“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!