Meet the Band: Rebecca Landell and her viola da gamba

NOT a funny cello: Discover the unique magic of the viola da gamba

You’ll see them at almost every Les Délices concert: Mark Edwards behind a beautiful, black and red harpsichord, decorated in elaborate chinoiserie and Rebecca Landell, nestled close by with her viola da gamba in hand. Together, Rebecca and Mark form the basso continuo section of the LD band. Before we learn how these two musicians create the harmonic foundation of the ensemble’s sound, let’s explore the unique magic of the VIOLA DA GAMBA.

Meet the viola da gamba

First off, what’s in a name? “Viola da gamba” means “viol of the leg,” which is how this instrument is played: gripped between the player’s legs. The viola da gamba, often shortened to just gamba, is one member of the viol family of bowed string instruments, which came in a range of sizes. Though the viola da gamba is roughly similar in size to the modern cello, (which Rebecca also plays!) it has many unique characteristics, including:

  • Frets! Like the guitar, the viola da gamba is a fretted instrument, meaning it has raised strips on the neck that help players stop the strings accurately. (Cellos don’t have frets.)
  • 5-7 strings, tuned differently from cellos and violins (cellos and violins only have 4 strings) 

What does it sound like?

  • Warm and rich: Compared to the brighter, more projected sound of a cello, the viola da gamba’s tone is mellower.
  • Smooth and nuanced: The fretted nature allows for easy playing of chords and ornaments that contribute to its expressiveness.
  • Intimate and introspective: Due to its softer volume and darker timbre, the gamba often evokes a sense of intimacy and reflection.

Specific qualities:

  • Low register: The bass viols have a particularly deep and resonant sound, while the treble and tenor gambas offer a more focused, viola-like range.
  • Woodiness: The instrument’s construction and gut strings (or modern equivalents) contribute to a characteristic woody quality, distinct from the brightness of violins.
  • Varied articulation: Because of the “underhand” technique of bowing, the viol’s articulation has a very vocal quality, conveying a wide range of emotions.
The viola da gamba is a crucial part of any period instrument ensemble, especially for groups like Les Délices that specialize in French baroque music. Let’s listen! Enjoy this curated playlist featuring the sonorous, expressive sound of the viola da gamba:

We’ve explored how the sound of the viola da gamba differs from the cello. There are also some strong aesthetic differences between the viola da gamba and cello:

  • Shape: Where the cello has a curved back, with shoulders that create a sharp corner with the neck, and F-shaped sound holes, the viola da gamba has a flat back with sloping shoulders  and C-shaped sound holes.
  • Head: At the top of the instrument, the cello has a scroll-shaped head with a pegbox for tuning the strings, whereas viola da gambas often feature heads carved with animal or human figures or otherdecorative patterns. 

Eager to experience the viola da gamba live? Catch Rebecca Landell’s “luminous” playing at any upcoming Les Délices concert!