The Violin Family
A Review

I highly recommend this book (which unfortunately is out of print). Some of the information in the book is available online by subscription from http://www.grovemusic.com. You may also find it in a used book store.

The Violin Family, CoverThe Violin Family is a volume from The New Grove Musical Instruments Series, published in 1989 by W.W. Norton and Company, New York. It is a well-bound paperback book, about five inches wide and eight inches high, with thick glossy covers. There are 315 pages, including the index.

Chapter Six is entitled "The Violoncello," and is written by Klaus Marx, with Malcolm Boyd and Sonya Monosoff. It deals with the evolution, technique, performers and repertoire of the cello.


The name 'violoncello' first became current in the mid-17th century, but bass violins of one kind or another are mentioned in several treatises of the 16th and early 17th centuries, jambe de Fer (1556, p.610 referred to the 'bas de violon', Zacconi (1592, p.218) to the 'basso di viola da braccio', Praetorius (ii, 2/1619, 'Tabella universalis', p.26) to the 'bass viol de braccio' and Mersenne (ii, 1637, p.185) to the 'basse de violon'. The term 'violone' is often found in Italian church archives of the same period (e.g. those of Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo) to refer to a bass violin rather than a bass (or doublebass) viola da gamba (see Bonta, 1978), and it is as a diminutive of this that the instrument now known as the violoncello is recognized. The earliest known use of the term 'violoncello' is in Giulio Cesare Arresti's Sonate op.4 (Venice, 1665).

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Five String CelloThe instrument originated in the early 16th century as a member of a whole family of instruments, of different sizes and with varying compasses, known as 'viole da braccio'.

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The bass instrument thus acquired its modern tuning of C-G-d-a (an octave below the viola), which had been described by H. Gerle (Musica teusch, Nuremberg, 1532).

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The earliest known makers of instruments that would be recognized today as cellos were Andrea Amati (d before 1580) of Cremona, Gasparo da Salo (1540-1609) of Brescia and his pupil Giovanni Paolo Maggini (c1581-c1632). Their instruments were considerably larger than the standard modern cello, some having a body length of 80 cm or more (surviving examples have been reduced in size).

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The dimensions of the cello nevertheless continued to fluctuate during the rest of the century, varying between 73 and 80 cm, with a preference for the larger model.............. David Tecchler was still making fine examples of the larger model in Rome in the mid-18th century...............it did not arrive at the now normal length of about 69 cm until the necks of the whole violin family were lengthened during the 18th century.

Other modifications made to the violin family during the 18th century were due to changing concepts of the sound required. The neck and fingerboard were lengthened and curved more sharply, the bridge was raised, and thinner and tauter strings gave the cello a clearer and more responsive tone.

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Cello resting on floor between kneesThe principal factors governing the development of cello playing technique were its structural and functional membership in the violin family and the size necessitated by its compass, which inevitably led to some approximation to viol technique; the cello could only be played upright, like the viola da gamba. By the last quarter of the 17th century viol players, especially in France, had developed highly flexible and refined left-hand and bowing techniques.

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At first the cello player sat with the instrument placed between his legs on the floor (see fig.31, p.158) or stood with it leant against his body or supported with a strap. Occasionally it was placed on a stool, and some pictures show it held in a horizontal position, perhaps to play pizzicato or merely to pose. The grip round the neck, with the fingers falling obliquely on to the strings, and the purely diatonic fingering, with four fingers filling in the intervals between the 5ths in which the instrument was tuned, both derived from violin playing. This technique was good enough for the simple demands made of the instrument in the 16th century, when the violin family occupied a musically and socially humble position, being used principally for dance music. However, as the rise of monody, thorough bass and concertante style around 1600 gave the violin an increasing importance, the cello, too, was called upon to perform a more complex role, demanding'a technique more suited to the length of its strings and the position in which it was held. The instrument was from then held without the aid of the left hand, leaving it more free to execute fast passages and changes of position, while the fingers came down on the strings vertically, making double stopping possible.

Boccherini with no endpinTowards 1700 it became usual for the player to place the instrument between his knees and support it with his calves (see fig. 32, p. 160), in the traditional posture of the bass viol player. This high position permitted him to draw back the neck towards himself, so that the left hand could approach the strings from the side instead of from behind and could thus reach the whole area of the fingerboard without difficulty. Since the place where the bow touched the strings (the 'point of contact') was also raised, the entire length of the bow could be used. This way of holding the cello made possible the introduction .(cl720) of the practice of using the thumb as a movable saddle in the upper registers, thus making the entire compass of the instrument more accessible. Thumb position is first described in Michel Corrette's Methode (1741; see p. 164 below).

