The Baroque Cello

This bass violin was made by William Baker of Oxford, in 1672

Not many modern cellists have taken an interest in the Baroque cello, and the performance practices associated with Baroque music. The line drawing shows the differences between a typical 18th-century cello and a modern cello.

The wedge under the fingerboard was eventually removed, the neck angled back and the bridge height increased. Most modern string instruments are set up in a state of high tension that maximises tone production and penetrating power, both qualities being highly prized for performance in large rooms. By contrast the sound ideal for instruments in the Baroque era was one of internal resonance, and this was achieved by the use of lower tension in the Baroque set-up.

The Baroque cello is played without an endpin, which makes it easier to learn to play on gut strings. An endpin brings the modern cello higher against the body and angles it to the player's advantage for all the technical difficulties of modern compositions. But, the original hold of the cello on the legs allows a greater freedom of movement in the upper body. When experimenting with this, bear in mind that the cello does not need to be gripped tightly between the knees; it is sufficient to make a diamond shape with one's legs, resting the cello on the sides of the calves. Chair height is important, and will vary with the height and leg length of the cellist.

Strings and Bowing Techniques

English cello bow from 1720

Most cellists of our generation prefer to use metal strings, or at least perlon wound with metal. As one would expect, metal strings produce a brighter harder sound than gut strings. This is the result of strong high harmonics in their sound profile. The use of vibrato both softens this hard edge and helps the sound to carry in larger rooms.

Gut strings have a softer, more translucent tone and the quieter high harmonics allow their sound to blend more easily with the resonances of other instruments. Remember also that the commonly accepted Baroque pitch for A is 415Hz, rather than the normal 440Hz. The lower tension on the strings due to this lower pitch may also contribute to the characteristic resonant Baroque sound.

The Baroque bow is not like our modern cello bows, in several respects. The convex shape of the Baroque bow allows it to hug the string a little more than a modern bow. This is an advantage when playing on gut strings as they have more surface resistance than metal, and dealing with this resistance factor is the key to making a good sound. The Baroque bow is also ideal for achieving the articulation of shorter notes.

The Baroque cello bow should be held further from the frog, keeping the middle finger in contact with the hair. The resistance of the bow at the beginning of each stroke should be overcome by bow speed rather than by pressure. The shape and speed of the bow may also be used to create a natural crescendo and decrescendo on longer notes.

The Baroque cellist should have the sensation of pulling out the sound from the instrument. Shorter articulated strokes can be achieved easily nearer the heel of the bow by using a dig and release action, almost like plucking. Many Baroque theories of bowing were based on the principle of down bows being considered stronger than up bows.

Luigi Boccherini, 1743-1805

Baroque Performance

Baroque performing practices continue to be the subject of a vast range of discussion and research. Our knowledge of the way musicians played in the 17th and 18th centuries necessarily relies on our own interpretation of the many texts and treatises written at the time. Sometimes period instrument performances are criticized as being too "affected" or artificial.

Highlighting the line of a melody, was just as important in the Baroque period as in the later Romantic. The Baroque ornamentations, slurrings and articulations need not interfere with melodic line, but may be considered forms of punctuation in the melodic sentence.

Bass lines are a famous characteristic of Baroque music, and they greatly influence the energy of the whole ensemble. Most imporant in this respect is articulation. The use of a short, articulated bow stroke helps to clarify the texture of the music and brings it to life by highlighting its dance-like qualities. The well-articulated bass line provides a beautiful contrast to a lyrical upper line.

Much Baroque music had its origins in dance, and the baroque cellist must be knowledgeable of the dances known to the people of the Baroque era. Awareness of the steps in a given dance will certainly help us to assign a hierarchy of stresses to any sequence of notes within it. As a rule of thumb the first beat of a bar is the strongest, corresponding to a downward, earthbound motion in the dance. Often the interest lies in departures from this rule; for example the minuet is based on a longer step pattern than is contained in a single bar, so emphasis should be made on every alternate bar. The sarabande has an important step on the second beat of the bar, so the emphasis can be stronger there than on the first beat. The Sarabande from Bach's third solo cello suite provides a perfect example of this.

Another factor in establishing the character of the Baroque essence, or sound, is an awareness of harmony, as it works together with strong rhythmic figures. The Baroque cellist must give special attention to underlining the fundamental harmonies specified by Baroque composers in the "figured bass."

A common criticism of early music performances is that they are out of tune, a problem which can often be traced to the hazards of playing on gut strings, which are susceptible to variations of temperature and humidity. Repeated tuning during performances is essential. String players sometimes have difficulty tuning to the modern piano because we are naturally inclined to make pure intervals. Such intervals do not exist on the "well-tempered piano." In Baroque string ensembles the listener will hear pure thirds and leading notes above the tonic of the simpler keys.

The ornamentation of melodies and phrases with trills, appoggiatura, turns or mordents is a well-known aspect of Baroque performance. Dramatic effects can be created by varying the length of an ppoggiatura or the speed of a trill. Baroque composers wrote extensively about the subject. It is interesting to note that ornamental styles varied considerably in Europe from nation to nation. The embellishments of Italians Tartini and Corelli are not the same as the more subtle turns and passing notes in the music of the French court.

Vibrato may be seen as another form of ornamentation, or means of sweetening the tone of a note. There is a place for vibrato in Baroque cello playing, but the performer should be judicious.

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