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The viola da gamba, once the darling among Renaissance and Baroque string solo and consort instruments, had all but been kicked to the curb of obsolescence by the nineteenth century, displaced by their louder and wider-ranged modern cousins. Fortunately for us, such early instruments experienced a revival in the twentieth century with luthiers interested in reconstructing them and players who could master them. Equally fortunate for us in western North Carolina is that fact that Gail Ann Schroeder, a very fine gamba teacher and performer, has made Asheville her home. She is the artistic director of Asheville Baroque Concerts and performs frequently as both a solo and collaborative artist.
Her recital "Da Sola" in the beautiful St. Giles' Chapel on the campus of Deerfield Retirement Community was the opening concert in Asheville Baroque Concerts 5th season. She showcased unaccompanied lyra-viol pieces, suites, and fantasies from 17th and 18th-century England, France, and Germany. It was so much more than a history lesson, though, as she displayed both consummate mastery of her instrument and a deep understanding of the style of its literature.
The viola da gamba, the so-called viol "of the leg," was a fretted six-stringed instrument held between the legs and bowed in the German fashion like a double-bass player. The bow is light, slightly arched, and the player's fingers actually touch the bow hair as part of the technique. The gamba came in assorted sizes, and as time went on, morphed into other iterations of itself, including the 6- and 7-string bass-ranged instrument – the so-called lyra viol. These instruments frequently used alternate tunings to mimic other instruments or to achieve different resonances. More on this can be found here. Equally challenging to the player is the fact that solo viol music was composed in tablature, a system of notation which directs the player where to place the fingers on the strings. This requires a new kind of study and scrutiny; as she explained, some of these letters can be mistaken for others!
As is often the case with loving old instruments, it becomes a necessity to buy many instruments, and Schroeder played at least four or five different instruments, due to alternate tuning schemes or the style of the literature. And, she tuned each instrument more than once before she played, because these delicate instruments with their gut strings are notoriously sensitive to atmospheric conditions. There are no fine tuners on these instruments either. You know the old joke: Why did the Renaissance last so long? It was because they were tuning and tuning and…. Indeed, one of the great challenges of playing a gamba is to play in tune, and she managed this beautifully.
The voice of the gamba is nasal and resonant, beautifully characterized as melancholy and introspective. Like the lute, the instrument invites you into its world for a quiet listen. It is music that has sonic space both during a phrase and at phrase endings; with this temporal freedom or elasticity the sounds have time to make their impact upon the listener. Schroeder was a master at this sort of expressiveness. Likewise, she could whip off the quickest licks with a mere flick of her fingers and bow. Stylistic details, such as the well-placed small vibrato on a key note, were exquisitely marked. Simply incredible playing.
Her program was riveting for its journey through time and countries. She began with some early viol music, with its aping of folk instruments such as bagpipes and hurdy-gurdys (from the Manchester Viol Book, c. 1660: The eighthe tuning: Bagpipes [Anonymous]). Next was a set of four short pieces from The First Part of Ayres, 1605 by Tobias Hume (c. 1579-1645): "A Pollish Vilanell," "My Mistresse hath a pretty thing," "Hit it in the middle," and "A Pavin." In these her instrument functioned more like a bowed lute, blending chords with the melodies they accompanied. From Lessons for 1, 2, and 3 viols, 1609 by Alfonso Ferrabosco II (c. 1575-1628) we heard three dance movements: Almaine, Coranto, Coranto. These were played on a tenor gamba, the tuning of which had been adjusted to achieve the desired higher timbre.
For the French set by Le Sieur de Machy (fl. 1655-1700) came a Prelude, Chaconne, and Gavotte en rondeau from Pièces de viole, 1685. With these works one could hear styles and forms that sound more familiar – improvisational, variation framework, and dance-with-refrain respectively. The Fantasias by Telemann, little suites of movements marked by tempo indications, were a revelation, as they only had been discovered in 2015. From 27 Pieces for the viola da gamba, MS Drexel 5871 by Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) we heard two movements: Adagio, Adagio. Schroeder remarked that Abel was one of the great pedagogues of the viol, and one of its last composers. One of these movements sounded like a written-down improvisation, with its sequence of arpeggios which gradually increased to encompass more and more of the instrument's range.
Schroeder's recital, historically informed and musically compelling, was a singular musical experience for this listener. Don't miss your chance to hear her.