Courette's MethodeBecause of the length of its strings, the purely diatonic fingering of the violin is not at all suitable for the cello, and this fingering was changed, after a transitional, still diatonic, stage (which used the first, second and fourth, or first, second and third fingers) to a system with regular semitone intervals between one finger and the next, with the option of extending the interval between the first and second fingers to a whole tone.

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There are no instruction manuals from this period (the earliest dates from the mid-18th century, and such works, being designed for amateurs, are anyway rudimentary), and the researcher is forced to base any deductions on such evidence as can be gleaned from a detailed study of the demands made by the repertory.

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Until the second half of the 18th century cello bowsticks were either straight or convex, like those of the viol and the violin. The usual grip was 'overhand', with the palm of the hand turned downwards - the same grip as that used with smaller members of the violin family......................Tourte fixed the length of the cello bow at 72 to 73 cm, with playing hair of 60 to 62 cm.

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In Italy, where the viol had been completely replaced by the violin by the beginning of the 17th century, cello technique remained related to violin technique for an exceptionally long time; it was there that the cello first became a solo instrument.

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The teaching activities of the Paris circle of cellists must have been partly responsible for the number of instruction manuals for the instrument published at a relatively early date. Michel Corrette's Mithode thiorique et pratique (1741) is generally thought to be the earliest cello method in any language, but it may have been preceded by the undated manuscript (in the Conservatorio di Musica S Pietro a Majella, Naples) Principii da i . mparare a suonare il violoncello by Francesco Scipriani (16781753). Corrette's fingerings are derived from violin technique, with slight consideration of the vertical position of the cello or of its size. Corrette did say, however, that if the neck is gripped too firmly by the hand, the fingers cannot move freely, nor can the thumb move to thumb position. This is the earliest mention of the thumb for playing beyond the 3rd position, though Klaus Marx (1963) was of the opinion that in view of the fact that new techniques are published in instruction manuals only after they have been known for some time, its use must have been established rather earlier. Corrette gave fingerings for scales in the 1st position, beginning on the C string (0124), and chromatic fingerings with slides. He also gave examples of half-position (1234) and said that violinists 'ne peuvent point s'accoutumer cette position'. (It is difficult to understand why violinists could not get used to the half-position; perhaps Corrette thought that it would cramp the violinist's hand.) In a chapter on shifting, fingerings are given up to the 4th position, with some extension and thumb-position fingerings, the thumb being indicated by the word 'pouce'. Chapter 15 is for viol players who wish to learn the cello; comparative fingerings are given (fig.34).

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John Gunn's Hand Positions

Gunn's The Theory and Practice of Fingering the Violoncello is of particular interest since it includes the first serious attempt to write a history of the cello and cello playing. It was also more forward-looking. Gunn argued that neither the hand nor the thumb should grip the neck in such a way as to hamper the free movement of hand and fingers. (This meant that the cello was to be held entirely by the legs; the adjustable endpin was not invented until the 19th century.) He claimed that his method encompassed 'the principle of the best fingering known in practice'. A complete analysis of the fingerboard in ascending and descending scales is given, with fingerings that accord with modern cello technique. Difficult scale passages and shifts into high positions are called for, with fingerings which (though not always consistent with the text) represent a technique far more advanced than any covered in previous methods. Double stops and the use of high positions are taken for granted. Many of Gunn's examples are the bass lines of Corelli sonatas and concertos (ex.63).

The first comprehensive account of cello playing technique, reflecting the stage it had reached at the beginning of the 19th century, was in Jean-Louis Duport's Essai sur le doigtj du violoncelle, et sur la conduite de Parchet (Paris, c1813). Duport covers fingering systematically and includes specific instructions for holding the cello so that the left hand is free to shift uninhibitedly. Until this time, the neck of the instrument was held by the hand, and the fingers placed in Positions analogous to those of violinists. There are lengthy discourses (with exercises) on thumb positions and double stops, alternative fingerings for scale passages, and advice on how to avoid Playing Successive notes with the same finger (ex-64).

