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Linguistic misunderstandings

How the violone became a cello

The instruments belonging to the violin family developed from the viola da braccio between 1520 and 1550 in Upper Italy. The family included bass instruments from the very beginning; these came in various sizes and tunings and carried various names: basso di viola da braccio or basso da braccio (in Italy in 1600), basse de violon (in France), bass violin (in England) and groß Geigen and klein Geigen or polische Geigen in German-speaking countries in the 16th century. In 17th century Italy the term violone was widely adopted as the collective name for all large bowed instruments (it was formed from the root word viola and the suffix one, meaning “large viola”). At the beginning of the 17th century the term described the bass instruments of both the gamba family and the violin family. Only from the middle of the century was it applied solely to the bass instruments of the violin family.

The modern term violoncello appeared for the first time in the twelve trio sonatas op. 4 by the Italian composer Giulio Cesare Arresti from 1665, so at a time that the violoncello was, in fact, already in existence. The violoncello was originally also known as the violoncino. What both terms share is a linguistic paradox: a diminutive form (cello, cino) is added to an augmentative (violone = large viola). Violoncello literally means nothing more than “small large viola”. In spite of this paradox the Italian name was adopted throughout Europe from 1700 onward. In German-speaking countries the terms Bassett or Bassel were used here and there. It is therefore no wonder that following this chaotic linguistic development the euphonious abbreviation “cello” became the most common name in English and German-speaking countries.

The large bass and the small bass

In the first half of the 16th century, when the violin family evolved from the viola da braccio, instruments were built in three registers: treble (soprano), alto/tenor and bass. The first people to make cellos were the renowned violin makers Andrea Amati (1581–1632), Gasparo da Salò (1549–1609) and Paolo Maggini (1581–1632). With a body length of 80 cm their instruments were bigger than today’s standard instruments.

It seems likely that the violin family’s first bass instruments had not three but four strings. There are records of instruments in many tunings, two of which managed to gain wide acceptance over a longer period of time. The first of these was tuned to Bb1, F2, C3, G3 (a whole tone deeper than today), a tuning which remained common in France and England until the middle of the 18th century and was a continuation in the bass register of the tuning to fifth intervals of the violin and the viola. In this configuration all the strings of the bowed instruments were tuned to intervals of a fifth: E5, A4, D4, G3, C3, F2, Bb1. This tuning required relatively large instruments, which were used when the cello was the only bass instrument, having to cope without the support of the double-bass. However, due to the nature of the string ensemble a second type of tuning proved to be more convenient and the cello (bass instrument) was tuned to an octave below the viola (alto-tenor instrument). Thus the C2–G2–D3–A3 tuning evolved which is still used today and which may have been usual in German-speaking countries as early as the end of the 16th century.

In his Syntagma Musicum (1619) Michael Praetorius describes a very small instrument with the tuning F2, C3, G3, D4.

Before 1700 there were basically two different-sized instruments to which this tuning corresponded: the larger bass instrument had a body length of about 80 cm, and was 37 cm wide at the top, 47 cm wide at the bottom. The ribs were 11 cm to 13 cm high. The smaller bass instrument was about 74 cm long and correspondingly slimmer.

Not until metal-wound strings were invented did it become possible to make shorter instruments: the relative shortness of the strings was compensated for by greater volume, which ensured that none of the quality of the sound was lost.

The large instruments were often played standing up, or were hung over the shoulders (in processions). Due to their more powerful sound they served as ripieno instruments. The smaller instruments were used primarily for solo work.

One further characteristic of early cello-making should be mentioned: the so-called “cutting”, the reduction in size of large instruments to dimensions which have remained customary to the present day: the top and bottom of the body was cut off, shortening it, the upper and lower bouts were narrowed and the ribs made flatter. Not one of the instruments made before the middle of 17th century seems to have survived this rather gruesome-sounding hacking up of instruments, which lasted from about 1700–1710, in its original (i.e. large) condition. But this “measure” on the eve of standardization was destined not to be the last in the history of the cello.

Stradivari establishes the norm

Again it was the great Antonio Stradivari (1644–1737) who set the standards. Whereas he too had made larger models (80 cm) prior to 1710 he settled thereafter on instruments with the following dimensions: body length 75–76 cm, 34–35 cm wide at the top and 44 cm wide at the bottom, with ribs 11.5 cm high. Later instrument makers adopted these measurements and proportions which are still used today.

These new measurements also paved the way for the development of solo techniques on the cello, of which Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805) can be regarded as the most important proponent. A cello virtuoso and composer, he took playing techniques further, making more use of tremolo, harmonics, playing sul ponticello and extending melodic playing into the higher registers. Boccherini was one of the first to treat the cello not merely as a bass instrument but also as an equal status “voice” in its own right. He it was too who gave the 2nd violins and violas more melodic tasks, so he can be regarded as one of the pioneers of the typical classical four and five-part composition for strings.

The second “measure”

The social and political upheavals at the turn of the century (French Revolution) and technical innovations led to radical changes in musical life. The responsibility for organizing and financing musical events shifted from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie which led to change in the audience; concerts became a regular feature of society life, being staged in ever larger halls before an ever growing audience. The figure of the itinerant virtuoso emerged. This new situation resulted in an audible change in the type of sound that was required, the new sound being more powerful and brilliant.

To achieve this, the following alterations were made to the construction of all the members of the violin family, starting in around 1800: the bridge was raised and made thinner, to increase the pressure of the strings and thereby also the volume; the strings became thinner and were stretched more tautly, which made the sound clearer and improved response; the neck was set back at an angle; at the same time the neck and fingerboard were lengthened. To cope with the increased pressure of the strings on the table the bass bar and sound post were also reinforced.

Whereas the old instruments had a delicate and transparent timbre rich in overtones, the new ones sounded full and lustrous.

Even on the large, old cellos the vibrating string was about 2 cm shorter than strings on smaller instruments today, because of the lengthening of the neck mentioned above.

Since that time no further changes of this magnitude have been made to the instruments’ construction.

Special forms

At the beginning of the 18th century there was the so-called viola pomposa, an instrument with five strings tuned to C2–G2–D3–A3–E4. Although little is known about it, the instrument was probably played on the arm.

A second special form was the violoncello piccolo, which also had a fifth string (E4). It is possible that J. S. Bach wrote his 6th cello suite (BWV 1012) for this instrument, which was held between the legs.

The arpeggione, also known as the guitarre-violoncell, was a guitar-shaped instrument with elongated sound holes, six strings tuned as guitar strings (E2, A2, D3, G3, B3, E4) and 24 frets which was played like a cello. Franz Schubert (1797–1828) wrote a famous sonata in A minor for arpeggione and piano (D 821).