Volume 1, August 2004
A Critical Review

by Shanon P. Zusman

Studies in Italian Sacred and Instrumental Music in the 17th Century. By Stephen Bonta. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2003. [xii, 338 pp. ISBN 0-86078-878-4 $99.95 (cloth).]

3. The term Violone and the early history of the bass violin

[3.1] In these two essays ["From Violone to Violoncello: A Question of Strings?" (1977) and "Terminology for the Bass Violin in Seventeenth-Century Italy" (1978)], Bonta examines an overwhelming number of primary sources, including archival records, musical treatises, printed music and observations from letters or diaries of contemporaries. Surprisingly, however, he excludes two areas that would be of particular interest to scholars: iconographic sources and organological evidence. Extant instruments are dismissed entirely with the claim, "we lack trustworthy physical evidence — that is, either early instruments that are known not to have been altered, or maker's templates, such as those used by Antonio Stradivari for the alto and tenor viola and that survive" ("From Violone to Violoncello," p. 65). And Bonta provides no explanation for the absence of musical iconography in his research. 6 In order to build a case for the early history of the bass violin, one cannot ignore the physical evidence — even if it may require acknowledging that only a few large-sized violoncellos exist in museums today or if it involves judging certain artworks as more the result of the artist's imagination than a realistic depiction. It is a shortcoming on Bonta's part to have dismissed both types of primary sources in favor of archival documentation and printed materials alone. 7

[3.2] Bonta also examines the etymological evidence surrounding the term violoncello. Working in reverse, Bonta argues that the suffix -cello (as well as -cino) suggests that a larger model of bass violin, known as violone, must have existed and the new terminology (i.e., violoncello or violoncino) accounts for the violone being made smaller. Such a conclusion is not entirely unreasonable; by Italian language standards, the argument seems convincing ("From Violone to Violoncello," pp. 84-85). 8 Yet, in approaching the violone primarily from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, one wonders whether the author would have come to the same conclusions with a more thorough understanding of the earlier use of the term violone in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. 9

[3.3] Steering clear of a generic use of the term violone, Bonta asserts that "in our archival and musical evidence we shall see the necessity of considering the context within which a term is found" ("From Violone to Violoncello," p. 66). The author focuses on a number of Italian cities in order to ascertain more specifically whether a given composer intended or preferred one particular type of bass instrument. Bonta shows that the situation is a complex one which must be assessed locally. He accomplishes this by considering archival records and musical prints from Bologna, Bergamo, Venice and Rome. In his follow up article, "Terminology for the Bass Violin in Seventeenth-Century Italy," Bonta presents his findings systematically, reporting on his investigations of archival records town-by-town, demonstrating how scribes, performers and publishers often equate the violone with the violoncello (or violoncino) by referring to an instrument as the "violone" in one document and then by referring to the same instrument (or performer thereof) more specifically as "violoncello" in a related document or corresponding partbook. 10 Bonta is likewise careful to note when a scribe uses the term "violone" in one document and then "violone grosso" in another, illustrating an ambiguity that was often common.

[3.4] One cannot easily refute Bonta's conclusions on terminology when his observations are based on archival documentation. In fact, such a thorough investigation, done on a local level, is precisely what is required for gaining a better understanding of the use of stringed bass instruments at any point in our musical history. In this regard, Bonta's scholarship has paved the way for many scholars in the field. Indeed, the early history of the violoncello in particular owes a great deal to Bonta's work. For instance, Bonta finds the occurrence of the terms "violoncello" and "violoncino" appearing with much greater frequency in the final quarter of the seventeenth century, which he ties to the invention of wound strings, emanating from Bologna after its first appearance in print in 1667 ("From Violone to Violoncello," pp. 88-90; "Terminology of the Bass Violin," pp. 28-29). Bonta further sheds light in particular on the terms "bassetto," "viola da brazzo," and the Venetian "viola," which, he concludes, all refer most often to the bass violin. Yet again, as Bonta demonstrates, one must look closely at the period and city in question to support this claim beyond a reasonable doubt ("Terminology of the Bass Violin," pp. 28-40). In collaboration with the etymological evidence that a violoncello is a type of violone made smaller, it seems, therefore, reasonable for Bonta to conclude that the early bass violin may have been referred to as a violone in numerous instances. Yet, to say that the term violone (in the majority of instances) can only mean a bass violin is to go beyond what the facts will allow us to deduce. Bonta never makes this claim directly; however, he does seem to be clearly of that opinion as he remarks at the conclusion of one of his essays that in the process of exploring the various terms associated with the bass violin — which of course now includes violone — he has "enlarged the legitimate repertoire for the ‘cellist" ("Terminology of the Bass Violin," p. 42). This, he admits, unfortunately at the expense of both the gamba player and the contrabassist!

Next: The term Violone and the early history of the G violone