A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Chest of Viols

CHEST OF VIOLS. A set of six viols, properly matched as to size, power, and colour, used for chamber performance. It usually consisted of two trebles, two tenors, and two basses: occasionally of two trebles, three tenors, and one bass, the bass being properly twice as long in the string as the treble. [See Violin.] Sets of viols, thus duly proportioned, were often made by the old English makers. They were carefully fitted into a 'chest,' which seems to have been a shallow vertical press with double doors. Dr. Tudway, in a letter addressed to his son, printed in Hawkins (ch. 144) describes it as 'a large hutch, with several apartments and partitions in it, each partition was lined with green bays, to keep the instruments from being injured by the weather.' Hawkins quotes an advertisement, dated 1667, of two 'chests of viols' for sale, one made by John Rose in 1598, the other by Henry Smith in 1633. 'Both chests,' says the advertiser, probably referring to the instruments, but possibly to the hutches, 'are very curious work.' In a well-known passage in 'Music's Monument' (p. 245), Mace says of the 'Press for Instruments,' which forms a conspicuous part of the furniture of his elaborately designed music room, 'First see that it be conveniently large, to contain such a number as you shall design for your use, and to be made very close and warm, lyn'd through with bayes, etc., by which means your instruments will speak livelily, brisk and clear. … Your best provision, and most complete, will be a good chest of viols, six in number, viz. two basses, two tenors, and two trebles, all truly and proportionably suited. … Suppose you cannot procure an entire chest of viols, suitable, etc., then thus: endeavour to pick up, here or there, so many excellent good odd ones, as near suiting as you can, every way, viz. both for shape, wood, colour, etc., but especially for size.' Mace's Press for Instruments includes, besides the 'chest of viols,' a pair of violins, a pair of 'lusty full-sized theorboes,' and three 'lusty smart- speaking' lyra-viols, the whole constituting 'a ready entertainment for the greatest prince in the world.' The principle of the 'chest of viols' is found in the quartets and quintets of violins which were occasionally made by the Cremona makers.

[ E. J. P. ]