Women in the history of the Viola da Gamba

These women played a role in the history of the viola da gamba as performers, composers, patrons, and instrument builders. Click on any of their names to read a brief biography and see a bibliography of publications about them. If you know of additional information about these women (or of other individuals that should be added to this list), please email me so that I can include it here.

Leonora Duarte (1610-1678)

Dorothea vom Reid (born c.1615)

Susanna Perwich (c1637-1661)

Elizabeth Hare (died 1741)

Anne (or Ann) Ford (1737–1824)

Elizabeth Herbert, Countess of Pembroke and Montgomery (1737-1831) 

Sara Levy (1761-1854)

Leonora Duarte (1610-1678)

Leonora Duarte (1610-1678) was a composer and instrumentalist born to a family of Portuguese conversos in Antwerp. Her seven surviving fantasias (“sinfonias”) are beautiful, 5-part cantus firmus settings for viol consort in a style typical of the previous generation, similar to works by the English Catholic keyboard player and composer John Bull, who likely taught Duarte in Antwerp. A modern edition of Duarte’s surviving music (in GB-Och MS 429), a modern premier CD release of her sinfonias, and numerous articles (many of which are not listed in Rudolph Rasch’s entry on Duarte in Oxford Music Online (AKA “Grove”) are listed below.

Duarte bibliography

Oxford Music Online “Leonora Duarte”

Godelieve Spiessens “De Antwerpse componist Giovanni de Haze en zijn muziekboek “Clio” (1681)” Revue belge de Musicologie / Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, Vol. 65, François-Auguste Gevaert (1828-1908) (2011), pp. 147-169

Timothe de Paepe “Diego Duarte II (1612-1691): a converso’s experience in seventeenth-century Antwerp” Jewish History, Vol. 24, No. 2 (2010), pp. 169-193

Tunkel, Victor “Music of the first Jewish woman composer” Journal of synagogue music, 32 116-121. New York, NY: Cantors’ Assembly, 2007.

Fontijn, Claire “Mujeres barrocas/Baroque women/Femmes baroques. IX: Leonora Duarte” Goldberg: Early music magazine/Revista de musica antigua, (11) 96-99. June, 2000

Rudolf Rasch “The Messaus-Bull Codex London, British Library, Additional Manuscript 23.623” Source: Revue belge de Musicologie / Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, Vol. 50,Manuscrits de musique polyphonique originaires des anciens Pays-Bas. Manuscrits demusique polyphonique conservés en Belgique (1996), pp. 93-127

R.A. Rasch: ‘The Antwerp Duarte Family as Musical Patrons’, Orlandus Lassus and his Time: Antwerp 1994, 415–29

E.R. Samuel: ‘The Disposal of Diego Duarte’s Stock of Painting 1692–1697’, Jaarboek van het Koninklijk museum voor schone kunsten (Antwerp, 1976), 305–24

M. Lucas: CCXI Sociable Letters (London, 1664)

MODERN EDITION (Sheet music) Duarte, Leonora; Pinto, David; Rasch, Rudolf A. “7 sinfonie à 5: Consort music in five parts for viols (with alternative clefs for recorders)” St. Albans: Corda Music 1988

RECORDING Transports Publics “The Duarte Circle – Antwerp 1640” CD Musica Ficta MF 8028 2018

VIDEO Leonora Duarte Sinfonia #5 LeStrange Viols

Dorothea vom Reid (born c.1615)

Dorothea vom Reid (born c.1615) was a professional performer on the viol who toured with her family across the German lands in the decade before the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. References to performances of the vom Reid family and to Dorothea in particular appear in sources associated with Nuremberg, Frankfurt, and Leipzig. The German Wikipedia page, below, offers an excellent summary of what’s known about vom Reid as well as a list of known archival sources that mention her.

vom Reid bibliography


Annette Otterstedt; Hans Reiners (translator), The viol: history of an instrument Kassel; London; New York: Bärenreiter, 2002.

Maria Koldau, Frauen Musik Kultur. Ein Handbuch zum deutschen Sprachgebiet der frühen Neuzeit. Böhlau Verlag. Köln 2005, 516–519.

Annette Otterstedt, Die Gambe. Kulturgeschichte und praktischer Ratgeber. Bärenreiter, Kassel 1994

Susanna Perwich (c1637-1661)

[Dedicated page with additional info here!] Susanna Perwich (c1637-1661) was a viol virtuosa in England who is the subject of somewhat hagiographic biography by John Batchiler, titled The Virgins Pattern in the exemplary life and lamented death of Mrs. Susanna Perwich (1661). Bachiler’s publication, the source of the one surviving image of Perwich, is excerpted below. Articles by Westrup and Youens present useful summaries of what is currently known about Perwich.

