In the late 1960’s, the English Consort of Viols came to the small university town of Oxford, Ohio. Those of you who have experienced a Midwest winter know that snowstorms can disrupt a concert, which is what happened to the Consort. They were snowed in during a concert tour at the University of Illinois. This changed the course of numerous lives. The Chair of Miami University’s Music Department, Everett Nelson, knew Richard Nickolson, one of the viol players in the ensemble. Mr. Nelson met him while studying English viol fantasies in London. Mr. Nelson brought the Consort to Oxford to wait out the storm. Due to the bad winter weather, they had a lot of time to read consorts and to play beautiful music together. They did this in the "green room," where students and faculty could listen. The students and music teachers at Miami University were so impressed by the sound of the viols and the quality of the music that many of them wanted to learn to play the viol.
The university’s cello instructor Liz Potteiger and violin instructor Elizabeth Lane were particularly enamored with the viol and traveled to London to study with the founding members of the Consort (Marco Pallas and Richard Nickolson) in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Elizabeth Lane still vividly remembers delightful days spent in their flat playing music with these gentlemen, afterwards enjoying cups of tea. Miami University eventually purchased a consort of Michael Heale viols. This made it possible for many faculty members, college students, community amateurs, and even high school students to begin playing the viol. Liz Potteiger required all her cello students to study the viol in a special viol instruction course. She had as many as three consort classes. Many of Elizabeth Lane’s violin students played gamba, as well.
Love of the viol is contagious, and enthusiasm spread throughout the country from this small Ohio town. Elizabeth Lane’s brother (Warren Walker), a cellist at Kansas State University, heard about the viols at Miami University and traveled to London to study viol da gamba. He came back with a consort of viols made by Michael Heale and later bought a Kessler bass.
After the community of Oxford started their viol activity, they contacted people throughout Ohio to play together, including Suzanne Ferguson and Patricia Olds. They started one of the first Viola da Gamba Society chapters in Ohio, involving viol players from Columbus, Yellow Springs, Kentucky, Cleveland, and Oberlin, who met to play consorts. They spent their weekends in churches and homes playing and sharing potluck meals.
Liz Potteiger passed away in March 1998 from emphysema, and the viol tradition in Oxford sadly came to an end. The instruments were stored in closets and were neglected for many years until recently. Several years ago I met Elizabeth Lane, who facilitated the long-term loan of these instruments to my nonprofit chamber music ensemble, the Catacoustic Consort. The Viola da Gamba Society provided funding to have the instruments repaired, so the local community may use them. We are currently recreating a renaissance of the viol in southwestern Ohio through a new generation of viol players, a result of these resurrected instruments and the guidance of the Catacoustic Consort.
As we look to the future of our beloved instrument, it is important to remember our past and the passion of these early music revivalist trailblazers. I am honored to continue the tradition of the viola da gamba in Ohio.