Skip to main content

For more than a decade, six beautifully carved stringed instruments have lain in a glass case at Hart House's Gallery Grill. To the untrained eye, they're a nice decorative touch in the restaurant on the University of Toronto campus, blending in with the Old English architecture and decor.

But recently, the Hart House viols, as they're known, have been "outed." Last year, they travelled to Montreal, probably for the first time since Hart House acquired them in the 1930s, for their commercial recording debut - a CD of Henry Purcell's 13 Fantasias for viols.

And Thursday night, the soft-voiced instruments are back there again, to be played together in concert for the first time in about 30 years, at the Montreal Baroque Festival.

A third unexpected outing is likely to draw international scholarly attention to the instruments. A British expert who recently examined them says two of the instruments are far more valuable than previously thought, being the work of famous English luthiers of the early 17th century - the Stradivariuses of the viol world, as it were.

The woman behind these outings is Susie Napper, the artistic director of the Montreal Baroque Festival and one half of the Montreal-based viol duo Les Voix Humaines, which is beloved worldwide for its transcendent, sparkling performances. Last year, she decided to record Purcell's Fantasias for four to seven viols.

She said over the phone recently, "the reality is that I have a great viol [from 1703] and nobody else in the ensemble does.

"And I just thought, 'Everyone has recorded these pieces. How can we [do so] using crappy instruments?' And we had this suspicion that these great instruments were sitting in Toronto [through the period-music grapevine] though none of us had ever seen them."

It took months, but by last July Napper persuaded Hart House officials to lend her the instruments for both the recording and festival. They needed repairs and adjustments, and months of playing to "wake them up," Napper said. From there, though, it was "heaven" to play with them: "Three-hundred-year-old wood has a kind of resonance that we rarely find in new instruments."

How did such instruments come to reside in a restaurant at Hart House in the first place? As is typical with old viols, their provenance is mostly a blank, although markings on the instruments and the workmanship show they were expertly restored in England around the turn of the 20th century. In the 1930s, the Massey family presented them to Hart House, which over the years has allowed carefully selected local players - notably Canadian viol-playing pioneer Peggie Sampson (1912-2004) - to perform on them, usually on campus.

When Sampson retired in the 1980s, the instruments fell into disuse. But with renewed interest in the viols from Napper and some Toronto players, Hart House decided to have them re-appraised. So in March, Benjamin Hebbert, former head of the musical-instrument department at Christie's in London, flew to Toronto.

Hebbert's appraisal contained two bombshells. He identified a small treble viol as "a highly important" instrument by Henry Jaye - "the quintessential viol maker of the Jacobean period." And he has identified the most unusual viol in the set (it can be tuned as a tenor or an alto) as a 1598 viol by John Rose II - which he described in an interview as "the Holy Grail of early English stringed instruments."

"Musicians who have played on the Hart House Rose frequently comment on its extraordinary sound," Hebbert said. "And after our analysis of it, we are able to explain why, and what steps modern-day makers need to make in order to reproduce the playing properties of this instrument, made by the most famous maker of Renaissance England."

Hebbert has pegged the combined value of the six viols at $510,000. That's small potatoes compared to the multimillion-dollar violins and cellos that the Canada Council Instrument Bank lends out, but a hefty increase over the viols' previous 1997 appraisal of $79,000. And whatever their monetary value, none of these instruments could be replaced.

So will excitement over Les Voix Humaines's performances encourage Hart House officials to let the viols out more often? Or will Hebbert's revelations encourage them to keep the instruments under lock and key?

It wouldn't be the first time that advocates of conservation have tussled with those who feel that great instruments become "irrelevant pieces of wood," as Hebbert puts it, if they never get into the hands of excellent musicians.

"At the moment, the viols will remain in the case in the Grill [once they return from Montreal]rdquo; said Hart House spokesperson Zoe Dille. She confirmed that the institution is considering forming an advisory committee to evaluate future requests from performers. And experts including Hebbert and U.S. restorer William Monical, who repaired the viols for Napper, praised Hart House's custodianship of the instruments.

Still, they dismiss the suggestion that the viols are too fragile to be played. "It's very common to keep fine instruments out of the hands of musicians who supposedly just damage them," Monical said over the phone. "In my experience, musicians are more careful about their instruments than they are about their teeth."

Whatever the future brings for the Hart House viols, their pairing with Les Voix Humaines this week is a match made in heaven. Catch it while you can.

The Voix Humaines Consort performs Thursday night at 9:30 in the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours in Old Montreal. Members of the consort will also present the Hart House instruments to the public on June 27-28 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Sir-George-Etienne-Cartier Museum.

Special to The Globe and Mail