The Pardessus de Viole

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Left to right: Quinton, Pardessus, Pardessus, Quinton


5 string Quinton

Virtuoso players in the 18th century

Only two players achieved ‘virtuoso’ status on the pardessus with their performances in Paris during the 1740s and 1750s at the Concert Spirituel, causing quite an enormous stir.  Madame Levi, a player from Rouen and possibly a pupil of Heudeline, performed no less than 12 times in 1745, with virtually all of her performances co-coinciding with motets by Lalande, and works by Blavet, Mondonville and Guignon, played by the composers themselves.  What Madam Levi herself played isn’t known, but is seems unlikely that she would have performed her own compositions, rather adaptations of violin sonatas or concertos on the  pardessus de viole.

Her playing quickly aroused unanimous praise throughout France, for people were amazed by the brilliance and technical virtuosity presumably unheard of before in public.

 Michelle Corrette described her as ‘The Celebrity – Madam Levi’.  Her sister Madam Haubault, was also a virtuoso pardessus player and performed at the Concert Spiritual during 1750 to 1762.

The most well-known performers of the pardessus de viole were undoubtedly the daughters of Louis XV to whom many of the works were dedicated.


Repertoire for the pardessus de viole

While over 250 publications from the 18th century mention the pardessus de viole as a performance possibility, only a small amount of music was written expressly for it.  It was commonly used as a violin or flute substitute.  However, in the case of pieces written expressly for the pardessus de viole we do sometimes see the opposite as with Barthélemy de Caix’s 6 Sonatas for Two Five-stringed Pardessus de Viole, Violins or Bass Viols, perhaps the most challenging pieces in the instrument’s repertoire and very similar to Leclair’s Sonatas for Two Unaccompanied Violins.  Several other works by composers such as Charles Dollé and Pierre Hugard give the violin as a pardessus de viole substitute.  The composer, Lendormy even wrote pieces for the pardessus de viole and violin to play in dialogue, though sadly these have been lost. The recent discovery of Boismortier’s Op 63 for two 6 string pardessus is an important find.

Up until the late 1760s there was a practice of playing transcriptions  of Marais’s and Forqueray’s music as well as music by other composers such as Charles Dollé and Charles Henri de Blainville.  In 1759, the composer Villeneuve published a selection  from Marais’s Five books, Piece de Viole and on the title page writes;

Ajustées pour les pardessus a viol, a cinq cordes.


The change from viola da gamba to pardessus de viole

Viola da gambists switched to the pardessus to enable them to continue playing the viol later into the 18 century as the violin family became more popular.

Ancelet, Observations sur la musique, les musiciens, et les instruments (Amsterdam,


“The bass viol is now confined to the apartments of the supporters of the old style of music, who, being entertained by it all their lives, seem to want to perpetuate their tastes and inspire their children and especially their daughters, for decency’s sake to prefer the pardessus to other instruments, as if it would be less respectable to place the violin on the shoulder than the pardessus between their knees”.

In a  letter to Louis XV, Pierre-Louis d’Aquin gives an interesting insight:

–  “the masters of the viol have sadly seen their instruments fall into disuse, but have had recourse in the 5 string pardessus de viole, a strategy that has succeeded, because we always need something new.”

6 string Pardessus de viole


Bowing the pardessus de viole overhand

The last surviving method for the pardessus, written in 1765, is by C.R. Brijon (writing under the name Poseul de Verneaux). It mentions the ‘new method of bowing for the violin that places down-bow on strong beats.  He suggested that the pardessus should be bowed overhand as the violoncello in order to remain competitive with the violin and not suffer the same fate as the bass viol, which lost popularity after 1740.

We cannot be sure if the over hand bow hold ever gained any popularity, but L’Abbé le fils tell us on the title page of his Principes du Violon that the under bow grip is still used as late as 1772 by his comment:

“People who play the pardessus de viole with four strings can use this method, observing only to give the letters t and p tirez (pull) and poussez (push) – the strong and weak bow directions respectively in overhand bowing, [but the opposite in underhand], an opposite meaning to that found in this book.”


The Guillotine for the pardessus de viole

Later, the 5 string pardessus shed another string and adopted a straight violin tuning, surviving more or less, until the French Revolution, in 1789 on a diet of violin music.  By now, manners and tastes had changed in France and more and more women were beginning to take violin lessons, which in turn posed yet another threat to the pardessuss’s continued existence.

Nicolas Lendomry’s Second Livre de Pieces in 1780 was the last published music for the pardessus de viole.

19th & 20th century pardessus de viole

The pardessus de viole was revived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by English and French musicians and historians. At the time its historical use and repertoire were little known and many played it on the shoulder like a violin.  This has led to a misconception which still continues, in some cases, to this day.

Cecile Dolmetsch was one of the first musicians to write about the instrument with an historical approach.  Besides the Chantry Suite written by Christopher Wood there are few pieces in the 20th century which use the pardessus de viole.  These include works by composers such as members of the Casadesus family, known for their historical concerts, and Ottorino Respighi who wrote a quartet.




Michel Collichon and the Origins of the Pardessus de Viole by Thomas Fitz-Hugh Mace, Journal of the VdgsA Volume 47, 2012.

A Question of Wood: Michel Collichon’s 1683 Seven-String Viol by Shem Mackey,  Journal of the VdgsA Volume 47, 2012.

‘Is the Quinton a Viol? The Puzzle unravelled, by Myrna Herzog,  Journal of the VdgsA Vol 40, 2003.

‘Re-examining the pardessus de viole and its literature, Part 1, Introduction and Methods’ Richard Sutcliffe, Volume 37, Journal of the VdgsA, 2000.

‘The pardessus de viole’ – Notes for a Maters Thesis by  Adrian Rose 1995.

‘The pardessus de viole and its literature.’ Early Music. Early Music America. 10 (3): 301–307  Green, Robert (1982). J.M. Thomson (ed.).