Zachary Cohen, the German Baroque,  and the Viola Da Gamba


Zachary Cohen (right) played a viola da gamba in an SPCO concert at St. Olaf College.

By Patrick Marschke

During this weekend’s exploration of the German Baroque, principal bassist Zachary Cohen performs on the viola da gamba, a not so distant cousin of the upright bass. We asked Zachary to elaborate on his introduction to the instrument and its similarities to the bass:

I started studying the viol da gamba three years ago when my interest in transcribing the highly virtuosic and improvisatory style of ‘viola bastarda‘ playing onto the double bass brought me to Europe. In Europe I was able to work with various artists that have been part of the “early music” revival movement such as Jordi Savall’s Hesperion, Marianne Muller, Randall Cook both on double bass and gamba. I immediately was thrilled about the similarities between both instruments and how they were connected.

There are many similarities between the double bass and gamba such as the underhand bow grip (as with the German bass bow-hold which I play with) and the tuning of the gamba is mostly in fourths like the double bass with the exception of a major third between the middle strings. The function of the gamba is similar to the bass in that it is accompanimental and in baroque music part of the “continuo” section (the continuous base of harmony) like the double bass, however, it is unique in that its function and capacity in baroque music allows it to come out of being purely accompaniment to being chordal as well as melodic–essentially like a bowed guitar. The gamba eventually became more or less an extinct instrument by the mid-18th century when it was replaced by the innovation of the cello as well as the double bass which were much more sonically powerful instruments only to reemerge at the end of the 19th century.

Most importantly, I met my wife, mezzo-soprano, Nerea Berraondo playing together during this time of exploration. Together we formed our group Aldatu (the Basque word for “change”) reimagining and experimenting with ancient music in contemporary interpretation.

For Bach, Telemann, and Buxtehude the instruments of the viola da gamba family were just some of the tools in their toolbox–new instruments emerged and others faded away in an instrumental survival of the fittest. With the resurgence and popularity of “early music” and performances such as this weekend’s, instruments like the viol and its peers like the cornett, recorder, harpsichord, and lute (to name only a few) are not only saved from extinction but reinvigorated within a contemporary context. Contemporary composers like Philip Glass, Donnacha Dennehy, and Tristan Perich write for these “historical” instruments, which calls the word “historical” to question.

Patrick Marschke is a Minneapolis-based percussionist, composer, and electronic musician trying to make all of those things into one thing. He is a member of the fluid soundmaker collective Six Families and occasionally writes about music for the SPCO, the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series, and Walker Art Center.