“When She played on this Instrument, though singly, as She used it, it gave the delight of a full Consort; but when in Consort with other Viols, or a set of Lutes only, or Viols and Lutes together, or with the Harpsicord or Organ, still her Instrument was Queen of all, and as if it had been touched by more than a mortal hand, gave so delicious a sound, and so distinctly too, that any judicious ear might discern it above the rest ; insomuch that it might be truly said, look what racy flavour is to the richest Wine ; fragrancy to flowers ; varnish to colours ; burnish to gold ; sparkling to diamonds ; and splendor to the light ;  that was her ravishing stroke to all the other Musick.; and yet (which was the more admirable) She sate so steady, and free from any the least unhandsom motion in her body, so modestly careless, and as it were thoughtless of what she was about, as if She had not been concerned at all ; and all this She did, though She never spent the tenth part of that time in private practice, which others are wont to do ; for indeed She made better use of her time, at other sorts of higher Musick, which was much sweeter to her … When She played on the Viol, She seemed to transcend at that Instrument above all the rest, and when She played on the Lute, She seemed to transcend as much there; such a contention, and so pleasant, scarce was ever known from one and the same Virgins hand before … To this her Instrumental Musick we may adde her Vocal, no less delicious and admirable, if not more excellent; as if her Lungs had been made on purpose, (as no doubt they were) by their natural melodies to out-do the artificial … The Fame of all which at last grew so publick and universal, that there are few places in England but have heard thereof, yea, and many parts beyond the Seas too.” [Batchiler 1661 4-7]

Perwich bibliography

Rosner I. “‘A cunning skill did lurk’: Susanna Perwich and the mysteries of a seventeenth-century needlework cabinet” Textile History, v49 n2 (2018 07 03): 140-163

Youens, Laura “‘Touched by more than mortal hand’: Susanna Perwich” Orbis musicae: Studies in musicology, (12) 262-284. 1998

J. A. Westrup “Domestic Music under the Stuarts” Proceedings of the Musical Association, 68th Sess. (1941 – 1942), pp. 19-53

John Batchiler The Virgins Pattern in the exemplary life and lamented death of Mrs. Susanna Perwich (1661)

Elizabeth Hare (died 1741)

Broadside advertising Elizabeth Hare’s music shop and atelier

Elizabeth Hare (died 1741) was an instrument maker who took over her husband’s music shop and atelier following his death in about 1730. Several violins by Hare survive but no viols, though the fact that she listed “viols” first among the instruments sold in her shop strongly suggests that she built them. There is little (if any) published research on Hare, mostly limited to footnotes in histories of violin making (though Ronald Kidd describes Hare as a music publisher in the article listed below). The broadside (above) advertising Hare’s shop includes one of the comparatively few seventeenth-century English illustrations of a viola da gamba.

Hare bibliography

Ronald R. Kidd, “The Emergence of Chamber Music with Obligato Keyboard in England” Acta Musicologica, Vol. 44, Fasc. 1 (Jan. – Jun., 1972), pp. 122-144

Anne (or Ann) Ford (1737–1824)

Thomas Gainsborough “Ann Ford” 1760

“Thicknesse [née Ford], Ann (1737–1824), writer and musician, was…a spirited and unconventional woman, (who) proved to be a talented musician who played several instruments and sang. In 1758 Frances Greville described her to Charles Burney as ‘the most pleasing singer I ever heard … I would rather hear her than any Italian I have yet heard’ (Highfill, Burnim & Langhans, BDA, 5.365)…At first Ford performed only within domestic settings, as was deemed suitable for a woman of her class. She gave musical entertainments in her father’s house, attended by leading professional and amateur musicians, as well as playing and singing at gatherings of fashionable society in London and Bath. In 1760 she was painted by Thomas Gainsborough, a fellow enthusiast for the viola da gamba and resident of Bath….from 15 October 1761, [Ford gave] a series of appearances at the Spring Gardens room, singing English airs and playing the musical glasses, English guitar, and viola da gamba. In this year of remarkable determination and achievement she also published the first known method for the musical glasses, Instructions for Playing on the Musical Glasses, and Lessons and Instructions for Playing the Guitar, which included several pieces for the guitar, almost certainly composed by Ford herself…In 1775 (Ann and her husband Philip Thicknesse) embarked on an eighteen-month journey (with viola da gamba, two guitars, a violin, and a parakeet); this was described in Philip Thicknesse’s A Year’s Journey through France and Part of Spain, which was published in 1777 with illustrations that are almost certainly by Ann. She herself turned to writing, publishing her Sketches of the Lives and Writings of the Ladies of France in three volumes between 1778 and 1781.” (excerpted from Sophie Fuller’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry “Thicknesse [née Ford], Ann”)

