Introduction, Part Four

The History of the Viola da Gamba


It has already been pointed out that the viola da gamba, which for nearly three hundred years (for the "Basso di viola,"or Gerle's "great violin,"was, in fact, a gamba, although as yet of a somewhat primitive form) had played an important part both as an orchestral and solo instrument, was replaced by the violoncello in the course of the eighteenth century. Subsequently when the violin as a leading instrument in melody usurped the place of the cornet (Zinken), and the discant viola (French par dessus de viole), it became necessary to provide an equivalent for the bass part of string quartets, as the tone of the gamba in ensemble playing proved too weak and thin in proportion to the violin.

Mattheson says of it, in his "Neu eroffneten Orchestre,"which appeared in 1713: "The plaintive Viola da gamba (Fr., Basse de Viole, properly so called) is a beautiful delicate instrument, and he who wishes to signalise himself on it must not keep his hands long in his pockets. . . . Its chief use in concerts is only for the strengthening of the basses, and some indeed pretend to execute a 'Thorough Bass' on it, of which, up to now, I have never seen a good attempt."

In opposition to this last somewhat sarcastic remark of Mattheson is what Gerber states a hundred years later (Vol. I., p. 6, of his "New "Musicians'Lexicon) concerning the gamba. He there says: "It is remarkable in the history of music that his (Abel's) instrument was buried with him in the year 1787 in total oblivion: the indispensable gamba, without which for a hundred years neither church nor chamber music could be arranged, which in all public and private concerts had the exclusive right to be heard before all other instruments from the beginning to the end, and which therefore, like caskets, must not only be exquisitely finished in every size, large and small, but was also ordered, bought, and paid for adorned with the most costly artistic carving -- ivory, tortoiseshell, gold, and silver--then available. In the course of time there will be no vestige left in the whole of Europe of this instrument, once so universal and admired; henceforth it will have to be sought for amongst the old woodcuts in Praetorius, or specimens of it, stringless and wormeaten, in a royal music chamber. Another sad proof how greatly Apollo is overruled by the goddess Fashion. The taste of our forefathers for these soft, modest, humming viola tones is also remarkable; they were a quiet, contented, peace-loving people! In the present time the instruments for our musicians cannot be chosen sufficiently high and shrill." (What would Gerber have said had he lived to see the present demand for instruments required to make up an orchestra?)

It is plain that although Gerber himself played the cello, this instrument was also known to him, and he had not only remarked the disproportion between the tone of the violins and those of the gambas in the orchestra with regard to strength, but also the circumstance that, by the creative faculty of Haydn and Mozart in the region of higher instrumental music, the gamba had become wholly superfluous. The superior qualities of the violoncello to the gamba as a solo instrument had escaped him, although the conspicuous success of cello players in the second half of the last century could not have remained unknown to him. It seems, therefore, as if Gerber had a special predilection for the gamba--a taste which only a few of his contemporaries shared with him.

Gerber's (Gerber's "Old Musical Lexicon," p. 617, and Note, p. 86.) confident assertion that the French priest, Tardieu, of Tarascon, had invented the violoncello "in the year 1708," is simply to be relegated to the region of fable, for the instrument had already existed long before in Italy. (In the preface to the violoncello tutor already mentioned, by Corrette, the untenable assertion is made that the violoncello was discovered by Bonocin (Buononcini), "pr6sentement Maitre de Chapelle du Roi de Portugal."A Bononcini, with the Christian name of Domenico, actually lived in 1737 at the Lisbon Court. At that period, according to FAis, he must have been eighty-five years old, He must therefore have been born in 1652. He could not have invented the violoncello (if one could call it an invention), as it evidently existed before his birth. It is not even certain that Domenico Bononcini was a cellist. Possibly Corrette confounded him with Giov. Battista Bononcini mentioned later.)

Fetis remarks (p. 47) in his article "Antoine Stradivari" (Paris, 1856) : The violoncello had already been mentioned by Praetorius in his "Syntagma Mus."(1614-1620), which is a mistake, for the work referred to contains neither the name nor the illustration of this instrument (Another inaccuracy in FWs's "Stradivari," p. 46, is that the name of violino "had already appeared in Lanfranco's work I Scintille'of 1533." This announcement has caused some confusion. Before Lanfranco's work was accessible to me, I also in bona fide had made the same assertion in my "History of Instrumental Music of the Sixteenth Century " (p. 73), and I now correct it. The word "Violino" is not mentioned by Lanfranco, but in every case only the termination "Violone," which is bass viol.). But the violoncello must already have been in use about this time in Italy, for, according to Rob. Eitner (See monthly Magazine,for the History Of Music, Year XVI., No. 3.), it is mentioned in a publication of the year 1641, and then in a work of Freschi's, which appeared in l660 as "Violoneino." In Arresti's Sonatas in two and three parts, of the year 1665, it is called "Violoncello." It was of great importance for the Italian instrument makers to produce a bass instrument of the violin type which had already been in use from the middle of the sixteenth century, and this certainly happened towards the end of that period. This is proved by the Brescian Gaspard da Salo (1550-1612) (The well-known violin maker, Aug. Riechers, in Berlin, possesses a violoncello by Gaspard da S&16 (small size).Whether Andreas Amati, the founder of the famous Cremona school (born 1520, died 1580), constructed similar instruments appears doubtful. Apparently the gamba as well as the violin served as guides for the proportions in the construction of the violoncello. From the violin were borrowed the outlines of the soundbox, the arched back, which the more ancient gambas, whose backs were flat, did not have; also the F holes and the fingerboard without frets. From the gamba were taken the large proportions of the violoncello. It was at first constructed like the gamba, in smaller and larger dimensions, until Stradivarius established a standard size. Whether the most famous German violin maker, Jacob Stainer (born 1621, died 1683), made violoncellos is much doubted by experts. It is, however, certain that he made gambas, which were often converted into violoncellos.

