The Viola d’amore

Bach Museum Vla d'amore 2The viola d’amore is a unique instrument with a beautiful sound and design. It is also a mysterious instrument because of its unknown origins. This is a brief and general introduction to this instrument.

The Viola d’amore is a string instrument with a hybrid design. It was popular during the Baroque and Pre-Classical periods. Leopold Mozart describes this instrument  in his Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing as “a distinctive kind of fiddle which sounds especially charming in the stillness of the evening. Above, it is strung with six gut strings of which the lower three are 

 covered (i.e., are wire-wound like most modern strings), while below the fingerboard are stretched six steel strings, which are neither plucked nor bowed but are there merely to duplicate and prolong the sound of the upper strings. Unfortunately, this instrument suffers much from mistuning.”

J. S. Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann, Ariosti, Stamitz, Vanhal and others composers wrote chamber music,

hindemith viola d'amoresolo concertos and Opera and Cantatas Arias with viola d’amore.  In 20th Century, Hindemith, Janacek, Martin, Puccini were among the composers that wrote music for this instrument. Today composers such as Gene Pristker (New York City), Ana Viesnamev (Latvia) and others write music for the viola d’amore. The instrument has also been feature as solo in some film scores.

 Characteristics of the Viola d’amore:


viola d'amore 2The viola d’amore has a total of 14 strings, one set of seven playing strings are on the top of the bridge and a set of seven resonating or sympathetic strings running through the bridge and between the fingerboard and the neck of the instrument. The sympathetic strings are considered as a defining feature of  this instrument.  Nevertheless, before the 17th Century; there were viola d’amore without sympathetic strings.  Sometimes they only had 5 or 6 playing strings. Both types of viola d’amore, with and without resonating or sympathetic strings, co-existed during the 18th Century.

The five to six string viola d’amore instruments could fit the descriptions of another instrument, the Violleta; which was used in Telemann’s double Violleten Concerto in G major and pieces by other composers of the time.

In addition, there is also evidence that the viola d’amore used wire strings. These strings help to produce a unique sound, which was described in Fuhrmann’s writings in 1706 using the same words in L. Mozart description of a gut-strung instrument, “most lovely in the quiet of the evening”. This quote shows a consistency in the appreciation of its sound in the mind of the musicians and composers of the Baroque Pre-classical times.


The standard tuning for the viola d’amore is by fourths with a third in the middle in a D major or minor chord depending on the tonality of piece.  This tuning by fourth and third in the middle resembles that one of the Viola da Gamba.  This interval of  the third makes intonation a little more challenging, as pointed out earlier in L. Mozart’s quot. The instrument also uses the scordatura technique to play some of its music. Scordatura also makes it easier to play the instrument,allowing the performer to play chords for some tonalities and have better command of the instrument in awkward or difficult passages .

The instrument has a soft and beautiful sound. This characteristic along with the intonation difficulties and the scordatura technique, made the instrument less practical to use.  Therefore, the instrument was not use as much until its revival in the 20th century.


The body has the shape of a viol with a couple of sound holes shaped as flaming swords. These viola d'amore 3sounding holes contrast with the standard C holes on the viol and the f  holes on the violin families.

The viola d’amore is consider a hybrid because of its European Viol construction, in addition to its flaming swords sound holes and the sympathetic strings found in some Middle Easter instruments.  At first, some think that it was called the viola of the Moor, or in Italian and Spanish la viola del Moro. Later, it is suggested that this name changed to viola d’amore.  In some instruments there is a carving of a blinded Cupid at the Peg box, reinforcing the name of viola d’amore for this instrument.

Repertoire in more detail

The Viola d’amore has an extensive repertoire from early periods of Music History through today. During the 18th Century and the Classical period several composers wrote for this instrument. Among some of these composer are H.I. von Biber, J.S. Bach, Christoph Graupner, Georg P.Telemann, Antonio Vivaldi, Attilio Ariosti, Alessandro Scarlatti, Pietro Locatelli, Christian Petzold,  Joh. P. Guzinger, Joh. Heinichen,  Joh. Pepusch, Joh.C. Pez, J.J. Fux, Joh.  Mattheson,  Reinhard Keiser, Giovanni Bononcini,  Joh. Hasse, and J.J. Quantz during the 18th Century. During the Classical period in addition to the Stamitz family, other composers are F.A. Hoffmeister, Joh. Albrechtsberger, Joseph Eybler,  Franz Benda,  L.T. Milandre, J.B. Neruda, Giovanni Toeschi, F.W. Rust,  Heinrich Vetter, Luigi Borghi, Joh. Krumloffksi, Joh. Suess, Joh. Hoffman,  and Giov. F.  Giuliani.

On the 19th and early 20th Century, the viola d’amore solos appeared in operas by Meyerbeer (Les Huguenots), Massenet (Le jongleur de Notre-Dame), Erkel (Bank ban),Puccini (Madama Butterfly), Pfitzner (Palestrina) and G. Charpentier (Louise). Charles Martin Loeffler was a fine viola d’amore player who wrote some excellent music for viola d’amore. Perhaps, one of his best-known works is a symphonic poem — La Mort de Tintagiles which uses the viola d’amore in much the same way that Berlioz used the viola in Harold in Italy.

In the early part of the 20th Century some important composers wrote music for the viola d’amore. Paul Hindemith wrote Kleine Sonate for viola d’amore and piano (1923) and Kammermusik No.6 for viola d’amore and chamber orchestra (1927). Henry Casadesus wrote his 24 Preludes and much other music with viola d’amore which are still performed.  Other composers of the 20th and 21st centuries who have added to the repertory are: Frank Martin (Sonata da chiesa for viola d’amore and organ or string orchestra, written in 1938), A. Ginastera (the operas Don Rodrigo and Bomarzo), Janacek (the operas Katya Kabanova, The Makropulos Affair and the original versions of the Sinfionetta and the String Quartet No. 2), Prokofiev (Romeo and Juliet,ballet), Aurelio Arcidiacono, Siegfried Borris, York Bowen, Hans Gal, G.F. Ghedini, Armin Kaufmann, Vaclav Nelhybel, Dika Newlin, Cyril Scott,  Matyas Sieber,  David Finko, Richard Lane, Vazgen Muradian, Irving Schlein, and Hans-Werner Henze, to name some.

In the 21st Century composers are writing more music for the viola d’amore including viola d’amore performers such as Garth Knox.  I played some really interesting music by composer Anne Viesmanev from Latvia, a New York Premiere of a Concerto for Viola d’amore and Strings and a solo viola d’amore piece. In addition, works by composer Gene Pristker for viola and samplestra, as well as pieces for viola d’amore solo and Orchestra.