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).]

4. The term Violone and the early history of the G violone

[4.1] The only time Bonta falls short of making a convincing argument is in his preliminary remarks, when he tries unequivocally to rule out the use of the most popular form of Italian violone in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: the violone tuned G'CFAdg. Commonly known today as the "G violone," this instrument enjoyed great popularity in German-speaking lands throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and even early eighteenth centuries and although Italian theorists may not discuss the instrument in great detail after Pietro Cerone (1613) or Giovanni Battista Doni (1640), it is hard to argue that the instrument virtually disappeared from musical life throughout Italy, as Bonta suggests. 11

[4.2] Turning now to Bonta's treatment of the G violone, one questions whether it may in fact relate more closely to the terminology encountered in seventeenth century Italian instrumental music than the author acknowledges. Bonta claims that "the term violone was not associated with the viol family by any Italian theorist after 1609," and with two exceptions — Banchieri's "violone da gamba" described in L'Organo suonarino (1611) and Prandi's "violone" in Compendio della musica (1606) — the instrument, without its "-da gamba" suffix, loses its identity as a member of the viol family ("From Violone to Violoncello," pp. 73-77).

[4.3] Bonta's rationale is problematic for three reasons. First, he should have also mentioned that no Italian theorist after 1609 ever mentions the violone as a bass violin. The observation that theorists seemed to have defined the violone as neither a member of the violin- nor the gamba- family might seem to point to a generic use of the term violone for the remainder of the century. Second, again for accuracy's sake, Bonta might have mentioned that the "-da braccio" suffix appended to violone is equally rare. The term "violone da brazzo" (i.e., "brazzo" appears as a variant of "braccio") appears only in a few sources: in Giovanni Ghizzolo's Quem terra pontus (1624), in the bass partbook of Mauritio Cazzati's Opus 15 (1654) and in Giovanni Battista Vitali's 1666 publication, in which he calls himself a "suonatore di violone da brazzo" ("From Violone to Violoncello," p. 78-79). Third, it appears Bonta's "suffix argument" may not be the best foundation for this discussion, as we note that Banchieri, in later editions of his treatise (2nd ed., 1611 and 3rd ed., 1638) drops the suffix and even the term violone altogether (substituting "viola basso") yet is still clearly describing the instrument that was formerly known as violone da gamba. It is curious to note that Bonta, who is doubtless well aware of the subtlety in terminology for Banchieri's instrument, does not explore the ramifications of this rather generic usage. 12 One might argue that if the term violone had been understood by early seventeenth-century musicians, composers and theorists to refer primarily to bass instruments of the gamba family, Bonta's theory that the violin family as default family for the violone (without suffix) is less persuasive.

[4.4] After a close examination of printed music emanating from Italy in the seventeenth century (where the bass part is most often labeled violone), Bonta concludes that in the absence of qualifying terminology (such as violone grosso, violone in contrabasso, violone doppio, violone grande, violone grande contrabasso, or simply contrabasso), the term violone by itself refers to a stringed bass instrument at 8-foot pitch. 13 Especially in the popular trio sonata genre, Bonta argues that because of the sonority which would result with two soprano instruments and one sub-bass instrument in combination and because of the technical demands imposed by the bass parts, it is fair to say that "another, nontransposing instrument [in addition to the two violins] was intended" to play the bass part ("From Violone to Violoncello," p. 75). While this conclusion is not without precedence, the author would have benefited from expanding his argument, as a statement like this is bound to offend a number of contrabassists who are able to realize the more challenging parts with clarity and precision. If, however, one looks more to the consort music, dance music, or instrumental canzonas of the sixteenth century and early seventeenth centuries as a suggestion for instrumentation in the trio sonata genre — which Bonta has in fact done in other studies — his argument here holds more water. 14

[4.5] If we can accept for the moment that the term violone was not synonymous with contrabass in seventeenth century Italy (note: Bonta is not arguing anything about the sixteenth century, the eighteenth century, or music outside of Italy), then we are left with a choice: the term violone may refer to a bass instrument of the gamba or violin family. Most musicologists and early music performers would be content at this point to accept a generic sense of the term; in other words, by violone we are to understand a stringed bass instrument such as the bass violin, bass viol, or perhaps Banchieri's "violone da gamba," so long as the instrument plays at 8-foot pitch. This conclusion, however, does not sit well with Bonta, who goes on to argue why the term violone would not have been used in a generic sense and why it would not have denoted a gamba-family instrument.

Next: Principal objections to Bonta's conclusions