Having spent a large part of my life playing only the viola (when I was born I had two sisters who played violin and a brother who played cello, so I was naturally cast as the missing link) it came as a shock and a delight to discover the viola d’amore. I had a fleeting relationship with one in Italy in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until I left the Arditti String Quartet in 1998 that I began to play this instrument, if not “seriously” then at least often. Perhaps after leaving the quartet I somehow needed to replace the very full string sound I was used to having under my ears, and the viola d’amore more than responded to that need. Every player will tell you with shining eyes about the discovery of the magical quality of the sound of the strings under your ear when you play a viola d’amore for the first time!

Garth Knox's <i>viola d'amore</i>, made by André Sakellarides in Marseille in 2005 © Garth Knox
Garth Knox's viola d'amore, made by André Sakellarides in Marseille in 2005
© Garth Knox

The magic of the sound is largely due to the presence of a second set of strings, hidden underneath the first set. These “resonance” or “sympathetic” strings add an otherworldly echo to everything which is played, the effect being particularly strong for the player of the instrument. This encourages playing in a manner which elicits resonance, which is one of the most important things I learned from playing this instrument, and which can perfectly well be applied to any string instrument. It means reaching out with your sound in a way that invites sympathetic vibration or response – of a string, of a concert space, or even of a person. This is the opposite of projection, which is a one-way sending of the sound in a certain direction.

The viola d’amore is similar to the treble viol from the gamba family, but with no frets, and played not on the leg (gamba) but in the arm (braccio). This transformation allows two possible artistic directions. For violinists who want to expand their violinistic brilliance it makes simple arpeggios of D or A, some basic double stops and many harmonics much easier to play and more natural and charming to listen to, permitting a kind of virtuosity which would be impossible on a violin. For this purpose, there are many small violas d’amore with fewer strings (5 or 6) which favours the top half of the instrument, and a good example of this repertoire would be the Viola d’amore concertos of Vivaldi (of which there are seven).

Garth Knox © Pierre-Emmanuel Rastoin
Garth Knox
© Pierre-Emmanuel Rastoin

The other tendency for those “braccistas” like myself, who want to explore their darker, warmer “gambista” side, is to be drawn to bigger, darker instruments with more strings (in general seven, like the gamba). This is not a brilliant virtuoso repertoire, but rather a slower, warmer, richly harmonic approach based on resonance. The Partia by Biber for two violas d’amore is an inspirational masterpiece for this way of listening to sound.

I found such richness in this gamba-like world that I was inspired to transcribe some of the viola da gamba repertoire for viola d’amore (Tobias Hume, Marin Marais). Although the d’amore shares some of the spirit of the gamba, it does not share the tuning. Gambas are generally tuned in fourths with a major third between the fourth and third strings – which allows playing easily in most of the usual keys, especially using barred fingerings and frets. Holding the instrument in the braccio manner makes barred fingerings next to impossible and makes frets much less useful, increasing the reliance on open strings. This is why the d’amore is usually tuned to “open” tunings, where the open strings form a chord of D or A (major or minor) or similar and that's why their music strongly tends towards these keys. Gamba pieces in suitable keys for viola d’amore can work very well, for example the Folies d’Espagne by Marin Marais.

For the player, there are some notable physical differences between playing viola d’amore and viola: the d’amore neck is much wider than the viola's one and so the hand position in relation to each string is very different. In a way, this makes it easier to hold, if you accept the neck into the natural fork of the hand. The strings are much closer together, making it harder to isolate one individual string (the secret is not to try!) and making it impossible to use the kind of bow pressure on one string which one would on the viola (again, better not to try). Single line melodies are really an exception and not the best way to use the instrument, which is really made for harmony and resonance.

Although most people will discover the viola d’amore through the famous aria “Erwäge” in Bach’s St John Passion, there is a rich repertoire of original works from the Baroque period which includes the magnificent Partia for two violas d’amore and continuo by Biber, plus works by Graupner, Telemann, Vivaldi, Ariosti, Bach (as well as the aforementioned Passion, several cantatas also include a viola d’amore) and many others. More recently Hindemith (Kammermusik no. 6 and Kleine Sonata) and Frank Martin (Sonata da Chiesa) have contributed important works for the instrument, and in the world of opera it has been used by Meyerbeer, Puccini, Janáček and Prokofiev, among others.

Janáček is a case apart: he projected his passion for his young “muse” onto the viola d’amore and used it extensively but discreetly in several of his operas. He came out into the open about this with the String Quartet no. 2, “Intimate Letters”, which he composed for viola d’amore with two violins and cello. Only when the players protested at what they said was unrealistic, did he agree to the use of the viola instead, but he was bitterly disappointed by this. Working with some Janáček experts, I made a recording of the viola d’amore version with the members of the Diotima Quartet. It was an immensely rewarding project: some of the unusual things to be found in the “normal” viola part suddenly become clear: three part sustained chords, unaccompanied solos, extreme registers and so on make perfect sense on d’amore. The viola solos in this piece become even more poignant when played on d’amore, and the sound of the whole ensemble is softer and warmer, more touching and less triumphant.

My own personal ambition for this instrument is not only to explore the existing repertoire but also to expand it by creating new pieces. Among the most successful pieces which have been written for me, I would mention Solo by Georg Friedrich Haas, Risonanze by Olga Neuwirth, Inverno d’amore by Bent Sørensen (viola d’amore and small ensemble), a full scale concerto with full orchestra and electronics by Stefan Lienenkämper and two important pieces by Oscar Strasnoy: a “Pocket Opera” for singer and viola d’amore called Fabula, and a concerto for viola d’amore and Ensemble called D’Amore.

I myself have composed several pieces for the instrument: a quartet with violin, cello and clarinet (La Valse de la Vineuse), a mini-concerto with Ensemble (Air and Ground), a sextet for viola d’amore and five violas (Ockeghem Fantasy) and a solo piece called Cinq Petites Entropies. The d’amore is also a wonderful instrument for improvisation in many different styles – always new sounds to be found – and its naturally theatrical aspect makes it an easy fit for theatre and dance projects. Playing it has allowed me to strengthen my ties to my Celtic roots as it works very well in folk music, especially Irish music, being capable of imitating bagpipes, fiddle or harp in a very convincing way. It has also allowed me to touch upon the world of jazz and klezmer, in a recent project with John Zorn, based on his Book of Angels.

If any violinist, violist or other instrumentalist reading these lines has the secret desire to play the viola d’amore, I would strongly encourage them to go ahead and try: for me it has opened up many new stimulating and creative pathways, allowing me to explore all sorts of musical styles and artistic experiences – and I’m still in love with the sound(s) of it!