A compendium and catalog of viols, those violinlike stringed instruments beloved of Bach and other composers of three and four centuries past.
“The viola da gamba is not the ancestor of the cello!” So admonishes the author, whose late husband, Jim Caldwell, began assembling their world-class collection of viols in the 1960s, when the things were unappreciated if quite rare, and continued building it into the 1980s (it is housed at Oberlin College). Jim Caldwell became a leading authority as well as collector almost by default, as so few contemporaries were competitors; as the author observes, he set up the instruments himself because “few string repair people had specialized knowledge of viols and most treated them as second-rate cellos.” The 22 English, French and German viols highlighted here are things of beauty and utility, and one of the best features of the app is the presence of abundant sound files in which the author plays works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Le Sieur de Sainte-Colombe, Marin Marais and other Baroque treasures. There are also audio samples of each instrument playing the scales, so that listeners (of practiced ear, to be sure) can discern the differences among them. A poignant note is the author’s passing description of viols formerly in the collection but deaccessioned for various reasons, including to raise money to buy other instruments (“a fiscally wise, but emotionally cold, process”). The app’s one demerit lies in the navigation scheme, which is not as intuitive as it could be and offers no way to jump around within the 22-page catalog proper.
If you know why viols aren’t a cello’s granddaddy, this is just your cup of strings. If you don’t, you stand to learn a thing or two—and with Bach ringing in your ears to boot.