The viols (or violas da gamba) are bowed stringed instruments, cousins to the violin family of our modern orchestra, and also relatives—actually decendants—of the guitar. Both families of bowed instruments, viols and violins, made their first appearance in Europe at the very end of the 15th century.
The commonly encountered members of the viol family are the treble viol, tenor viol, and bass viol, corresponding roughly to the violin, viola, and cello in the violin family and, like them, varying in size according to their musical range. An ensemble of three, four, five, or six viols of assorted sizes is termed a “viol consort.”
Unlike the two violinists, one viola player, and one cellist of a modern string quartet, all members of a viol consort usually play more than one size of instrument, and the sizes of instrument required can vary between one composition and another. This flexibility is facilitated by the fact that all viols are held vertically (cello-wise; in Italian “da gamba,” i.e. using the legs—which is why the viols are also known as violas da gamba). Consequently, the playing technique remains similar for all the instruments of the consort despite their considerable variation in size.
Lightly built, with a flat back, six or seven strings, and tied gut frets on the fingerboard, the viols are tuned similarly to plucked instruments such as the guitar or lute, and they share certain acoustical characteristics with these, being built in a way that favors resonance rather than absolute volume of tone. Perhaps because they are quieter than the violins, the viols had fallen out of widespread use by the end of the 18th century as the focus of music making moved from smaller private spaces to large, public concert halls.
After resting unseen, unheard, and all but unremembered for over a hundred years, the viols, along with other early instruments such as the harpsichord and recorder, started to be revived toward the end of the 19th century as early instrumental music began attracting devotees—few in number at first, but steadily increasing throughout the course of the 20th century and into the 21st. The Viola da Gamba Society of America, founded in 1964, currently numbers well over a thousand members, and the instrument is now taught at leading conservatories and music schools worldwide.
In addition to historical repertoire from the 16th through the 18th centuries, both the viola da gamba as a solo instrument and the viol consort as a chamber ensemble possess surprisingly large repertoires of new music from the 20th and 21st centuries from composers as diverse as Ottorino Respighi, Eric Saltzman, Peter Schickele, John Joubert, Thea Musgrave, Tsutomu Mizuno, and Elvis Costello.