The Cello is a fascinating instrument, but to a novice it’s difficult to see what makes it distinct from the violin, the viola and the double bass. Second only to the double bass in terms of size, it is tuned in the same intervals as a viola, only an octave lower. Like the double bass for comfort and ease of playing it is fitted with an endpin to support the instrument while in use. The name itself stems from a shortening of the Italian violoncello which means “little violone“.
The violone itself had fallen out of favor when the violin became more popular, which lead to the name being shortened to simply Cello.
The Cello has a long and continuing association with European classical music, currently enjoys being part of the standard orchestra and makes up the bass element of the string quartet. As you would expect for an instrument of its rich heritage a large number of works have been written that both use the cello unaccompanied and as part of a larger ensemble. There are a number of Baroque era pieces that the Cello is renowned for, in particular Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites. Moving forward into the classical era, some of the notable pieces include concertos by Joseph Haydn and five sonatas alongside the pianoforte by Beethoven. Its versatility ensured its popularity continued into the modern day.
In terms of instrumental history, its direct ancestor is the bass violin.
With advances in wire-wrapped string technology allowing greater innovation in sound, the Cello gradually eclipsed its predecessor.
The baroque era design differs slightly to that of the contemporary variant, with a different neck design and the addition of an endpin (classical players had to hold the cello with the calves only!).
When you think of Cellists today, YoYo Ma immediately springs to mind, but there is a long tradition of virtuouso soloists associated with the instrument. Pablo Casals is known as the godfather of the modern Cello, as both a man and as a musician he lead a fascinating life. He was credited with finding a copy of Bach’s suites in a music store, and after 13 years of refinement gave a performance that reinvigorated their reputation as part of Bach’s range. Fleeing from the rise of fascism in Spain, he was to spend the majority of his professional life in exile in Puerto Rico. He was adamant to never perform in any country he believed complicit in the rise of fascism which included the UK and the USA.
The Cello has a vibrant history, but like any instrument its future seems even more fascinating. As the form of both classical pieces and its growing use in contemporary music continue to develop and broaden, the Cello will continue to be, as they say, in good hands.