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10/17/2013 Musings on the Cello


By Craig Birchfield

The Cello was a late comer to the violin family. The earliest ones we know of were built around the middle of the 16th century and the first mention of the violoncello in print was in 1556. The instrument was first called the bass violin then violoncello which literally means “big little violin” in Italian. Go figure. Mercifully, the name was eventually shortened to cello.

The first known maker (but not the first actual maker) was Andrea Amati who built cellos for Charles IX King of France.

Serious solo pieces specifically written for violoncello were virtually non-existent until the latter part of the 1600s. Any solo pieces attempted by cellists before then were typically just violin pieces transposed down an octave. Early virtuoso cellists were very rare since the instrument was mainly used for bass and harmonic accompaniment.

The introduction of wire wrapped strings in 1660 in Bologna gave the instrument a boost, actually making the modern cello with its relatively short scale and size (for a bass instrument) possible.

Domenico Gabrielli and Giovanni Battista Degli Antonii were among the first composers to write serious solo music for the cello. The first true watershed pieces written for the instrument were Bach’s six unaccompanied suites.

The most schizophrenic instrument of the violin family (maybe I should say versatile) it must regard itself as a midrange instrument in the orchestra but the bass instrument of the chamber ensemble. It has a large range of pitch – four octaves or more in the hands of a pro – and it is just as comfortable today as a solo instrument as it is in an accompaniment role. It has a timbre and range very similar to the human voice.

Baroque violoncellos were not allowed to touch the ground and were held by the calves. Earlier predecessors were probably held on the shoulders or with a shoulder strap so that wandering musicians could…wander. The story goes that a rather portly gentleman fashioned a wood block to support his cello on the ground and the rest is history.

The size of the instrument was standardized by Stradivarius. Quite a number of original Stradivarius cellos remain. Current players include Yo-Yo Ma, Julian Lloyd Webber and Clive Greensmith of the Tokyo string Quartet.

The first serious cello method was not written until 1741 by Michel Corrette. This gives an indication of its lowly stature until fairly late in the game.

Some cellos in the late 17th and early 18th centuries had five strings with an added E above the A. One of Bach’s six solo suites was probably written for this instrument.

Some of those who have played non-traditional cello music: The Portland Cello Project, Ray Brown, Apocalyptica, Hank Roberts, The Electric Light Orchestra, The Piano Guys and Zoë Keating

The instrument maker Luis and Clark builds a cello out of carbon fiber rather than wood. The company has sold over 1000 of the instruments – one of them to Yo-Yo Ma. I have never heard one live but they are supposed to be quite nice (update, one of our cello teachers on our website has played one and liked it).

Some of the greatest cellists of all time: Mstislav Rostropovich, Pablo Casals, Jacqueline du Pre, Yo-Yo Ma, Pierre Fournier, Gregor Piatigorsky, Paul Tortelier and Mischa Maisky

Best cello joke I have found:

What’s the difference between a cello and a washing machine? Answer: Vibrato.

Joke Runner up:
A group of terrorists hijacks a plane full of cellists. They land and issue their list of demands. They add that if their demands are not met they will release one cellist every hour.

For a rather interesting and musical non-traditional piece of cello composition you might follow this link. It is Zoë Keating playing The Escape Artist. She uses a computer and a ten pedal board to bring in and out various loops that she records live. I don’t know how she keeps them all straight but it is fun:

Here is the Bach Cello Suite No.1 in G like you have probably never heard it before. Not just loops, the cellist from the Piano Guys clones himself. The purist might be agast but others might find it amusing and or even sonically pleasing:

And here is a wonderful rendition of the original, beautifully performed by Mischa Maisky:

Keep Practicing,

Craig