Regarding this practice Duport wrote: 'One willperhaps find it extraordinary that in the scales I carefully avoid playing two notes with the same finger, as one finds in all the principal books which have been published until now. My opinion is that this manner is vicious, and it produces a bad effect' (P. 17). Duport deals thoroughly with the first four positions and all the double stops, including 2nds, 4ths and tritones, are carefully fingered - something rare in cello and violin methods of any period. Even 7ths, as suspensions to 6ths, are treated carefully, as are arpeggiated figures that include extensions. The material presented in the Essai formed an excellent starting-point for the virtuoso playing heard later in the 19th century, which for the most part developed and perfected techniques described by Duport.

In Die Violoncellschulen vonj. J. F. Dotzauer F. A. Kummer und B. Romberg (1968), Josef Eckhardt makes detailed comparisons of their methods (1832, 1839 and 1840 respectively). Anachronistically, Romberg advocated a violin-oriented left-hand position, whereas Dotzauer and Kummer adopted the modern position: that is, fingers more squarely away from the neck. All of them emphasized that the hand must be free to move quickly over the fingerboard. According to Eckhardt, Kummer's fingering system (fig.35) formed the basis of our present system. A nice example of portamento from Dotzauer's method (ex.65) is cited by Eckhardt. None of them, however, used the adjustable endpin, which allowed for even greater stability of the instrument, freeing the left hand completely (a service tendered to violin playing by the chin rest, which Spohr claimed to have invented c1820).

The adjustable endpin was apparently first adopted about 1846 by the Belgian cellist A. F. Servais, but some kind of fixed endpin was known and used long before this. Robert Crome, in the second edition of his method, The Compleat Tutor, for the Violoncello (c1765), recommended beginners 'to have a hole made in the Tail-pin and a Wooden Peg to screw into it to rest on the Floor which may be taken out when he Pleases' (see Cowling, 1975, p.47f). The endpin made for greater security and improved resonance.

From Italy in the 19th century there came only one great cellist, Alfredo Piatti, who settled in London. Other London players included Robert Lindley and Piatti's pupils, William Edward Whitehouse and Leo Stern. The Paris school also waned; the only worthy successors to jean Henri Levasseur, Charles-Nicolas Baudiot and Louis Pierre Martin Norblin were Auguste Joseph Franchomme and Pierre Alexandre Francois Chevillard. A new centre in Brussels was founded by Duport's pupil Nicolas Joseph Platel; there Adrien Franqois Servais and Jules de Swert came to the fore. Germany became the main area of development.

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Guilhermina Suggia, painting by Augustus John

The difficulty for women of holding a cello in what fashionable society considered a ladylike way may have contributed to the paucity of women cellists before the 20th century. Van der Straeten (1898, 3/1915) described various 'side-saddle' postures used by women cellists, but reported that the normal way of holding the instrument, between the knees, had by then been almost universally adopted. There were other and more powerful social conventions which militated against women as instrumentalists in earlier centuries, but in spite of these some women did succeed in making careers as concert cellists. Among them was Lisa Cristiani (1827-1853), followed in the early 20th century by May Mukle, Beatrice Harrison, Guilhermina Suggia (pictured above) and Raya Garbousova.

Since 1900, players have had a steadily increasing success in bringing the tone of the cello in its higher registers closer to the more intense and lighter tone of the violin; in this way they have given the whole tonal range of the instrument a more persuasive sound quality. The use of longer or even bent endpins (used by Paul Tortelier and Mstislav Rostropovich; see below)



has helped, because the raising of the point at which the bow touches the strings and the greater inclination of the strings towards the horizontal both improve sound production and make it easier for the left hand to negotiate the upper part of the fingerboard; and technique has developed to the point that everything seems possible for the left hand. The use of steelcovered strings was another important development. Increasing preoccupation with chamber music, orchestral playing and teaching had even in the 19th century begun to prepare the ground for the change of emphasis from the virtuoso to the interpreter. Instrumental virtuosity is no longer regarded as an end in itself, and, technique is now the servant of musical interpretation. The major role in this change of emphasis was played by Pablo Casals in whose hands the cello became at last the equal of the violin as a solo instrument. Casals brought the Bach unaccompanied suites into the regular recital repertory and helped to make known a great deal of the chamber music repertory.

