Treble Viol by an Anonymous maker, French, c1700



The table is of two unmatched pieces, with knots above the bass soundhole, otherwise even grain with 12 to 8 growth rings per cm. The soundholes are C shaped.

The purfling is two lines of ink that in places are drawn rather carelessly unparallel. There is a circular arabesque design in ink below the end of the fingerboard, and similar quarter circles in each corner.

The back is of two pieces of maple with broad irregular flame sloping down from the center joint. There is no purfling.
The ribs are six pieces of similar wood, the flame sloping towards the neck on all but the center bass bout.

The original neck is of plain maple, integral with the head of a female wearing a flower and feather headdress. The back of the pegbox is carved with a leaf design with stippled ground. The sides are plain. Five of the six pegs appear to be original. They are dark brown with ivory pips.

The original fingerboard and tailpiece are maple with ebony veneer, and the hookbar is stained black.

The varnish is pale golden yellow.

Body length 36.9
Body width
      upper bout 16.9
      center bout 12.6
      lower bout 21.3
String length 37.5
Rib height
     top block 5.0
     fold 6.8
     upper corners 6.9
     lower corners 6.9
     bottom block 7.0

There is no label.

Bought in February 1974 from Tony Bingham, London

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French treble: inside of the top.

French treble: inside corner.

Michael Heale’s copy of the French treble, one of at least six he made.


Although the maker of this viol is unknown, comparison with the fewer than twenty surviving French trebles of known authorship suggests that it probably was not made in the same workshop as any of them. This small group of instruments includes examples by both Parisian and provincial luthiers, some of them well-known (such as Nicolas Bertrand and Michel Collichon), others less famous (Paul-François Grosset and Jean Ouvrard), and a few so obscure that their given names have been lost to posterity (Cabroly, Dieulafait, and Feyzeau). Nor does this anonymous treble bear a convincing family resemblance to any six-string pardessus by makers of the first half of the 18th century from whom we have no extant trebles (like Guillaume Barbey and Andrea Castagneri).

In 1974, shortly after acquiring this viol, Jim Caldwell called it "one of the rare full-sized French treble viols of this period," and indeed, among surviving French viols, pardessus (most of them with only five strings) outnumber trebles by a ratio of more than five to one. Other distinctive features of this anonymous instrument include the rosette and corner decorations drawn in ink on its table, unusually squared-off body corners, and soundholes positioned so that their lower eyes are entirely below the lower corners of the body.

Jim first saw this viol at the Alain Vian shop in Paris and fell in love with it, but the dollar was particularly weak at the time and he felt we could not afford it. So he passed on the opportunity but remembered the instrument. A number of years later, Tony Bingham wrote us about a French treble he had found. Jim determined it was the same one, and because now the dollar was much stronger, the viol cost 20% less than it had just a few years before, so he leapt at the chance to buy it. In the meantime, he had seen another treble at the museum in The Hague, also anonymous, having a similar head but a smaller body that seems to have been reduced in size.

We sent it directly to Michael Heale to do the little restoration it needed. One of the most wonderful things about this viol is that it is almost entirely original. Its neck, head, pegbox, five of the pegs, fingerboard, tailpiece, and hookbar are all original. There are even painted indications on the back of the neck to show where the frets should be positioned (these indicate a very low placement of the bridge!). The only work that Michael had to do was repair some worm damage on the back. While he had it in pieces, he took detailed drawings of the viol and later made a number of very successful copies.

This large instrument is a revelation regarding the setup of trebles. The neck is quite thin and the fingerboard is surprisingly wide. It feels under the hand like playing a bass in the high register. In the upper register the sound is magical, alternating between a soft flute sound and a brighter oboe sound. It has a severe wolf on the E string, usually around G-sharp, which we are able to control with a cork under the tailpiece. (Heale’s copies also have this wolf.) The lower register is not very good, so we have always used it as the top treble in a consort, and its voice has defined the sound of the Oberlin Consort of Viols. It is so sweet and has such fine quality that the other voices do not have to compete to be heard in a contrapuntal texture. We used this treble for the consort’s recordings of Henry Purcell and William Lawes.

We had one very disturbing incident with this instrument that came to us in such pristine condition. I was having trouble with the tuning pegs sticking and took it to a local repairperson, who had worked on Oberlin’s school instruments without problems. I presumed he would simply lubricate the pegs and possibly sand or polish them slightly to function more easily. I was dismayed when I picked up the viol to see he had rebushed the pegholes, drilling new holes in a completely untouched 17th-century pegbox. As in several other cases we were shocked at the lack of communication between a repairperson and us. Shouldn’t he have asked if we wanted a rebushing? Should we have imagined that anyone would do what he did without asking? Needless to say we never saw him again and, incidentally, the pegs still don’t work well.


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One might wonder why a French luthier would have made a large treble viol around 1700 when consort music had been out of style for a generation. In fact, Louis Couperin had written some beautiful music for the treble viol before his death in 1661 that was in no way like usual contrapuntal consort music. It was truly solo music with a basso continuo. Louis Heudelinne followed this tradition in 1701 with the Premier Livre de Suites de Pieces. The Prelude from the second suite is annotated “à jouer seul” (to be played alone), so it seemed ideal for this project. Since it is such a short movement and this is one of the most important viols in the collection, I added a Rondeau that is simple enough harmonically to be played without a bass line.

I have loved playing this viol over the years, largely because of its superb top string. The rest of the viol is challenged in the middle range by the strong wolf on the E string. I have never found good strings for the bottom strings but rarely use them in the consort playing I usually do on this viol. Nonetheless, I enjoyed using the instrument’s whole range when recording this solo piece, but was more comfortable on the high strings.