Dunn cellist

History of the Cello

The Birth of an Instrument, By Andrew Dunn

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As early as the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, artists began to depict the violin in paintings, giving testimony to its presence in the music world. The cello, however, or 'bass violin' did not come into existence until the fifteenth century. The reason for the late appearance of the deeper voiced member of the violin family was, at least in part, the evolution of the sound ideal in Western European music. Due to the long-held dominance of vocal music over the musical scene, it was natural that this ideal would be determined by the trends of singers of the time. Performance practice in vocal music, until the fifteenth century, demanded a tone which was high-pitched and nasal, producing a sound we would more closely associate with Eastern music nowadays. This changed with the compositions of the Flemish school, led by Johannes Ockeghem, himself a bass singer. The vocal range was expanded on the lower end, eventually reaching low C. At the same time, the sound ideal shifted to the more open-throated tone that we know today.

early cellist

It was under these circumstances that the 'bass violin' began to make its place in the musical world. Over time, the name violoncello developed, from 'violone,' a large viola, and 'cello' an Italian word meaning small. This it was a little large viola, showing that the people of the time did not really know what to call this new member of the violin family. The instrument evolved completely separately from the viol da gamba, having no frets and a dramatically different shape.

The role of the violoncello was very diverse in its first two hundred years, usually participating in the accompaniment and bass line of various forms of music. In the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, the members of the violin family were considered particularly appropriate for sacred music. However, the instruments were not used exclusively in these roles, and artistic depictions indicate that they were used for all kinds of events, from weddings to the raucous music making in the village taverns.

Edmund van der Straeten, in his History of the violoncello, the viola da Gamba, their precursors and Collateral Instruments, states frequently that the level of technical achievement on the cello was extremely backward, and could in no way compare with that of the violin, or the viola da gamba. At times, however, he points to evidence, which is quite to the contrary. One example is his description of the virtuoso duel between the cellist Tonelli and the violinist D'Ambreville in the early eighteenth century, which was apparently so spectacular that the audience 'broke out in rapturous applause at the end.') If there did exist full-blown virtuoso cellists, it is strange, the utter lack of solo repertoire that existed up through the middle of the seventeenth century. Nona Pyron, in her supplement to William Pleeth's book, Cello, offers one possible explanation for this fact:

The discrepancy between the great volume of music for the violin in the seventeenth century, and the dearth of it for the cello can be best understood in the light of two factors. First, idiomatic writing for a specific instrument was only just beginning to develop in people's thinking; and secondly, even the early idiomatic writing for the violin did not necessarily exclude the deeper voices of the violin family. Cellists considering themselves to be 'violinists' (albeit 'bass violinists'), quite naturally adopted the violin repertoire as their own (transposing it down an octave), making no distinction between the various voices within the family of violins than do singers today with their solo repertoire.

As said before, it was not until the late seventeenth century that the first pieces for solo cello or accompanied cello were written. The most common form for such a piece was the ricarcare. The baroque ricercare was an instrumental piece, not too lengthy, and in many cases for only one instrument. It had several different functions in the musical society of the time: first, as a vehicle for secular instrumental expression, and second in the church service in alternation with the choir, either during the offertory or before or after the reading of the psalms. During these performances, the organist would improvise freely on a sacred or secular melody in a fantasy or prelude. Sometimes, this involved a touch of the profane creeping into the church service if it was not a sacred melody or chant that the organist used. Sometimes the ricercare would consist of a piece for more than one instrument, in which case the theme was passed from one part of another in imitative counterpoint without too much development. It is not possible to establish a perfectly consistent form for these pieces. The connecting link between them is the presence of a simple theme in a definite key and rhythm which established the tonality and character.

Of the first pieces written during that century, the work of three composers stands out. Giovanni Battista Degli Antonii, and his Ricercare Sopra Il Violoncello o; Clavicembalo, Domenico Gabrielli with his Seven Ricercare For Violoncello e Basso Continuo, and Domenico Galli, who contributed his Trattenimento Musicale Sopra Il Violoncello A' Solo. If these are not unquestionably the first solo works ever written for the instrument, it cannot be denied that they are the most significant works of the seventeenth century and prior to the Six Suites of J.S. Bach.

The opus 1 of Giovanni Antonii, published in 1687, consists of twelve unaccompanied ricercare. As the designation 'violoncello or clavicembalo' indicates, the score would also have been used, on occasion, by a harpsichord player as a bass on which to make improvisions, a practice known as partimento. In seven of the pieces, the composer added figured bass symbols to the score in order to facilitate this use. Many of the ricercare are written in perpetual motion style, consisting of running eighth notes. Some of these are probably studies or etudes for the cello, rather than being intended for public performance. Half of them are divided into three sections, each with varying meters and rhythmic patterns, and have constant motion calling for the exercise of the left hand. However, there are a few parts of the pieces throughout which call for a singing tone and would be very appropriate for solo performance. One interesting quality of these works as that the were written for a cello of six strings, tuned like the contemporary viol except for a scordatura of the lowest string, depending on the key. This tuning pattern would be C G C E A D.

Although Domenico Gabrielli is often given credit for being the first composer to write solo literature for the cello, the first known manuscript of his solo cello music dates from 1689, two years after the Antonii publication. There exist two undated continuo sonatas in manuscript form, one in G major, a revision of one of the works in the group of seven ricercare, and the other in A major. There is some merit to the theory that the A major sonata, in fact, dates prior to 1687, and would then stand on its own as the first work ever written for cello solo, though this would be hard to prove.

The 1689 manuscript contains the aforementioned seven ricercare for solo cello, as well as a canon for two cellos, and the first version of the continuo sonata in G. There is very, very little to set apart the ricercare from the sonata, a fact indicative of the loose terminology used at the time. The seven ricercare were almost certainly meant for public performance, and they are still used in that capacity today. Much variety and color exists within them. The use of many different rhythmic patterns, double and triple stops, and figurative material adds greatly to their musical interest as pieces.

The last work to be mentioned is the Trattenimento Musicale Sopra Il Violoncello A; Solo, by Domenico Galli. This manuscript bears the date 1692, and consists of a collection of twelve unaccompanied sonatas. It is probably that these are the only totally unaccompanied works for the cello with the designation 'sonata' prior to the twentieth century. The cello that the pieces were composed for was tuned in fourths: B flat, F, C, and G. The interest in them is primarily historical, as they lack for a certain amount of structural coherency.

From all these developments, the cello eventually became the brilliant solo and chamber instrument that it is today. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, musicians came not only to accept, but to admire the sound of the instrument. Then, in the seventeenth century, performers achieved a level of virtuosity to inspire the composers of the time to write, idiomatically, for them. Many great works were to follow, including the Six Suites of J.S. Bach from the beginning of the eighteenth century. The concertos of Franz Joseph Haydn followed, and before long, the repertoire for the violoncello was of a size to be reckoned with. The importance of the cello was secured in the world of Western Music for all time.

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