Ford bibliography

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography “Thicknesse [née Ford], Ann”

Peter Holman, Life after death: The viola da gamba in Britain from Purcell to Dolmetsch 2010

Michael Rosenthal “Thomas Gainsborough’s Ann Ford” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 80, No. 4 (Dec., 1998), pp. 649-665

S. McVeigh, Concert life in London from Mozart to Haydn (1993)

P. Coggin, ‘“This easy and agreeable instrument”: a history of the English guitar’, Early Music, 15 (1987), 205–18

M. I. Wilson, ‘Gainsborough, Bath and music’, Apollo, 105 (1977), 108–9

A. H. King, ‘The musical glasses and glass harmonica’, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 72 (1945–6), 97–122

Elizabeth Herbert, Countess of Pembroke and Montgomery (1737-1831) 

Sir Joshua Reynolds “Elizabeth Herbert, Countess of Pembroke and her son George, Lord Herbert” 1764-1767

Much of the scholarly writing about Elizabeth Herbert focuses on her troubled marriage and on King George III’s infatuation with her during his periods of ‘madness.’ The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, for example, offers little information about Herbert’s life independent of her roles as wife, mother, and lady of the bedchamber to Queen Charlotte from 1782-1818, and does not mention her proficiency as a viola da gamba player. In Life After Death Peter Holman provides the most thorough account of Herbert’s musical life and her connection to viol virtuoso Carl Friedrich Abel, who composed pieces for Herbert and whose works are collected in BL Add 31697, a source formerly known as the Music Book of the Countess of Pembroke (see below).

BL Add 31697
BL Add 31697

Herbert bibliography

Peter Holman, Life after death: The viola da gamba in Britain from Purcell to Dolmetsch 2010

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ” Herbert [née Spencer], Elizabeth, countess of Pembroke and Montgomery”

Sara Levy (1761-1854)

“Of particular importance for the musical life of the Prussian capital is the salon of Sara Levy, daughter of the influential Jewish banker Daniel ltzig, great-aunt to Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, and student of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. In his function as “Münz-Entrepreneur” and court Jew of Frederick the Great, Daniel ltzig (1722-1799) held the highest position a Jew could reach in the hierarchy of the Prussian state. Thus, it is not at all surprising that, following the customs at Frederick’s court, Sara and her brothers and sisters received a thorough education in the French language and manners. Their musical education appears to have been equally profound: it is said that the family employed an excellent piano instructor with a fixed annual salary…Sara Levy’s long life (1761-1854) spanned the second half of the reign of Frederick the Great, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Revolution of 1848. Documentary evidence for her salon exists mostly for the nineteenth century;3 the writers E. T. A. Hoffmann and Ludwig Borne, the historian Gustav Droysen, and musicians like the director of the Berlin Singakademie, Carl Friedrich Zeiter, and of course Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy counted among her regular guests.” [Peter Wollny “Sara Levy and the Making of Musical Taste in Berlin” p651]

Levy’s music library, donated to the Berlin Singakademie at the end of her life, held viol virtuoso Johann Gottlieb Graun’s 6 concertos for viola da gamba, among an astonishing selection of eighteenth century instrumental music. Levy’s activities as performer, tastemaker, and patron make her a key figure in the history of music in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Prussia, though her connection to the viola da gamba was likely primarily as a listener and patron of Graun.

Levy bibliography

Oxford Music Online “Sara Levy”

Christoph Wolff, “A Bach Cult in Late-Eighteenth-Century Berlin: Sara Levy’s Musical Salon” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Spring, 2005), pp. 26-31

Peter Wollny, “Sara Levy and the Making of Musical Taste in Berlin” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 77, No. 4 (Winter, 1993), pp. 651-688

P. Wilhelmy: Der Berliner Salon im 19. Jahrhundert (1780–1914) (Berlin, 1989)

P. Wollny: ‘“Ein förmlicher Sebastian und Philipp Emanuel Bach-Kultus”: Sara Levy, geb. Itzig und ihr literarisch-musikalischer Salon’, Jüdische Aufklärung, ästhetische Bildung und musikalische Praxis im Berlin des späten 18. Jahrhunderts, ed. A. Gerhard (Tübingen, 1999), 211–49