The violoncello (abbreviated to Cello in English and German) is a member of the string group of orchestral instruments, and the bass member of the violin family. As with all other violin-like instruments, the cello is primarily played with a bow strung with horse or synthetic hair, allowing a good deal of control over the resultant note and its tone. The cello is tuned in perfect fifths an octave lower than the viola at A3 D3 G2 C2.
Coming into existence around the early fifteenth century, the advent of the cello parallels the move towards a lower register as polyphonic vocal music gained acceptance, due in no small part to the work of the Franco-Flemish School and its most celebrated composer, Johannes Ockeghem. As Western vocal music became more complex, instrumental music followed suit allowing definite bass and tenor parts to form in accepted and expected multi-part harmony. The need or desire was for a “bass violin” to add a lower register of accompaniment and harmony to the melodies provided by the violins before the viola more completely held the middle register.
In line with the rest of the violin family, the fingerboard of the cello is unfretted, providing infinite variation to the played note at the expense of the requirement of increased accuracy by the musician. A fretted cello-like instrument does exist, the viola da gamba (from which the cello’s role evolved and eventually took over during the eighteenth century), but the frets make the microtonal adjustments required for orchestral participation extremely difficult to play, and therefore unsuitable for this type of music.
The main body of the cello (and its method of acoustically amplifying the vibration of the strings) is the sound box. This is mechanically connected to the strings by the bridge. The vibrating strings cause the bridge to react sympathetically and transfer this sympathetic vibration to the top plate of the cello (what we see as the “front”). The greater surface area of the top plate produces a far greater volume of sound than the string alone due to the increased mass of air moved.
The strings of a modern cello are anchored to the bottom of the instrument via a tailpiece which is attached (via the tailpiece “loop”) around the supporting floor spike so we don’t need the complex system of struts for support and reinforcement that would be found in an instrument with a bridge affixed to the top plate such as an acoustic guitar. The only two internal components are a bass bar running under the C string and a sound post located just below the bridge which connects the top and bottom plates, allowing them to resonate sympathetically. The bass bar serves to distribute the vibrations from the bridge and also lends some support to the top of the instrument which might be as little as four millimetres thick.
The size of the cello’s body has settled and standardised at around 75 centimetres long after experimentation which began in seventeenth century Bologna by various luthiers, including Antonio Stradivari. Previous to this the instrument was larger and more difficult to play, especially when attempting faster passages. The woods used in the construction of the instrument have also become traditionally standardised with spruce used for the top plate and maple for the sides, back and neck. The fingerboard is traditionally ebony. Modern luthiers frequently experiment with other woods and materials such as carbon fibre or aluminium for reasons of cost, scarcity of traditional tonewoods and to achieve aesthetic or tonal effects.
A feature seen on all members of the violin family is the scroll and pegbox at the top of the neck. The tuning pegs aren’t cylindrical, but slightly conical to allow the player to push the peg “into” the pegbox as it’s being tuned, generating the friction which holds the peg in place.
Development has continued throughout the history of the instrument and the eighteenth century saw the arrival of several important improvements including the thinning and lengthening of both the neck and fingerboard and the introduction of more robust, thinner and tighter strings, resulting in increased responsiveness in both the instrument and the tone produced. Another innovation worthy of note was the development of the concave bow by François Tourte in the eighteen-seventies, resulting in the precision and level of manipulation of the instrument that modern players can employ.
The cello came to prominence as a recognised solo instrument in the seventeenth century after works such as those by J. S. Bach (Six suites for solo cello) and Haydn (Cello concerto in C Major) were performed to a wider audience, and the baton was taken up by other composers such as Brahms and Saint-Saëns. As the solo repertoire grew, so did the cello’s role in the orchestra with later compositions from the likes of Dvorak, Elgar and Shostakovich.
Playing these enhanced roles required a more disciplined, focussed and competent musician and several notable performers from the classical and romantic periods are documented. Cellists such as Domenico Gabrielli (1659-1690), Giovanni Battista Cirri (1724-1808) and Jean-Baptiste Bréval (1753-1823) paved the way for future virtuosos, each raising the profile of the instrument. Moving into the romantic period we find outstanding musicians such as the Bohemian Antonín Kraft (1752-1820) and Bernhard Romberg (1767-1841) from Germany playing their part to promote the Cello. Many of these prominent instrumentalists were also composers, ensuring that their instrument of choice was given suitable exposure in their productions.
Music for cello is usually written in the bass clef and the available range of four octaves makes it extremely versatile. As a consequence of this, a cello score may frequently move to the treble clef.
Compositions focussing on the cello in the classical and romantic periods were provided by most if not all of the major composers with work from Mozart, Haydn, Boccherini and Beethoven clarifying the ideas that had been provided by Bach, Handel, et al. By the time of the early romantics such as Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn, the cello was firmly entrenched as both a member of the orchestra and as a solo instrument and many sonatas were composed for it.
It would be impossible to outline the effect that each of these composers had on the development of the cello as a classical or romantic symphonic instrument but one piece stands out for me, Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor Op. 104.
Of all the stringed instruments, the cello is most closely comparable to the human voice, generating empathy between the musician and listener and because of this, audiences have always found the cello compositions approachable. This piece by Dvořák seems to exemplify the range and dynamic of the instrument, both leading and supporting the orchestra with virtuoso flourishes and rhythmic stability in turn while maintaining this accessibility for the listener. There’s no conflict between the two sides, orchestra and soloist, no battle of wills and most importantly, the listener is permitted to just enjoy the well-rounded whole without having to perform any cerebral gymnastics in order to make sense of the work.
A final note about this most versatile of instruments returns us to the first point regarding its malleability of tone. Like all of the bowed string instruments, the cello can be played in a number of ways, generating multiple, sometimes compound effects: Col Legno (with the back (wood) of the bow), pizzicato (plucking the strings), natural and artificial harmonics, the list goes on and more are being discovered and developed. The cello is particularly receptive to this type of adventurous technique due to its well balanced size, scale (string) length and playable range. The strings are neither too short and thin like the violin or viola, restricting manipulation and movement, nor too long and heavy like the double bass, needing too much energy to excite, therefore becoming cumbersome and lacking dynamism. The cello is ready for another ars nova in orchestral and solo music and can be expected to lead the way.