PART ONE, THE CELLO
Amongst the solo instruments, the cello is probably not the smallest, but it is the youngest. It is so young that I might even say that only in the twentieth century has the cello reached its maturity and earned the right to be considered on the same level as the piano and the violin.
When Amati and Stradivari, etc., made their famous celli, it seems that there was little expectation that they would be used as solo instruments. Rather it was thought that they would be used in accompanying, as for example, in nightly serenades. Many of these old instruments had holes in their backs-evidently so they could be hung on straps and played while a person was standing. These were the general uses of the cello at a time when the early masters of the violin, Tartini and Corelli, who had made of the violin a singularly popular instrument, had already died.
From the earliest days of the cello, there are actually lovelier instruments than fitting music. True, the Bach suites belong to this period. But they only move in the lower positions and do not allow the instrumentalist to realize the possibilities of the cello. Not for some fifty years after these suites were written do we find thumb position mentioned. It was first noted by the famous Duport at the time he was developing his school of cello playing in Paris. Only then did the cello as we know it today become accessible to the instrumentalist.
This altered technique opened up hitherto hidden possibilities and beauties in cello playing, and in addition brought with it the first great compositions for cello and the first great artists on the instrument.
Developments proceeded rapidly. However if one studies these developments one can observe the composers groping their way forward. I have often considered how these changes came about in the last half of the eighteenth century. It must have been as cellists became more aware of the possibilities of their instruments, the composers in turn provided the music for these newly opened vistas.
The leading cellists of this time were Duport Sr. in Paris, Kraft in Vienna, and later Duport Jr. and Romberg in Berlin. For quite a long period it appears that the usual personal relationships which existed between composers and cellists played a decisive role in the evolution of the cello. For example, Haydn, who had until that time used the cello only as an accompanying instrument, began writing passages for the cello in his symphonies and string quartets. These passages presupposed a new awareness, hence, a new influence, on the composer.
Also at that time the widely known cellist and composer, Boccherini, composed a quintet for two celli, in which he gave a carrying part to one cello and a solo part to the second cello, the latter having nothing at all in common with the traditional way of handling this instrument. In short, the "A" string had been discovered.
We might also cite the case of Mozart, who unfortunately never wrote a concerto for cello. However, later in his career, the cello begins to figure very strongly in his writing. His last and perhaps loveliest quartets are called the cello quartets. This is because, in a manner that was novel for that time, the cello shares with the violin the solo role.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the era of experimentation had passed. The cello had succeeded in establishing itself as a solo instrument. In the cello part of Beethoven's Triple Concerto, we find amongst the most masterly, most difficult, and at the same time loveliest solo parts ever written for the cello. Thus in the comparatively short period of thirty years, the cello had advanced from its role as an accompanying instrument to a position as a solo instrument of great stature. The pioneer age had passed.
Why then did the composers of the nineteenth century treat the cello as a stepchild? That it was so treated is evident in the comparatively small number of works composed for cello by the great masters. It is difficult to give a valid answer to this legitimate question. There are many opinions on the matter, but, in my humble opinion, there is only one answer: cellists did not succeed in developing a technique which would have made it possible to eliminate the special difficulties of the instrument in order to attain a pure artistic pleasure from cello playing.
I myself have heard different representatives of the last generation of the last century, who in turn were products of the previous generation, so that I can pass judgment about the great time span upon which my opinion is based. Technique was perfected only insofar as it enabled one to play quickly. The development of cello playing stood still where culture-that is art-begins. Though there were exceptions, the general trend only produced unpolished playing. At this time most of the cellists were German, yet Germany, with few exceptions, had no great string players. (Joachim, for instance, for fifty years Germany's leading string player, was a Hungarian Jew.) One took it for granted that scratching, muddiness, poor phrasing, unspeakable glissandi, even poor intonation were characteristic of the cello.
Many of the cellists were excellent musicians and good composers for their instruments. The trouble was that no one had shown them that the weaknesses of the instrument could be overcome and that the cello as a solo instrument, because of its wider range, could be superior even to the violin.
In Vienna a story about Brahms was still circulating, though he had been dead for thirty years: after Brahms had played his first cello sonata with the then foremost cellist of Vienna, the latter complained to him, "You played so loud that I couuld not hear myself." Brahms replied, "you are the lucky one."
When I took lessons with the famous Julius Klengel and I deviated from the usual fingering, he thought I did it only because of my long fingers. He could not understand that I did it to improve the phrasing. When I started concertizing twenty years ago, the critics complained that I played violin on the cello, because they were accustomed to the usual way of cello playing.
In a certain way, cellists were pitied for their unsuccessful efforts to compete with the violin; one expected to be bored at a cello recital. The public was only pleased with a few short solos; arrangements of a gavotte, a minuet, or an adagio, all played with a certain amount of "Schmaltz."
Cellists reached a certain level at the beginning of the development of their instrument, then stopped. Composers were certainly not inspired by what cello playing they had the chance to hear to write great works for that instrument nor did the public rush to hear cello recitals.
Finally, the great personality appeared on the cello horizon and through this one man the cello was established as a full-fledged member of the family of solo instruments. That man was Casals. Everyone who has heard him knows that a new period of the cello has come. He has shown that the cello can sing without "Schmaltz," that on no other instrument can phrasing be smoother; that through clever fingerings the disrupting jumps have disappeared and so have the ugly noises, up to then thought an integral part of cello playing.
What Liszt was to the piano, Viotti or Paganini to the violin, Casals is for the cello. We younger cellists must be most grateful to him, for he showed us what can be done on the cello, showed to the public what an artistic pleasure listening to cello playing can be, and inspired most of the contemporary composers to write for our instrument.
May I take the liberty here to speak directly to my colleagues. It seems to me that quite a number of them do not recognize that cello playing has been revolutionized during their own lifetime. Many of them stick to the way they have been taught and remain, even perhaps voluntarily, untouched by the changes I have spoken of, even try to resist them. They remind me of people who still rode in horsewagons when the railway was already running. The way piano and violin are played now has undergone only minor changes in the last hundred years while cello playing has reached a corresponding level only recently. I wish that my colleagues might open their minds to this, and by doing so do their share to make our instrument as much appreciated and popular as it deserves to be.