered the extensive cultivation of violin style and hence the soloistic possibilities of the instrument"; 16 3) the Klangideal of the times would have demanded a pure consort of all violins, not a mixed ensemble with violins and viols; 17 4) the volume produced by the violone da gamba [G violone] would not equal the sound projection of the bass violin, therefore, the bass violin would have been preferred; 18 5) bass viols were not generally in use, according to two contemporary writers André Maugars (1639) and Thomas Hill (1657), who observed on their visits from Rome and Lucca, respectively, an absence of bass viols; 19 and finally, 6) because the gamba family, of which the violone da gamba was a part, was not used in church by professional musicians, and therefore, the violone da gamba would have been an unlikely candidate to realize the parts labeled violone that appear in Italian seventeenth-century printed music. 20

[5.2] In the spirit of scholarly dialogue, I would like to address Bonta's arguments (above), one-by-one. Starting with the lower range of the G violone, and assuming the violone parts in question are to sound at pitch, Bonta is correct to assert that the low G' string would not be needed for the overwhelming majority of literature in print. However, as he writes in a later essay, "early composers writing for the violin family tended to avoid the bottom strings and that someone felt impelled to invent the wire-wound string, implies that the bass strings then in use were less than ideal by the standards of the time." 21 By this measure, it seems unfair to dismiss the G violone because its lowest string would seldom have been used. It is one thing to assert that a particular instrument should be excluded if it is not able to play music on the page, but it is quite another to rule out an instrument if it is able to fulfill the pitch requirements (with an additional range below — or above — that exceeds the requirements of any given composition). Furthermore, the extended lower range on the G violone offers the potential of transposing a bass part down an octave in special instances (when a bass player would otherwise have realized the part at written pitch).

[5.3] Precisely what Bonta means by "violin style" is uncertain. If he is suggesting that the G violone was not able to perform rapid divisions and leaps, as found in solo literature for the violin, then he is unfortunately mistaken, since the solo repertoire for the G violone, which encompassed the full range of the instrument, can in fact be quite demanding. The string length of a G violone, which is normally between 85.0 and 95.0 cm, might require more strength in the left hand, yet its tuning (in fourths) and extended range makes this instrument very accessible. Additionally, the clarity of pitch in the lower range (facilitated by frets) — unequaled on the bass violin — can be achieved on the G violone. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, when certain bass passages with rapid string-crossing figures suggest a tuning in fifths would be more natural (I am thinking of some of Corelli's "violone" passages in particular), perhaps then it is reasonable to assert that a bass violin might serve as a better selection. But for the majority of bass parts labeled violone during the first seventy-five years of the seventeenth century, from a player's perspective, there is no reason to claim the G violone would be an inadequate instrument.

[5.4] With respect to Bonta's pure consort Klangideal, we simply do not have enough information at this time to conclude whether such an aesthetic existed in the mind of any Italian composer. The notion that ensembles typically performed strictly in families, excluding instruments from other families, is considered a little far-fetched nowadays. Certainly in England and the German-speaking territories during the seventeenth century, it has been clearly demonstrated that violins and lower pitched viols performed together. 23 If Bonta wishes to make his argument believable, he must provide further evidence that Italian composers desired pure consorts, or that pure consorts were the norm. Looking specifically at the early seventeenth century canzona repertoire, Bonta claims that composers (and their publishers) used the flexible designation "con ogni sorte di stromenti" on their title pages because "there were not yet enough instruments in existence to supply this new and sizeable need" ("Corelli's Heritage," p. 230). But this is speculation on the author's part, and we must leave open the question of a "violins only" aesthetic in the absence of further evidence. While it is clear that by mid-eighteenth century, orchestras throughout Italy consisted of violin family instruments, the presence of the G violone and perhaps its contrabass relative, the D violone, in the seventeenth century cannot be denied, let alone ignored and therefore, it poses a challenge to Bonta's theory.

[5.5] Bonta's suggestion that the G violone would be put out of commission by the more strident sound of the bass violin also seems to contradict performance suggestions made by early seventeenth-century writers Agostino Agazzari, Adriano Banchieri and Michael Praetorius. Praetorius's Syntagma musicum, which Bonta claims is "replete with information on Italian performance practice and instruments of his time" — specifically calls for the use of the violone, and not the "Gross Quint-Bass" or "Bass-Geig da Braccio" to support the bass line, especially in church music ("Catline Strings Revisited," p. 48). Furthermore, Bonta has argued that before the advent of wound strings, a longer string length was required to accommodate the lower bass range. If a performer or composer had to choose an instrument to play C', does it seem more likely that an instrument with an open C string of 70.0 cm would be selected over an instrument with an open C string of 90.0 cm? I propose that before the widespread dissemination of wound strings through Italy in the final decades of the seventeenth century, the G violone may well have provided a louder and deeper fundamental at 8-foot pitch.

[5.6] Moreover, descriptions by two foreigners, Maugars and Hill, who visited two different cities in Italy should not be seen as clear evidence that the viol had gone out of use in Italy. Even if both writers acknowledge the absence of bass viols at the events they attended, it is simply premature to conclude that viols were not longer in use in Italy. Tharald Borgir has examined the same documents and has suggested that, while their observations cannot be denied, we must take with a grain of salt how Maugars or Hill may have defined "bass viol." More specifically, the bass viol to an English- or Frenchman is likely not to have corresponded with the Italian bass of the gamba family. 24

[5.7.1] Finally, we come to Bonta's assertion that viols were not used in Italian churches by professional musicians in the seventeenth century. In "The Use of Instruments in Sacred Music in Italy, 1560-1700" (1990), Bonta reports only a single appearance of the -da gamba suffix in the nearly 130 collections of sacred prints calling for instruments. He writes, "In every other instance either the suffix da braccio (or da brazzo) has been appended, or the family to which the instrument belongs has not been identified" ("The Uses of Instruments," p. 524). Bonta's critical blind spot is evident from the key to the appendix of his article, where he has combined "violone or basso viola da brazzo" under the rubric "D," so that the reader will never know which term was used in print ("The Uses of Instruments," p. 526). By equating "violone" and "basso viola da brazzo" in this essay, Bonta has presented his findings rather inaccurately and further entangled the situation for future musicologists to unravel.

[5.7.2] A citation from Jambe de Fer (1556), where class distinction separates those who play viols ("gentleman, merchants and other men of virtue") from those who play violins ("who make a living from it"), is used by Bonta as evidence that only violin family instruments would have been utilized in church. Yet this distinction may not necessarily have applied to Italian churches in the seventeenth century, and it surely did not apply to professional players of the violone (da gamba). Nearly all of the archival documentation analyzed by Bonta — especially if the discussion is limited to instances of the term violone in conjunction with the -grosso, -grande, or -doppio suffix — points to the regular employment of performers on the bass and/or contrabass member of the gamba family, therefore calling into question Bonta's statement that only violin family instruments were played in church. In light of what may be learned from early seventeenth-century theorists regarding the use of the violone (as a large bodied gamba-family instrument), Bonta's hypothesis must be aggressively challenged.

Next: Conclusions