Recent Re-evaluations of the Baroque Cello

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  • Early Music, Vol. xxxviii, No. 2 The Author 2010. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. doi:10.1093/em/caq030, available online at


    I n his definition of the violoncello, Johann Mattheson offers one of many descriptions of the instrument which do not conform precisely to todays historical construct of the Baroque cello: Der hervorragende Violoncello, die Bassa Viola und Viola di Spala, sind kleine Bass-Geigen in Vergleichung der grssern mit 5 auch wol 6. Sayten worauff man mit leichterer Arbeit als auff grossen Machinen allerhand geschwinde Sachen, Variationes und Manieren machen kan insonderheit hat die Viola di Spala, oder Schulter-Viole einen grossen Effect beym Accompagnement, weil sie starck durchschneiden und die Tohne rein exprimiren kan. Ein Bass kan nimmer dis-tincter und deutlicher herausgebracht werden als auff diesem Instrument. Es wird mit einem Bande an der Brust befestigt und gleichsam auff die rechte Schulter geworffen, hat also nichts dass seinem Resonantz im geringsten aufhlt oder verhindert. fn1 1

    The excellent Violoncello, the Bassa Viola, and the Viola di Spalla are small bass violins in comparison with the larger ones with five or also six strings, upon which one can play all manner of rapid things, variations, and ornaments with less effort than on the larger machines. Particularly, the Viola di Spalla, or Shoulder Viola produces a great effect when accompanying because it cuts through strongly and can express the notes clearly. A bass [line] cannot be brought out more distinctly and clearly than on this instru-ment. It is attached with a strap to the chest and at the same time it is thrown on the right shoulder, and that way there is nothing that can impede or prevent its resonance.

    Not enough attention has been given to such descriptions in the past, because they were consid-ered to be too far removed from the general con-ception of what a cello was supposed to be: five or six strings did not represent the normal cello, and the viola da spalla was understood to be a different instrument altogether. Recent research has finally

    given such descriptions their proper value, particu-larly in light of iconographical evidence. In the past two decades, scholars have begun not only to revise entirely our understanding of what the violone might have been, but also to re-evaluate our notions about the violoncello in the 17th and 18th centuries. fn2 2 At this point we can no longer assume that the term violoncello was used everywhere in Europe exclu-sively to denote the four-string small bass violin (tuned C G d a ) played in da gamba position with overhand bow grip, as Michel Corrette shows and is the first to describe in his Methode, thorique et pratique: Pour Apprendre en peu de tems le Violon-celle dans sa Perfection of 1741. fn3 3

    Before developing these ideas any further, I wish to point out that my work on this topic is part of a larger group effort that involves scholars, instru-ment-makers, connoisseurs and performers. fn4 4 With an in-depth critical re-reading of treatises and docu-ments, on a more nuanced and fresh (re-)evaluation of iconographical sources and by an open-minded questioning of the repertory itself, the scholarly and performing communities have come to realize that violoncello means only a small bass violin, liter-ally a small violone which, in itself, can be a variety of organological types with different sizes, shapes, number of strings, tunings and playing techniques.

    In the first part of this article, I will consider the sit-uation of the violoncello before the publication of the first cello method by Corrette, from which modern Baroque cellists have taken their cues. In the second part, I reflect on some issues in Bachs music. I will not tackle here the other big problem regarding bass

    Marc Vanscheeuwijck

    Recent re-evaluations of the Baroque cello

    and what they might mean for performing the

    music of J. S. Bach

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  • 182 early music may 2010

    violins, that is, the question of the violone , which has recently been addressed in part, but is still far from being solved.

    As a short parenthesis, I must emphasize the fol-lowing: the budding late 18th-century passion for standardization which developed into 19th-century evolutionary and positivistic thinking and culmi-nated in more recent global theories and in our obses-sion with systematization has resulted in some clear but highly artificial and anachronistic separations of issues and ideas that were not necessarily so separate in the 17th and early 18th centuries. For example, in looking at bowed bass instruments we recognize viole da gamba only if they correspond to our modern con-struct of what a viola da gamba should be. fn5 5 The same is true for viole da braccio, and whatever fits neither group is too often designated a hybrid , which, in fact, appears to be the largest of the three categories. This is definitely a notion that current post-modern thought is no longer willing to accept, because it does not correspond to what is now considered to be the reality of the past.

