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The term violone (literally "large viol" in Italian, "-one" being the augmentative suffix, cf "minestrone" for "big soup") can refer to several distinct large, bowed musical instruments which belong to either the viol or violin family. The violone is sometimes a fretted instrument, and may have six, five, four, or even only three strings. The violone is also not always a contrabass instrument. In modern parlance, one usually tries to clarify the 'type' of violone by adding a qualifier based on the tuning (such as "G violone" or "D violone") or on geography (such as "Viennese violone"), or by using other terms that have a more precise connotation (such as "bass violin" or "violoncello" or "bass viol"). The term violone may be used correctly to describe many different instruments, yet distinguishing among these types can be difficult, especially for those not familiar with the historical instruments of the viol and violin families and their respective variations in tuning.
In modern usage, the term refers to the double bass viol, a bowed bass string instrument in early music groups performing Renaissance, Baroque and Classical era music on period instruments. Only a few players specialize in these instruments. Some use contemporary reproductions rather than actual historical instruments.
Types of violoni
There are several different instruments that have historically been called by the name "violone". Some of these can be loosely described as 'cello-sized' instruments, and play their parts sounding at the notated pitch (using organ terminology, we say those parts are played at '8 foot pitch'). Other types of violone are larger-bodied than the cello (sometimes as large or even larger than modern double basses) – most of those violoni sound their parts an octave below notated pitch (at '16 foot pitch'), but some types are flexible about which octave they play in. Ultimately, however, it is not the size of the instrument that determines the type, but rather the tuning that is utilized, which generally makes it possible to classify the instrument as a member of either the viol or violin family. Centuries ago, most players and composers were not precise in describing the specific type of violone they had in mind when that name was written on the page. Modern historians acknowledge the importance of distinguishing specifically which instrument a composer intended. Assigning specific names and classifying violoni as different types, as we are doing here, is a modern attempt to clarify things.
Loosely described, string instruments are made in families so that different sized members can play in different ranges, with treble instruments corresponding to the soprano and bass instruments corresponding to the lowest vocal range (or even lower). Members of the violin family are the easiest to identify in this way: with the violin corresponding to the soprano, the viola to the alto, violoncello to the tenor, and bass to the bass ranges of the human voice (historically, the violin family was made in more than just these 4 sizes: there were originally several sizes of violas, as well as instruments smaller than the modern violin, for example). The viol family also comprises instruments in a multitude of sizes. In North America in the 21st century, we classify them as 'treble' viols (soprano), 'tenor' viols (alto range), 'bass' viols (tenor range) and 'great bass' viols or 'violoni' (bass range).
When we refer to the historical term 'violone,' we must include almost all the instruments of both the violin and viol families (plus some hybrids) that functioned as either tenor or bass members of those families. As the name 'violone' really means (see below), truly, these are all large string instruments. It was not until relatively recently that players and scholars started to realize that there were so many types of violoni and that not all of them functioned or sounded like double basses. Because of this, the classification of violoni according to tuning, family and function makes it start to be possible to clarify composers' intentions at different times and places. The most important thing to remember is that different types of violoni sound (and often function) quite differently from each other.
Cello-sized instruments that may be called violoni
Cello-sized instruments are typically the 'tenor' members of the viol or violin families, though in fact their upper compass allows them to play in the alto range, and their lower compass may enable them to play in the bass (and even contra-bass) range. There are 3 types of instruments in this category:
- The bass viol. This is a 6-string member of the viol family, most often tuned in D.
- The bass violin. This was usually a 4-string member of the violin family, often slightly larger-bodied than the cello, and often tuned with each string a whole step lower than the cello (lowest string is B♭).
- The violoncello. This one is still used today, and is also known as the cello, found in modern symphony orchestras. It has 4 strings, tuned (lowest to highest) C,G,D,A.
Slightly larger than cello-sized instruments that may be called violoni
- The great bass viol, also sometimes called the G violone or the A violone. This is the next largest viol after the bass viol, usually with 6 strings, and it can be tuned in A or G. It can play lines at either 8' or 16' pitch, and there is a tremendous amount of music for it as a solo and chamber instrument (at 8'), as the bass member of the viol consort (at 8'), playing continuo lines (usually at 8') and functioning as a double bass instrument in large ensembles (at 16').
Double bass-sized instruments that may be called violoni
There are a number of instruments in this category, but not all so easy to differentiate by name. One is a true member of the viol family, and the others have much in common with the violin, but can't necessarily be described as genuine violin family instruments because their tunings, proportions and/or construction issues may be at odds with the other sizes.
- D violone. This is the largest member of the viol family, with 6 strings, tuned in D, a full octave lower than the bass viol.
