Bach Gamba Sonata
You can now find a recording I made of the first of J.S. Bach’s Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and obbligato continuo on the Media page (just the first movement at this point). Obbligato here refers to the fact that the harpsichord part is fully notated for both left and right hands. Most often, in Baroque compositions, only the bass line and what are known as “figures” are supplied for the keyboard player. The performer must then fill in the absent notes in order to appropriately accompany the primary voice. In this case, however, the harpsichord finds itself on equal ground with the gamba and in many moments comes dangerously close to overpowering its stringed partner.
What you hear in my recording is a bass viola da gamba, however, the instrument is part of a family of viols which come in many different sizes. Below is a picture of the great Spanish gamba player, Jordi Savall, with a treble gamba that looks to be of very early origins, perhaps even Medieval:
The gamba is a cousin to many ancient stringed instruments such as the horse head fiddle of Mongolia or the erhu of China. Savall has done much to bring attention to this connection by performing traditional folk music on the gamba. See this fantastic example of a Turkish traditional tune: