The viola d’amore flourished in middle Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and has enchanted composers, players and makers since. It has six or seven playing strings, usually tuned as a chord, and six or seven sympathetic (resonating) strings, which vibrate freely beneath the fingerboard. Some early instruments, with strings tuned as a chord, had no sympathetic strings. The sound holes are usually in the shape of a flaming sword, and the peg-box is often crowned with a carved blind Cupid. Capable of a wonderful and unique range of colour, the viola d’amore is a difficult but fascinating instrument to play.


Elizabeth Watson, a prize-winning viola player, has given years to exploring this instrument, listening and playing at some half dozen international congresses of the Viola d’amore Society of America. She has given recitals and recorded with Robert Aldwinckle as well as performing and recording Telemann’s Triple Concerto with the London Harpsichord Ensemble. She has many times played obbligato in Bach’s St John Passion.

She has three violas d’amore: a baroque Bohemian instrument, one from Paris c1770 and an earlier Austro-German one with later French restoration. This latter instrument now has a chin-rest and suits later music.

Biber, Bach and Telemann wrote for the viola d’amore, as did Czech, Austrian and German composers in the era before Mozart. The French then loved the instrument, and Janacek, Hindemith and many modern composers have felt inspired to write for it.

A programme can be of Bohemian music (Stamitz, Benda, Toeschi, Rust, Hoffmeister), French music (Milandre, Casadesus) with harpsichord, or later music with piano (Hindemith, York Bowen, Gordon Tonson-Ward), or a mixture. Solo works by Kral, Edwin Roxburgh or Casadesus add variety. A short programme at lunchtime or late at night can be a special feature.

The viola d’amore blends beautifully with the viola, the human voice and the flute.