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Casals's pupil Maurice Eisenberg gave what must be the fullest exposition of Casals's left-hand technique in his Cello Playing of Today (1957). Before Eisenberg worked with Casals he studied with Klengel and Alexanian in Europe and W. Willeke in America. In his preface he says that his working with cellists of different 'schools' enabled him 'to see the changing outlook of our epoch in a clear perspective. Eisenberg spoke about 'vocalization' and the 'living hand': the hand 'must be trained to be so vital and flexible that as soon as a finger strikes its note, the preparation for the following note begins'. Ex.66 shows Eisenberg's fingerings for the beginning of the second subject of the first movement of Beethoven's Sonata op.69.

According to Eisenberg, 'the hand shifting must never be audible. When the hand moves backwards across the strings to a lower position, the thumb should act as a pivot over which the extended fingers are shifted swiftly and smoothly'.

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In a general way the development of the cello's technical resources has followed that of the violin, and many of the techniques available to the modern string player are common to both instruments (see Chapter Two, 51 and 2). These include vibrato, glissando, right- and left-hand pizzicato, natural and artificial harmonics, sul ponticello and col legno bowing and the use of the mute (see also Chapter Nine, 2). Particularly effective on the cello, because of its compass and sonority, is a combination of pizzicato, and glissando, used to good effect by Bartok, for example in his later string quartets.

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It was Luigi Boccherini who, as both composer and virtuoso cellist, did most to raise the status of the cello as a chamber and concerto instrument in the late 18th century. In his string quartets and notably in his quintets with two cellos he often gave the instrument a concertante role. His elegant, pleasing melodies and brilliant writing for the instrument made his concertos among the most popular of their day, His Concerto in B flat is still performed, although, until recently, most often in the edition of 1895 by Friedrich Grutzmacher who, besides taking the second movement from another concerto, made substantial alterations to both solo and orchestral parts (but see Scott, 1984). Boccherini's other ten concertos await the recognition among modern performers and audiences that Haydn's have come to enjoy. Haydn's beguiling Concerto in D (H Vllb:2, 1783) is a work in which virtuosity always serves musical ends and there is a perfect balance between soloist and orchestra. The work's authenticity was for a long time doubted because of its high technical demands; apparently Haydn was influenced by his pupil Anton Kraft (for whom the cello part of Beethoven's Triple Concerto op.56, 1814, was written). Haydn is now believed to have written five cello concertos, one of which (in C, H VIIb:1) was rediscovered in Prague in 1961.

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Most 19th-century solo works for the instrument were composed by cellists, who were strongly influenced, particularly at the beginning of the century, by the violin repertory. Travelling virtuosos wrote for their own use and also to meet the rapidly growing demands of flourishing middle-class audiences; their aim was both to satisfy the public's taste and to entertain. The artist's concern to demonstrate his technical capabilities and emotional eloquence was the most prominent feature of a large number of concertos, concert pieces and smaller forms with orchestral or piano accompaniment, down to salon pieces. There was also a torrent of arrangements of well-known themes, mostly taken from opera; fantasies, variations or potpourris of widely differing musical quality.

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19th-century compositions for solo cello were written almost excllusively as technical exercises. It was only after 1900, stimulated by Casals's rediscovery of Bach's suites as recital works, that new works in the genre began to be written for public performance by, among others, Reger (three suites, op.131c, 1915), Kodaly (op.8, 1915), Hindemith (op.25 no.3, 1923), Krenek (Suite op.84, 1939), Dallapiccola (Ciaccona, Intermezzo e Adagio, 1945), Henze (Serenade, 1949), George Crumb (Sonata, 1955), Bloch (three suites, 1956-7), Bernd Alois Zimmermann (Sonata, 1960), Britten (Suites op.72, 1964, op.80, 1968, and op.87, 1972), Xenakis (Nomos alpha, 1966) and Penderecki (Capriccio per Siegfried Palm, 1968).

While the cello has never been as well provided for as the violin and the piano, there has been a welcome increase in the number of worthwhile chamber and concertante works for solo cello in the 20th century.

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Many composers have found that the cello's combination of generous sonority and virtuoso capabilities make it better suited than other string instruments to the exploration of avant-garde techniques....The cellist Siegfried Palm (b 1927) has been a protagonist of cello technique among the avant-garde, and as well as giving numerous first performances he has inspired many new works.

Reviewer's Note: The entire book is full of useful black and white illustrations. The price is $14.95 US, and I highly recommend the book.

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