There’s Always Room For Cello

“Ah, Juilliard.  It was like prison, but with cellos.”  ~Robin Williams

Yesterday, somewhat plagued by the darkness in this world and the mind-boggling disrespect mankind has for human life, I found myself listening to the Benedictus of Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace. Classical music is a balm to a ragged soul, after all.  The first few minutes, during which only a cello sings a mournful melody (with a touch of flute and other strings), are transporting.

Soul soothed, albeit temporarily, I began thinking about the cello and what a beautiful instrument it is, then wondered about its provenance…

The first cello-like instrument emerged in northern Italy in the early 16th century. Until then, the violin’s earliest precursor, the viola da braccio, was the instrument of choice.  Artisans such as Andrea Amati, Gasparo da Salò and Paolo Maggini wanted to expand the violin’s sound to deeper ranges, thus the instrument had to be built on a much larger scale and the violoncello (“big little violin”) was born.

By the end of the 16th century, a standard bass violin (violone) had been established and was often partnered with the violin in the music of that day.  Wire-wound strings were invented in the mid-17th century in Bologna and produced a much louder sound with more ring than the conventional gut strings.  It was then that the first real cellos were built and used for solo performances.  Violones were literally sawed apart and resized to fit the new design.  But by 1710, Antonio Stradivari unveiled what became the design and proportions of choice, and it is the famed luthier’s design which remains in use today.

By the turn of the 19th century, performance experience had led to refinements in design, including a higher string tension (producing a clearer tone), a thinner, taller bridge and a sharper neck angle.  The end of the 19th century saw the invention of the endpin for resting the cello on the floor, whereas previously the instrument had been held between the calves.  The endpin proved essential for stability and height during playing.  In the 1920s, steel strings gifted the cello with longer-sustained notes, clearer sound, and amplified volume.

In 2012, a Stradivarius cello built in 1707 and one of sixty surviving of its kind, sold at auction for well over six million dollars. Nicknamed “The Countess of Stainlein“, it was once owned by violinist Niccolò Paganini. In 1822, it nearly suffered an untimely and malodorous demise in a Milan city dump. In the late 1990s, it underwent a meticulous two-year restoration.

Perhaps the most widely known and beloved music written for the cello are the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by J.S. Bach.  Other landmark compositions include Dvorák’s Cello Concerto (a front-runner here at Sib Rev), Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1, and Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto in A Minor.  And for those of you who claim you have never listened to the cello, queue up “Good Vibrations”, “Eleanor Rigby”, or “Strawberry Fields Forever” for a classical sneak-up.

Lastly, after all of this highbrow music history, I would be remiss if I did not mention the phenomenon that is the styrofoam cello.  Far from the days of Stradivari, an ingenious student at the College of Ghent has found a truly unique way to amplify the sound of this lustrous and honored instrument.  Happy weekend, dear Revelers!

The Countess of Stainlein, one of sixty surviving Stradivari cellos.

The Countess of Stainlein, one of sixty surviving Stradivari cellos.

Advertisements

Son of a Mendel!

Although I will assert that no one wears a forehead better than he, Felix Mendelssohn’s music has always left me rather lukewarm.  This predicament became clear a few years ago, when, after singing both parts of his oratorio Elijah, my one conclusion was that within the first syllable of Mendelssohn is “Meh”. (Which, in hindsight, is insane. Three words, soprano-sung: “Hear ye, Israel!”)

“Meh”, indeed.  Until recently, when over the glistening waves of Pandora a familiar theme was heard and I thought “I LOVE this piece!” A quick glance at the screen told me it was none other than the handiwork of Mendelssohn- the Allegro vivace movement of his Symphony No. 4 Op. 90 “Italian”.

In all honesty, how could I hold up the mission we hold so dear here at Sibling Revelry (in case you haven’t memorized it, we strive to make the wide world of classical music approachable and enjoyable for all mankind) while disdaining a composer who is generally quite popular?  It was time that I learned something from my own blog.

Felix spent the better part of 1830-1831 in Italy, indulging his admiration of Italian art and culture and honing his skills as an amateur watercolorist. Unfortunately, his impressions of Italian music were quite opposite. “I have not heard a single note worth remembering”, he lamented in letters to relatives and friends. The knife was further twisted upon discovering that the orchestras of Rome were “unbelievably bad”.  As homage to the country he had come to hold dear- and perhaps to compensate for its one flaw- Mendelssohn began writing his fourth symphony in Italy in 1832 and completed it in Berlin in 1833.  He was never fully satisfied with it, however (even refusing to have it performed in Germany) and gave it at least two revisions: one in 1837, and again in 1847, shortly before his death at the tender age of 38.  It was finally published four years later by one of Mendelssohn’s teachers, Czech pianist Ignaz Moscheles.

The Allegro vivace is just that: fast and lively.  Some musicologists say it was inspired by Felix’s time in Venice.  Metered in 6/8, it is bright, flowing and nicely textured.  I particularly like the little “chat” between the strings’ line and that of the woodwinds’/brass.  You may very well recognize the opening theme, as I did on that day when the “Meh” was taken out of “Mendelssohn”!

I’ve chosen three performances to contemplate.  The first is the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein and his usual exuberance.  The second performance is the Orchestra of Aix, chosen because of the glaring difference in tempo. The third is a live performance by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, conducted by Paavo Järvi.  I hope you’ll enjoy this musical painting very much!

“This is Italy! And now has begun what I have always thought… to be the supreme joy in life. And I am loving it. Today was so rich that now, in the evening, I must collect myself a little, and so I am writing to you to thank you, dear parents, for having given me all this happiness.”  ~Felix Mendelssohn in a letter from Venice to his father Abraham, October 10th 1830

Mendelssohn Sym 4 Allegro vivace Mendelssohn

Hello? Is it us you’re looking for?

To our cherished readers (and we use the word “readers” with great pretension, since in reality there is likely only one of you left, clutching our URL like one adrift at sea)…we’re back!  Apologies for the ridiculously long hiatus; however, for one of us it revolved around the arrival of the most revelrous baby boy, and for the other it revolved around being World’s Greatest Uncle to that baby boy.

We love writing about our favorite subject and entertaining you kind folks with our small shards of wisdom and wit, so from the bottom of our hearts, thank you for reading!