Lyra Viol: a Tale of a Revenant Lady

A few years ago, leafing through some of the works by Alfonso Ferrabosco II, I was struck by their sheer beauty and by the number of his output, including all his composition for solo lyra. I soon became very passionate about the music written for this instrument. The source of the solo works is the print that appeared in 1609, titled “Lessons for 1.2. and 3 viols by Alfonso Ferrabosco, printed by Thomas Snowdham for Iohn Browne, London 1609." Ferrabosco presents there three tunings, different from the commonly used one “D-G-c-e-a-d”. Ferrabosco, the initiator of the literature for this instrument, to the point of having quite rightly reached the status of an Avatar, exerts a huge influence on the future generations of composers, Coperario, Lawes, Corkine, Jenkins, to name just a few, and followed by many in the Manchester lyra viol book. Driven by my yearning to know this music more in depth, I set out to develope an idea for the construction of an instrument tailor-made for the performance of the works composed for lyra viol. This task seemed to be a bit daunting, considering the lack of any instrument come down to us.


My idea is based on contemporary sources and on the work of some pioneers who had already attempted this task of reconstruction. I have also made the most from my personal experience made directly on another lyra of my collection. Once developed, I have passed on my idea to a trusted viol maker for the actual construction.


The Idea

I was facing a number of questions, to which I should find appropriate answers. In details, these were :


what was the best scale length, the vibrating string length, and consequently, what were the dimensions of the body ;


should the instrument have any sympathetic strings, in this case how many, of which material, and how were these to be tuned ;


To which pitch was the instrument going to be tuned.


An examination of the music for lyra viol reveals that for a hand of normal dimension, a scale length of around 60 cm. Would be appropriate. This to allow a satisfactory fingering of multiple stops that are conceived just as those for the lute. Moreover, this keeps at bay the possibility of developing muscular pains and tendinitis. [A. Otterstedt, Chelys: Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society, v. 20 (1991) pp. 43-51]. Annette Otterstedt herself was indicating this measure and the dimension of a small bass, mentioning specifically the model by John Rose of 1598, now in custody of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford [A. Otterstedt, "L'Echo de la Viole, 2000"]. All this agrees with the experience of the maker Shem Mackey [The Viol, 2012 (28) Viola da Gamba Society of Great Britain].


On another lyra of my collection, a first-rate work by the maker Alexander Batov, I had opted at the time for the measure of 67 cm., in spite of the specific advice against it by the luthier. On this occasion instead, I had finally decided for a measure of around 60 cm., adhering both to the consensus across the board, and following my personal experience. From the vibrating string length the dimensions of the body can be easily extrapolated.


Regarding the tuning pitch, contemporary sources do not provide much information other than indicating that the top string should be tensed as close as possible to its breaking point. To understand the concept of pitch in the Renaissance, we must abandon our modern attitude pivoting around the idea of a fixed pitch and notes that are set to an absolute and steadfast frequency. In actual fact, in a musical world ruled by solmisation, the practice of transposition was sovereign. The natural, soft and hard hexachords were by their instrinsic nature the source of it. If a lyra of 60 cm. Scale were to be tuned in D at the pitch of A = 415 for example, it would be far too low. Not only would one incur in serious problems when stringing the sixth string in a naked gut to be tuned “A” in the the two most extreme tunings, “The Second” and “The Third”, but the music would also lack the necessary lustre. This instrument calls for a higher pitch, that is at A = 500, eqivalent to a standard tuning in F at the pitch of A = 415. It makes sense, when considering that a tenor viol of around 54 cm. Scale is tuned in G, then a big tenor like our looks well suited to be tuned in F. Not only will the top string be compatible with an instrument whose scale is around 60 cm., but the bottom one will manage to reach low in the deep register of the bass, down to the low C of the two most extreme tunings. All this with a historical all-gut stringing. Drawing my solution, I have taken into account how compatible the top string would be ith the bottom one across the three historical tunings that Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger presents us. They are, as they appear in the order of his publication of 1609 :


“The First Tuning” ;


“The Second Tuning” ;


“The Third Tuning”. 


The first funing, or lyra way (Bandora) includes the intervals of a fourth, a fifth, a fourth, a major third, and a fourth. These are indicated in the tablature by the letters “f-h-f-e-f”. [These, in their turn, signify on which fret one should place a finger in order to obtain the same note on the next higher string.] The letters of the aplhabet denote in ascending order “a” for an open string, “b” for the first fret, “c” for the second one, and so on.


The second tuning, also known as “fifths”, features the intervals, from low to high, of a fifth, a fourth, a fifth, and two fourths. In the print of 1609 these are indicated by the letters “h-f-h-f-f”.


The third tuning, also known as “eighths”, consists entirely of intervals of fourth and fifth, in this case starting at the bottom with a fourth. In tablature this is noted by “f-h-f-h-f”.


With my intent to change the least number of strings across these early three historical tunings, I set off from the following :


vi : C

v  : F

iv : c

iii : f

ii  : a

i   : d


for the first tuning.


