The Division Viol


In 1985, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the death of King Charles II, the Lilly Library mounted an exhibition on “The Reign of Charles II,” which provided viewers with a wide-ranging survey of the history, politics, and cultural activities of Restoration England. Although the Library was quite strong in literary and political books of the period, we found that we lacked several important musical works. After contacting antiquarian booksellers, we were able to acquire for the exhibition Thomas Mace’s remarkable and often-quoted 1676 treatise, Musick’s Monument, but we had no success in finding a copy of another very popular work of the day, Christopher Simpson’s The Division-Viol, or The Art of Playing Ex tempore upon a Ground. The Division Viol, which was first published in 1659, is an extended instruction book for the bass viol (also known as the viola da gamba). In addition to a discussion of the instrument, and information and musical exercises for those wanting to play it, the book contains an introduction to musical theory, as well as detailed instructions, with examples, on how to compose “divisions,” or variations, on a ground. The details that Simpson includes about instrumental technique and musical practice have been studied closely by modern violists, who find The Division Viol one of the most valuable surviving sources of information on how their instrument should be played. Simpson also provides several “Divisions for the practice of Learners,” which are still played (or, at least, attempted) today by violists, who soon discover that if Simpson’s learners were young beginners, the technical standard of viol playing in his day was very high indeed.

Though we weren’t able to find a copy of Simpson’s work for the 1985 exhibition, we have now finally added a copy of The Division Viol to the Lilly Library’s collections. Our copy is the 1667 issue of the second edition, which first appeared in 1665. In addition to some revisions of the text, the most visible difference between the first and second editions is the presence in the later edition of a parallel Latin translation, presumably intended to make the book more attractive to readers and musicians on the Continent. Another obvious difference between the two editions is in the engraving of a musician (presumably Simpson) playing the viol. In the first edition of 1659, the musician was depicted wearing a large broad-brimmed hat, while in the illustration in the second edition of 1665, the hat has disappeared, and the player is shown bareheaded. This was probably done because the hat worn in the earlier illustration was by 1665 quite out of fashion, and its inclusion could be seen as linking the book to the earlier Cromwellian era, rather than to the more modern era of Charles II.

mt49-s42-1667_00004-smOur copy of the volume is quite well preserved, in a contemporary sheepskin binding, and with a number of marginal manuscript notes written by a seventeenth-century owner (or owners). All early editions of The Division Viol are rare, and very few copies have appeared on the market in the last several decades. To commemorate our new acquisition, the Lilly Library will present a concert of Simpson’s music on the afternoon of Sunday, November 23, 2008, with performances by Prof. Wendy Gillespie, who first alerted us to the possible availability of this copy of The Division Viol, and other members of the early music community of Indiana University. Further details about the concert will be posted on this blog and elsewhere on the Lilly Library’s web site when we have them.

— Joel Silver, Curator of Books

View more images from The Division Viol.