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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 9 June 2009

Canada’s ‘Hart House’ Viols Heard Again

by Crystal Chan / June 14, 2009

Renowned gambist and cellist Susie Napper has spearheaded the restoration of six 400-year-old violas da gamba that were languishing in Toronto’s Hart House. “It’s like finding six lost Strads in the same place!” exclaimed Napper. There are not more than a few hundred original viols still played. Many were destroyed during the French revolution; of those existing, most are from England.

Across Europe many early music instruments sit in storage, falling into disrepair. Remakes are much more affordable than restoration. The viol is a cousin of the guitar and lute, popular primarily in the 17th and 18th centuries. They have frets and six strings that are tuned similarly to a guitar, but can be bowed as well as strummed. Their construction also renders every note to sound like an open string. While not part of the violin family, it resembles a cello.

English experts are tracing the viols’ history. Two were made in England in 1598 and 1612, one is from Germany from the early 1700s, two smaller French treble viols date from the early 1700s and the late 1770s, and the last viol is difficult to date or place. Speculation is that Prince Albert, who loved early music, may have collected these instruments. The proof comes from labels found in most of the instruments from the Saint George Company, a London instrument repair shop that serviced the Royal family’s instruments. Somehow the viols arrived in Vancouver, and, in 1928, they were auctioned as a group in Vancouver and bought by Vincent Massey.

The viols, each of which has an exquisitely hand-carved head, had been sitting in the Hart House warden’s office in a 1673 dowry chest that served as a coffee table until 1997, when they went on display in a glass case. Scottish viol player Peggy Sampson played them infrequently with her York University students in the 1970s but it wasn’t until 2006 that two of them were played again. As a gambist and early-music enthusiast, Napper had heard about these instruments. “I thought: why not try to get them?” said Napper, who approached Hart House last July. Hart House was not interested in researching, repairing, or evaluating the instruments, so Napper was allowed to take them on loan. She then paid a visit to New York City’s William Monical, an early music instrument repair specialist. For the first time, all six were restored back to a playable state. Last fall, Les Voix Humaines recorded a landmark album of Purcell’s Fantasias with ATMA on the instruments. The album captures the colour and virtuosic capability of the Baroque instruments, rendering recitative passages with a clarity unattainable by modern string instruments.

The ‘Hart House’ viols will now be played together in public for the first time in at least a century, opening the Montreal Baroque Festival on June 25 with Henry Purcell’s 16 Fantasias. This will also mark the premiere of the 15th Fantasia’s missing half, a commission from Napper’s Les Voix Humaines ensemble completed by Matthias Maute. n

Catch the viols in action:

› June 25, 9:30 p.m.; Montreal Baroque Music Festival; Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours; www.montrealbaroque.com; 514-845-7171, 1-866-845-7171

› August 6, Ottawa; October 30 – 31, Toronto; November, Vancouver; November 19, Montreal


(c) La Scena Musicale