St John Passion and the violone

Bach's St John Passion at St Mary's Cathderal on Monday 14 April at 7pm
Right after the last performance of the St Matthew Passion in Melbourne, I was sent to the airport to catch a flight to make it in time for rehearsals in Sydney for my next performance of the St John Passion. Unlike the Melbourne Bach Choir's performance, which was performed on modern instruments, the SJP at St Mary's Cathedral is a small-scale, period instrument performance. In addition to playing the gamba solo, I am also performing continuo on the violone, otherwise known as the double bass viola da gamba.

This performance has convinced me to commission my own violone. For years, I have been borrowing an instrument from the conservatory, an instrument based on the famous Maggini violone that is housed in the Horniman Museum in London. While this instrument has served me well for all this time, it would not be my choice of instrument for a commission; after all, a Maggini is a shortish (string length wise) late 16th/early 17th century instrument that would not, strictly speaking, be suitable for most of the baroque repertoire I tend to perform. Having said this, most historical instruments that are used as models for instruments used in performing music nowadays, take for example Stradivari's violins, do not belong to the period in which the music was originally conceived. I think most people would agree that at least an early 17th century violone would have more similarities with a late 17th century violone than a true baroque Strad would with a modern Strad. 

Contrebasse de viole attributed to Zanetto (front view).
Contrebasse de viole attributed to Zanetto (side view).

Some candidates for a newly commissioned violone include the instrument attributed to Zanetto in the Musée de la musique in Paris. This instrument, like the Maggini, is probably a late 16th-century instrument. It is a little larger and would probably better accommodate the stringing of a violone in D. The instrument was probably modernised at some stage so that it could be used as a double bass, as seen with its current neck which is probably not original.

Contrebasse de viole by Simon Bongard, 1663.

Another instrument that I am also quite attracted to is an instrument by a certain Simon Bongard, 1663, which is also housed in Paris in the Musée des arts et métiers. Unlike the Zanetto, this instrument is very 'viol' in appearance especially because of its C holes and the lack of pointy corners (what is the proper term?). Like the Zanetto, this instrument also does not have an original neck; in fact, the neck on the Bongard seems rather crude and amateurish compared to the rest of the instrument. Perhaps it was a quick job by a later luthier who simply wanted to get this instrument up and running as a double bass. One can only imagine what happened to the original neck, which may have been a wonderfully carved masterpiece that viols of the period tend to have. 

The problem with commissioning such a typically viol-looking (and perhaps viol-acting) instrument is that it would not be associated with 'orchestral' use. The modern-day violone is typically used, in my experience at least, as an orchestral instrument as a substitute or more 'authentic' version of the double bass. An instrument that looks a like a French viol and used in such an orchestral setting may, at least in the view of the modern-day performer, seem out of place. As it is, normal bass viols are not seen with modern orchestras unless they are tackling Bach's passion music. An instrument of the Italian tradition, like the Zanetto with its violinish shape and F holes, would likely be more welcomed in an orchestral situation. Although the modern-day baroque orchestra has little basis in historical practice, it is a product of modern orchestral practice and any expectations of instrumentation are based on those modern views, which are often slightly altered to exhibit certain unconventional 'baroque' features. In short, an instrument that looks more like a double bass, but with 'historical' features, will be more likely 'accepted' and used in concerts than a large, French contrebasse de viole.