- The Viennese violone was a hybrid instrument because it has many features of the viol family (frets, gamba shape, flat back), but as a 4 or 5 string instrument (with a D major tuning in 3rds and 4ths), it doesn't have a true viol tuning. It played almost exclusively at 16', though it was used commonly as a chamber and solo instrument (even from the 17th century) and was the preferred double bass instrument in the Viennese Classical period (c.1760–1820).
- Contrabass or double bass. These terms are again problematic from a historical perspective (often meaning something slightly different from a modern reader might expect), but here refer to 3 or 4 string instruments that (usually) do not have frets—of all the types of violoni, these are the ones that most closely resemble modern double basses. The strings may be tuned in 4ths (E,A,D,G like most modern double basses) or in 5ths (C,G,D,A, a full octave lower than the cello), and if there are only 3 strings, the missing string is almost always the lowest one (i.e. A,D,G or G,D,A). It may also be tuned in fifths (C,G,C).
Yet other types
Centuries ago, and even in modern days, there are players who changed or adapted their instruments in unique ways that can be difficult to summarize or generalize. In this category we might find bass viols that are tuned in E (instead of D), or where the bottom string is tuned an extra step lower, to a low C. Or we might find a contrabass/double bass tuned in 4ths, but with a top string a 4th higher than is now standard (C,G,D,A) or another contrabass/double bass tuned in 4ths but with its bottom string cranked down to a low D.
Both the violin and viol families came into use in the Western world at approximately the same time (c.1480) and co-existed for many centuries. That being said, during the Renaissance and early Baroque eras, the two families had different uses, and in particular, different social standings. Viols were primarily household instruments, played by well-to-do, educated members of society, as a pleasant and cultured way of passing time. In contrast, violin family instruments were primarily used for social functions, performed on by professional players.
During this 'early' period, the largest member of the violin family in common use was a cello-sized instrument, but quite often tuned a whole step lower than the modern cello (G-C-F-B♭). This isn't to say that there weren't larger sized violoni described in the violin family at that time, it's just that descriptions of those larger basses are fewer, and there are many different tunings possible. Also, at this early period, there was minimal need for an instrument that would function at 16' doubling an 8' bass line. Human-sized members of the violin family were at first used primarily for dramatic effect in operas (and other dramatic works), and later for similar dramatic effect in concerto grosso type 'orchestral' settings.
In contrast, large members of the viol family were much more common, and used from earliest times, playing their lines at 8' pitch. There is much evidence to show that Renaissance viol consorts were made of lots of large-bodied instruments. Great bass viols (with both A and G tunings) are described in numerous treatises, and there is a lot of solo and chamber music that necessitates their use because of its low compass. Some of this music is extremely virtuosic in nature (the viola bastarda pieces by Vincenzo Bonizzi, for example, exploit a 3 and 1/2 octave range). It's also clear that both women and men played instruments of this size - the preface to Bonizzi's 1626 collection is dedicated to the 3 daughters of his Ferrarese patron, for example, and there are also numerous paintings that depict women playing very large viol family instruments.
A very important technological advance occurred in the 1660s, centred in Bologna. This was the invention of wound ("overspun") strings. For bass instruments, this was hugely influential, because it meant one could now obtain good sounding low strings (that were not rope-like in diameter) without having a very long string length. It's at exactly this time and geographical area that the first use of the term "violoncello" comes into use, that what we now consider a 'standard' cello tuning (ADGC) becomes the norm, that a solo repertoire for the 'cello starts to appear, and that the 'cello starts to replace the G or A violone as the preferred bowed continuo instrument (see the excellent articles by Stephen Bonta for more detailed information). These advances for the 'cello were likely the first seeds of decline for the G/A violone. However, it was also this time period that saw the growth of instrumental ensembles, and the beginning of a taste for 'concerti' and 'symphonies.' For players/communities that had previously favoured G/A violoni as their main bowed basses, once the cello took over the 8' role, the larger bodied G/A violoni could be used as 16' doubling instruments. It's also from this time period (early 18th century) that most of the D violone tuning descriptions are documented. By this point, most of the other sized members of the viol family had died out (with the exception of the bass viol, which was cherished as a solo and chamber instrument). The largest members of the viol family (G and D violoni) were used in some regions even when other places had started to replace them with 3 and 4 string contrabasses/double basses. It is almost certainly for this reason that the modern double bass to this day is so varied, and lacks a standard form, tuning or playing style. The modern double bass combines features of both the viol and violin families.
When use of the word "violone" began in the early sixteenth century, "viola" simply meant a bowed, stringed instrument, and did not specify viol or violin. Historically "violone" has referred to any number of large fiddles, regardless of family.
The term violone is sometimes used to refer to the modern double bass, but most often nowadays implies a period instrument. As a period instrument, it can refer to any of the different types that are described, above.
"Violone" is also the name given to a non-imitative string-tone pipe organ stop, constructed of either metal or wood, and found in the pedal division at 16' pitch (one octave below written pitch), or, more rarely, 32' (2 octaves below written pitch).
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