History of the Cello


The cello has always been a vital part of the orchestra, filling out the bass-lines above the double-basses, and a mainstay of the string quartet or piano trio; but until the end of the nineteenth century it was rarely used in sonatas or solo music. The Solo Cello Suites of J S Bach are an early landmark in the repertoire, and a surprising one in many ways, because as an Italian instrument the cello was usually passed over by German composers in favour of the viola da gamba. But Bach's musical intelligence gave the cello six pieces that are still a tremendous musical feat of writing and playing. The baroque cello if Bach's time was one of a number of low-pitched strings; Bach himself uses the viola da gamba, violone and cello all together in one of the Brandenburg concertos - an odd mix to today's ears. It was roughly the same size as today's instrument, but with a less sharply angled neck, lower bridge and lower tension gut strings which give a warmer sound with a more articulate attack at the beginning of a note - perfect for the insistent, almost mechanical rhythms of much baroque music. (The cello didn't take on steel strings, which give a better sustain, more suited to the singing lines of romantic music, until the 1920s.) The baroque cello didn't have the modern-day spike either - that came at the end of the nineteenth century. Players sat with their knees apart and ankles together, cradling the instrument on their calves.

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The eighteenth century saw several major cello concertos by Boccherini, C P E Bach, and Vivaldi, who wrote nearly two dozen. The instrument was constantly used in chamber music, especially in the string quartet that had been established by Hayden. But the early nineteenth century saw a tailing off of the repertoire. As with many other instruments, the surviving solo music is mainly written by player-composers. The cello equivalent of the Chopin Preludes for piano are the 48 Etudes by David Popper of Germany, who wrote many small cello pieces that are encountered by every cellist in every conservatoire in the world sooner or later. His Dance of the Elves is a favourite encore piece, and seems to end every Wigmore Hall debut recital. The early 1800s were a time of great instrument development. Woodwinds were being radically redesigned, and strings were being made louder and brighter to fill the new larger concert halls. The bow changed shape, taking a curve which gave it higher tension and made possible a greater range of effects on string instruments such as bouncing the bow. The vocal qualities of the new brighter cello made it ideal for the romantic concerto which expressed the conflict between the individual and society, but it wasn't until the time of the Dvorak Cello Concerto that the instrument was taken up by composers. The amount of cello pieces from the nineteenth century that remain in the repertoire is really very small: a Schumann Concerto, the Rococo Variations by Tchaikovsky, two Brahms Sonatas but not really very much else. Interest in the cello during the twentieth century was stimulated by virtuosos such as Pablo Casals and Emanuel Feuermann . Through their flawless technique and championing of repertoire they inspired composers to write new works for the instrument and so opened up the range of music available. Casals in particular brought cello technique forward: he opened out his shoulders, freeing out expressive possibilities for the players. Ironically, although Casals did more than anyone to create modern cello music, he didn't care for it very much and usually refused to play music of anything but the previous two centuries. However, it didn't stop Schoenberg writing a Concerto for him. A landmark for the cello is the solo Sonata by Zoltan Kodaly, which was championed by Janos Starker from an early age and stretched the instrument's technical possibilities. Cello concertos and sonatas became a standard task for a composer, and Mstislav Rostropovich was behind the writing of major works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Britten, who wrote three solo sonatas as well as a Cello Symphony. And with the recent interest in authentic music has come a revival of the baroque cello, with players such as Anner Bylsma playing works of the Bachs and other early composers on the instruments they were written for, or on copies of them.

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