According to Eitner's previously mentioned assertion, it appears that the last-named instrument was at first called "Violoncino," and a little while after "Violoncello." The Italian affixes "ino" and "ello" have a diminutive meaning, and therefore both names have an identical signification. As violino is the diminutive of viola, violoncino and violoncello are the diminutives of "violone." The tenor of our day, which also at that time sprang from the alto or tenor viola, after the pattern of the violin, received the name of Viola da braccio, which means "arm viola." Besides the Viola da braccio there was also a "Viola da Spalla," which was not placed beneath the chin, but rested on the left shoulder. Concerning this bass instrument Mattheson remarks : "The Viola da spalla, or shoulder-viola, has a particularly grand effect in accompaniment from its penetrating and pure tone. A bass can never be more distinctly and clearly brought out than by this instrument. It is fastened by a ribbon to the chest and thrown over the right shoulder, but has nothing which can stop or prevent in the smallest degree its resonance."

To return to the violoncello. It offered the player two very important advantages over the gamba. First, the finger technique was wholly unlimited because the fingerboard had no frets, which, in regard to runs and cadences, as well as change of positions, opposed a substantial hindrance to the gamba player. Then the player on the violoncello could obtain more tone than on the gamba, by drawing the bow more forcibly over a single string. The upper edge of the bridge of the gamba, over which the strings passed, was so flatly cut for harmonised or part-playing that it was necessary to avoid a strong tone, lest the neighbouring strings should be thereby sympathetically affected. But the bridge of the cello, on the contrary, was of a more convex form, whereby playing in parts was indeed precluded. As is known, on the cello as on the violin, only double stops and chords are possible, and the last only broken up. In this manner the violoncello was used formerly at the performances of operas and oratorios as solo accompaniment of recitatives, for which of course it was requisite that the player should have a thorough knowledge of music theoretically, as he had to execute at sight figured basses.

Corrette gives already in his violoncello tutor (1741) instructions for accompanying recitative. These directions are, however, by no means exhaustive ; such are first found in the cello tutor compiled for the Paris Conservatoire by De Baillot, Levasseur, Catel, and Baudiot, which appeared in print in 1804. Therein it is said:

"In order to accompany well a recitative, a complete knowledge of harmony and of the violoncello is necessary; one must be intimate with figured basses, and know how to execute them readily. He who can do this has reached the summit of art ; for it presupposes a great deal of necessary information, and still more the power of judging how to turn it to account.

"If the bass player is not certain of the resolutions of discords, if he is unable positively to indicate to the singer when he is to make a, complete or a broken cadence, if in his concords he does not know how to avoid forbidden fifths and octaves-he is in danger of confusing the singer, and in any case he will produce a most disagreeable effect.

"As in good compositions, a recitative ('The French call this kind of recitative accompaniment 'Ile recitatif italien.') always follows a well defined progression and adapts itself to the character of the part, to the situation portrayed, and to the voice of the singer: in the accompaniment--1. The strength of the tone must be regulated according to the effect to be produced, for the accompaniment must sustain and embellish the singing and not spoil and drown it. 2. The chord must not be repeated, except when the harmony changes. 3. The accompaniment must be quite simple, without flourishes or runs. Good accompanying always has in view the best rendering of the subject, and when the player allows himself to fill up certain gaps with a short interlude, this must only consist of the notes of the chord. 4. The chord must be played without Arpeggio, ordinarily in the following manner

Baudiot in his violoncello tutor, which appeared later than the above, makes the following remark concerning the accompaniment of recitative: "It sometimes happens that the actors linger on the scene without reciting (speaking), be it that they have forgotten the text of what they have to recite, or that for Eome other reason they are silent. At times their appearance on the boards is delayed. In such cases, the accompanist (i.e., the cellist) can perform short preludes and embellishments at his pleasure. But he must be modest about it, and employ his ornaments at the right moment, and always with taste." (Accompanying the recitative with the cello was customary far into our century. I heard it in Italy at the representation of the old operas up to the year 1873. 1 am unable to say if the practice is continued. It has been abolished in Germany for the last ten years.)

To the art of violoncello making the same applies as to the violin. The productions of the Italian makers surpass those of all other nations. Amongst them, those manufactured by Nicholas Amati, Stradivari, and Gius. Guarneri del Gesu are most to be preferred and justly so. (The widespread opinion that Gins. Guarneri of the Ges-h did not make violoncellos is unfounded. Aug. Riecher informs me that Major H-r, in Berlin, is in possession of a cello which is undoubtedly genuine. Yet it seems as if this member of the Guarneri family had only made a limited number.)

Stradivari and Amati made their cellos of two different sizes; the larger one was formerly called "il Basso,"while the smaller was distipguisbed as the Violoncello proper. The latter is the more preferable as being more manageable; in these days it is used as a valuable model.

As to the violoncello bow, which had the following form in the first half of the eighteenth century, (The sketch is taken from Corrette's Violoncello Tutor, which was published in 1741.)

its progress went hand in hand with that of the violin bow. The improvements which were successively made on the latter were effected on the former. The greatest perfection reached by the bow was the work of a Frenchman, Francois Tourte. To this day he has never been excelled in this department. (See Appendix A.)

The fabrication, however, of good violin and cello bows has latterly become very general; and especially in Markneukirchen the manufacture of bows as well as instruments has received a great impulse . (In my paper "The Violin and its Masters," second edition (Breitkopf and Hartel), I have given a more detailed account of it as well as of the productions of the Italian, German, and French masters, which it is unnecessary to repeat here. See also the fabrication of musical instruments in Saxon Voigtland, by Furstenau and Berthold, 1876.)

End of Introduction


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