Introduction to the Art of
Cello Playing in the 18th Century


In the seventeenth century the violoncello still occupied a very subordinate and modest position; during the period mentioned, with very few exceptions, it was employed only as a bass instrument in the orchestra. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, there was already a great change; for Mattheson says in his "Neu eroffneten Orchestre,"which appeared in 1713:-

"The PROMINENT Violoncello, the Bass Viol, and the Viola da Spalla are small bass fiddles (viols) similar to the larger ones, with five or six strings, on which can be played all kinds of quick things, variations and movements much more easily than on the larger machines "(Mattheson means the contra-basso). (Mattheson expresses himself about this in his original manner as follows: "The growling Violone (French, Basse de Violon; German, Grosse Bass Geige) is quite twice the size of the former, sometimes even more, consequently the strings, in thickness and length, are in proportion. They are of sixteen -feet tone, and most useful on the stage as a solid foundation for polyphonous pieces, such as choruses and similar things, as well as for airs and recitatives; its deep humming tone penetrates farther than the clavier and other bass instruments. It must, however, be heavy work if one has to practise this monster for three or four hours unceasingly.")

It is, therefore, quite conceivable that some time was necessary, before the players, who were unaccustomed to the undivided fingerboard of the cello, were sufficiently confident of a finger technique differing so completely from that of the gamba. They were at first limited to the lower part of the fingerboard, as was the case primarily with the violin (Concerning this, I refer to my work "The Violin and its Masters,"second edition, 1883. (Breitkopf and Hartel, Leipsic.). The position of the thumb, by means of which the higher and highest positions on the fingerboard could alone be fixed and maintained with certainty, could hardly have been known before the beginning of the eighteenth century. The violoncello at this time, as appears from Mattlieson's account just mentioned, had sometimes a set of five or even six strings like the gamba. On the five-stringed instruments the tuning was

The Abbe Tardieu already referred to, who played the violoncello, -according to Gerber, had the same tuning on his instrument. About the third decade of the last century, those who used five-stringed instruments gave up the highest string-(the D). - From that time the four-stringed instrument with the tuning C, G, D, A came very generally into use. The latter was not altogether a novelty. Praetorius mentions it in his "Syntagma Mus."as the "Bass Viol de Braccio."(Michael Corrette in the preface to his Violoncello Tutor refers to a stringed instrument in general use before the introduction of the violoncello into France with the tuning B, F, C, G, which he calls Basse de Violon. The instrument must be identical with the one described by Mattheson as Basse de Violon.)

In Germany the use of the violoncello as an orchestral instrument ensued later than in Italy, though much sooner than in France. For although it had been introduced into the Parisian Opera in 1727, by the cellist Batistin, to be mentioned later on, it had been already in use since 1680 in the Vienna Hofkapelle. The Saxon Hofkapelle at Dresden next followed by the installation of four violoncellists. Their names are Daniel Hennig, Agostino Antonio de Rossi, Jean Baptiste Jose du Houbondel, and Jean Prach de Tilloy (Fiirstenau: "On the History of Music and the Theatre at the Court of the Princes of Saxony."). As two of these players have French names, it is to be assumed that the violoncello had already found representatives in France at the beginning of.the eighteenth century.

The example set by Vienna and Dresden was soon imitated also by other German Courts. The band of Duke Charles Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp affords a case in point. As this prince, the future son-in-law of Peter the Great, found himself obliged, in 1720, to reside at the Russian Imperial Court, his private musicians followed him thither, amongst whom there was a cellist (Hiller, Weekly Xew8 of May 21, 1770.).

As the gamba enjoyed a great amount of favour (Mattheson says, in his "Neu eroffneten Orchestre,"that this instrument (Basse de Viols) was singularly prized and cultivated.) in Germany, the introduction of the violoncello was not effected without difficulty, to which indeed the gambists, who thought their pretended rights were thereby infringed, not a little contributed. For in a paper which appeared in 1757 in the French language, "Observations sur la Musique," &c., it is said: "La seule basse de viole a declare la guerre au violoncelle qui a remporte la victoire et elle a ete si complete quo l'on craint maintenant que la fameuse viole, l'incomparable sicilienne ne soit vendue a quelque inventaire a un prix mediocre et que quelque luthier profane ne s'avise d'en faire une enseigne." (H. Leblanc published a "Mense de la Basse de Viole contre les entreprises du Violon et les pr6tentions du Violoncel."Amsterdam, 1740.)

It was not quite so bad as the last words of the announcement lead one to suppose. Even if the violoncello caused the gamba to be quite superfluous in the orchestra, the latter was cultivated as a solo instrument for some time longer, and many of the good old gambas were in course of time metamorphosed into violoncellos, and made available for further use; while the more insignificant specimens were destroyed, if they were not required for completing instrumental collections and so preserved from destruction.

The art of violoncello playing in the first stages of its development was, as regards the method of treatment, not so much favoured as violin playing. To the latter a definite direction for imitation was early given, as soon indeed as the end of the seventeenth century, by the Roman school founded by Arcangelo Corelli, which was soon followed by the foundation of the Paduan and Piedmontese schools. Violoncello playing lacked such classical parent schools. Wh en a few prominent artists of this instrument had brought it into greater consideration, centres were formed by distinguished masters for the study of the cello, which supplied the want of proper schools, about which we shall have more to say farther on.

It is easy to understand how it followed that the violoncello was first valued in the land of itsbirth-that is, in Italy, not only as an orchestral instrument but also for solo playing. How this important branch of art was there developed we shall see in the next section.


Italy in the 18th Century

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