What is a viola d’amore?

The viola d’amore is a member of the viol family, having the shape of a viol, a flat back and no protruding edges. It has usually 6 or 7 bowed (or plucked) strings and 6 or 7 sympathetic or resonating strings (or sometimes none) below the fingerboard which colour the sound and can give a glow to chords. Since the bowed strings are usually tuned as a chord, they may be plucked while a melody is bowed. As a member of the viol family it is unusual in being played horizontally like a violin. The strings may be tuned according to the music played, and its range of sounds is enormous in its variety.

It is an instrument packed with symbols. As the viola of love, d’amore, its peg-box is often crowned with a blind Cupid. It is, however, sometimes seen as the viola da more, of the Moors, since its extra sympathetic strings may have been inspired by Asian instruments brought by traders. The sound-holes are in the shape of the flaming sword, described as defending the Garden of Eden after the expulsion of Adam and Eve. The shape of the flaming sword has been likened to an image of a figure rising to heaven consumed by fire. Yet another symbol is a rose often carved into the front of the instrument.

The viola d’amore was loved and played all over central Europe from the time of Bach until the time of Mozart, when music became more chromatic, and has been of special interest ever since. It is difficult but enchanting to play.

Because it has so many strings, the viola d’amore has a wide range of pitch, and the music often contrasts high and low notes. The arching of the bridge has to be fairly shallow, so it is often easier to play a chord than just one string. As these strings are usually tuned as a chord, the player can pluck a chord with the left hand while bowing a tune. Because of all these strings, the left hand can get lost among them, as can the bow!

In Bach’s days the strings were often tuned as a chord of C minor, but D major or minor were prevalent later. Henri Casadesus ingeniously composed his 24 delightful Preludes for an instrument tuned in a chord of D major, but each Prelude is in a different key.

The sound of the viola d’amore can be of ringing chords, reinforced by the sympathetic strings, or it can be of a veiled mysticism chosen by Bach for his St John Passion.

I’ve known an instrument collapse slowly because of the tension of all those strings!