Fleming, Michael (2011) Obfuscation or illumination: what ‘early English viols’ tell us about early English viols. In: The American Musical Instrument Society Conference on Musical Instruments, 18th - 21st May 2011, Phoenix, AZ, USA. (Unpublished)

‘Early English viols’ were the most renowned and desired throughout late seventeenthand early eighteenth-century Europe and became favored for repertoire beyond the imagination of their makers. Despite their importance in the history of the viol, only about 6% of extant antique viols were made in England before the Civil War, and only a handful survive from the sixteenth century. The rarity and compromised state of extant examples makes it is difficult to describe exactly what these viols were like, or to delineate the reason for their reputation. The paucity of physical data encourages researchers to treat the more copious material from later periods and other countries as evidence when discussing these celebrated instruments. Consequently, our understanding of early English viols tends to rely on data and concepts that are alien to that culture, and which may therefore obscure the particular characteristics of these viols. Furthermore, some attempts to understand and perform early English viol music are informed more by current performance fashions than by factors that influenced the composers and players of the time, prominent among which were the particular capabilities and limitations of the instruments themselves. The Making the Tudor Viol project addresses these problems by synthesizing evidence from a variety of sources including documents, images, instruments, and music. Considered together, they will enable the creation of a more realistic view of early English viol-makers’ work and its context, and lead to a fuller understanding of these important instruments. This is essential for scholars, performers and instrument-makers who all have an interest in knowing as precisely as possible what these viols were like; it will also improve our understanding of their influence on later viols and their music. This paper explains the Making the Tudor Viol approach using illustrations drawn from its early findings. The early indications are that the nature and practices of early English viol-makers were more distinct from say, sixteenth-century Italian lute makers, or later English viol makers, than is generally assumed. Findings about makers’ physical and intellectual resources will be reported, and the implications for our understanding of early English viols will be discussed.

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