You may have been taken by the very evocative album jacket for Hélène Plouffe’s latest recording but are still wondering what a viola d’amore is. Is it the ancestor of the violin, is it played like a guitar?
Actually, the viola d’amore is a bowed, stringed instrument that started appearing at the end of the 17th century, initially in the Salzburg, Munich, and Bohemian regions and later in Italy, France and other European countries. Its origins are obscure, but it is likely that it evolved from instruments coming from the Middle East, Turkey and India, where instruments with additional resonating strings were common. The viola d’amore, like the viol, has sloping shoulders, flat back, high ribs and a rosette but it is played like a violin or viola held under the chin. It usually has a carved head instead of a scroll, the most common one being a blindfolded cupid, giving its name to the instrument.
The majority of violas d’amore have fourteen strings – seven playing strings and seven additional resonating or sympathetic strings – that go through the bridge and between the fingerboard and neck of the instrument. During the Baroque period, it was common practice to tune the viola d’amore in the key of the individual piece. Joseph Maier listed 16 different tunings for viola d’amore in his 1732 treatise Museum musicum. By the end of the 18th century, the tuning settled into one tonality though, which is the one that is most often used today: A - D - A - F’ - F#’ - A’ - D”
The viola d’amore was very popular during the Baroque and Classical periods. Composers who wrote for the instrument include Johann Sebastian Bach, Christoph Graupner, Georg Philip Telemann, Antonio Vivaldi, Alessandro Scarlatti, Pietro Locatelli, Christian Petzold, Johann Joachim Quantz, Joseph Leopold Eybler, as well as Johann and Carl Stamitz.