Moving on to the domain of the two other most extreme tunings, one needs only to change the first and second strings respectively to “f” and “c”, opting obviously for adequate gauges. At this stage, and having not touched at all any other string, we secure the third tuning [eighths].


In order to procure instead the second tuning [fifths], the two top strings, first and second, can stay put at the same notes of “f” and “c”. It will only suffice to shift the third and fifth strings from the “f” up to “g” ( set at a distance of one octave).


Most certainly Alfonso Ferrabosco was one among the first to play a lyra viol. From the descriptions by Michael Praetorius [Syntagma Musicum, II, De Organographia, 1616] and John Playford [Musick's Recreation on the Lyra Viol, lyra-way, 1661] we can infer its features, although in the process of reconstruction there are a few gaps to be filled in. I deemed necessary to equip the instrument with sympathetic strings so to that the lyra could retain its distinctive character. This agrees with both descriptions. The sympathetic strings also affect drastically the way of playing. In bowing a note, one should take in good consideration the resulting resonance, and when this is going to fade away. This in order not to interfer with the following notes, when these are incompatible. However, it must be said that it is not always possible to damp the sound as one would do on a Celtic harp. These strings confer quite a unique colour of sound. In short, a lyra preserves its special colour, just as a theorbo and a “liuto attiorbato”, or an archlute do in a similar way. It seemed to me desirable to have the eight resonance strings, agreeing thus to the description by Praetorius. With eight strings it is possible to have at one's hand a mixolydian scale, starting from a low “c” one octave higher the sixth bowed string. On this basis, I could also see the possibility of varying the notes “e”, “f”, “b” beside the low “c” for whoever wished to do so.


Making the Instrument

I turned to Marianna Ercole and Nedim Dervic, owners of the luthier's workshop “Ca'Rion”, located in the historic town of Mondovì, in the heart of Piedmont, Northern Italy, sourrounded by beautiful rolling countryside. They have responded with enthusiasm, in spite of different forthcoming issues demanding to be addressed.


Firstly, the model by J. Rose of 1598 kept in custody at the Ashmolean Museum required to be scale to obtain the right proportions, and ultimately end up with a vibrating string length of around 60 cm.


Secondly, the presence of the extra set of strings required to consider whether the belly had to be strengthened.


I still had doubts regarding the number of resonance strings. Was it going to be possible -  for the eight that I wished – to be set inside the neck without interfering with each other and so generating undesirable buzzings?


Besides, my wish was that the low resonance strings would be tuned just one ocatve higher – rather than the usual two – to their respective open bowed ones. This required a precise calculation of the gauges of the copper strings that were apt to this purpose.


Moreover, I suggested a reverse set up of the sympathetic strings. These were to be anchored in the peg box and from there leading to tuning pins – like those of a harpsichord – that were inserted in the lower block. I would have been able to tune the resonance strings by means of a tuning-key commonly used for harpsichords. A number of viols has come down to us that present plugged-in holes on the lower side, and it cannot be ascertained in a definitive way whether these holes were to host anchoring or tuning pins. There is a viola d'amore made in Salzburg by an anonimous maker, festoon-shaped, that features this reversed set up. It is in  custody of the V&A Museum in London. In my experience of handling resonance strings, I had found that these hold fairly well their tuning, as they are made from metal and thus do not demand to be tuned as frequently as gut strings. Tuning comfortably with a harpsichord tuning-key only requires to lay down horizontaly the viol on your lap, once the bow has also been put down to free one's hands. Besides, the advantage of the reverse set up consists of having a peg box of normal dimensions, as it contains only the six bowed strings.


Following a few consultations, Marianna and Nedim advised me that the instrument should have without any doubts two separate bridges, one for each set of strings. Their task then was was to find the ideal location for the smaller bridge, supporting the resonance strings, so that the desired and ideal inclination of the neck could be maintained. Their solution was just brilliant. They also cared to cover the anchoring pins in the peg box with decorative caps made from white bone.


In the end, they presented me a viol that was structurally very flexible and resonant, just as I was expecting from one made with the technique of bending strips for the top. This technique was also historically accurate. Moreover, I could now benefit from having eight wonderful sympathetic strings, just as requested! The viol showed on its exterior features of high refinement. I suggested that it could be oil-varnished, so Marianna and Nedim were really keen to go the extra mile to satisfy my wishes even from the point of view of its external appearance. More information and some impressive photographs can be admired directly on their website “Ca'Rion”.


What is more, this lyra can be listened to and observed in playing action in my series of 14 videos recorded live, dedicated to the music of Alfonso Ferrabosco the Younger.


The viol was handed over to me in June 2019, fully equipped with all the necessary strings needed to play the three historical tuning invented by Alfonso Ferrabosco. Its construction demonstrated how competent Marianna and Nedim were, professional and ingenious, enthusiastical and really passionate for beauty. Furthermore, I must say that I was very impressed on how flexible they had been, admiring their capability and will to listen to me, really appreciating their genuine intention to meet all my requirements for the rendering of a wonderful viol.


Oreste De Tommaso, Clochan, Scotland, 15 November 2021