    Whether the instrument was held da gamba , da spalla , da braccio , across the players lap, or standing on the floor, on a stool, with some sort of endpin, fn6 6 or hung with a rope around the neck or shoulders; whether it had four, five or six strings; whether the bow was held overhand or underhand; whether the left-hand position was diatonic or chromatic; or whether the strings were tuned in 5ths or in a combi-nation of 4ths and 5ths (about this specific point, see below) all these factors are to be ascertained on the basis of situational, regional and even local practices, through information gathered from the various types of sources and, very importantly, from the repertory as well. In short, scholars and performers have in recent years finally begun to address a number of these specific questions related to the traditionally mono-lithic approach to what the violoncello may have been before it became the later 18th-century instrument so long considered to be the Baroque cello.

    First, to return briefly to the idea of variable num-bers of strings and tunings. In his treatise of 1752, Quantz advises that cellists should own two instru-ments: one of a larger size with thick strings (and a stronger, heavier bow with black horse hair) for ripi-eno parts in large ensembles, and a smaller cello (he does not mention how much smaller) for solo parts. fn7 7

    Boccherini, too, in his inventory of personal belong-ings from 26 April 1787, refers to a Jacob Stainer cello and a violoncello piccolo. fn8 8 Iconographical sources and a variety of treatises (including Matthesons Das Neu-erffnete Orchestre of 1713), as well as some sur-viving instruments, confirm the existence of various sizes of bass violins (or violoni ) of the smaller type with four or five strings, tuned an octave below the violin (four-string instruments), or in C G d a e (often also C G d a d ) and called violoncello (after 1665), violoncino , viola or bassetto (starting in 1641). fn9 9

    In some other specific case studies I have recently investigated, such as the Ricercate of 1687 by the Bolognese organist Giovanni Battista DeglAntonii fn10 10 or the two concertos by Giuseppe Tartini fn11 11 writ-ten for his cellist Antonio Vandini in Padua, I have argued that if we are interested in historical performance practice, we are bound (as cellists) to accept that the Baroque cello as it is known today is not the instrument these composers had in mind. DeglAntonii, I believe, was really thinking about a violoncello da spalla with five strings, whereas Tartini, in composing for Vandini, wrote for a small bass violin, with four or five strings tuned respec-tively as G d a d or e or C G d a d (or better yet, D G d a d ), fn12 12 and played rigorously with underhand bow grip. This last sort of instrument was indeed quite common, particularly in Venetian, Neapolitan, Bolognese, German, and even in Vien-nese and British contexts, as can be seen in various concertos and/or sonatas by Antonio Vivaldi, Anto-nio Caldara, Leonardo Leo, Nicola Fiorenza, Nicola Sabatino, Nicola Antonio Porpora, fn13 13 Giacobbe Basevi (called il Cervetto ), Antonio Maria Bononcini and Carlo Graziani (see illus.1). fn14 14 In many German regions as well, such small-size cellos were often used: for example, the cantatas with solo violoncello piccolo and the Suite no.6 for violoncello ( bwv 1012) by J. S. Bach, and the 1789 Sonata per il Cembalo o Pianoforte et Violoncello obligato in A major by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach. fn15 15 Furthermore, in European iconographical sources of the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries for bass violins, large or small, with four, five or six strings, played da gamba , I have found hardly a single image in which the player holds the bow in overhand grip. fn16 16

    The tendency towards holding the bow in the modern, overhand grip is first described by Corrette

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    in his 1741 treatise and appears increasingly from the second quarter of the 18th century. In recalling the cello concertos Antonio Vivaldi wrote in the 1720s, when Vandini was teaching at the Piet, cer-tain tendencies similar to Tartinis concertos can be observed: there is not much v