Violas d’amore are stringed musical instruments in the viol family characterized by a dual set of strings: one for playing, and one for reverberating. This type of instrument is very similar to both the viola and the violin. It was most popular in central Europe during the Baroque era, though it continues to be played by a minority group of modern musicians in orchestras and concert halls all over the world.
The main difference between a viola d’amore and either a viola or a violin is the number of strings. While violas and violins typically have four strings, the d’amore has between six and seven, each of which is paired with what is known as a sympathetic string. Sympathetic strings are not actually played. They reverberate each time the strings above them are struck, however, which lends a deep, often melancholic sound to the resulting music.
Like most members of the violin family, the d’amore is meant to be played under the chin with a bow. Even with so many extra strings, however, the viola d’amore’s range of playable notes is usually the same as other comparable instruments. In part, this is because the sympathetic strings are tuned to the same pitch as the playing strings. The bulk of the difference is in the quality of the sound, not in the number of sounds that can be made.
There is a difference of opinion in the musical community with respect to how the instrument derives its name. The most common understanding is that it is the "viola of love," which is the instrument’s direct translation from Italian. This is supported by the intensely emotional reverberation melodies so often played on the instrument, as well as the cupid heads adorning many of the most antique models.
Another theory is that the name derives from the expression da more, or “of the Moors.” In medieval Europe, the term “Moor” was assigned loosely to any person of South Asian, African, or Middle Eastern descent. The earliest examples of the viola d’amore included flaming sword-shaped holes in the body that were very reminiscent of the Islamic art of the period. There is speculation that the viola d’amore evolved from standard viols as a result of Middle Eastern influence, with sitars and other Eastern bowed instruments serving as models.
Regardless its precise origins, there is little dispute that the viola d’amore had its heyday in the middle-to-late 17th century. It was most popular in Austria, Germany, and Italy. Contemporaries of both Bach and Mozart were some of the most prominent players, with Vivaldi in particular distinguishing himself with a number of concertos written specifically for the viola d’amore.
Although it is its own instrument, the d’amore is rarely a musician’s first instrument, even in the present day. Violin players who have mastered violin strings and chords usually advance to the viola d’amore as a later step. The instrument is often more difficult to play, but uses many of the same core skills.