Cello: The Broader Story

The Violoncello and Its History by Joseph Wasielewski was written in the later 1800’s. By that time the cello had been around for about 200 years. It had been developed into a significant solo instrument.

Hundreds of Concertos, Sonatas, Variations, Character Pieces, and various compositions utilizing the cello in a solo capacity—such as double concertos (Brahms double for Violin and Cello), triple concertos (Beethoven triple for Violin, Cello, and Piano), for a few examples, had been already been written by this period toward the end of the 1800’s.

Not so much at the foreront of compositional achievements are the mountains of transcriptions done for cello. (Violin and piano do exactly the same—only for pianists it is acceptable, at least when done by Liszt). There is plenty of arranging that must be employed in order for the repertoire of another instrument to work sufficiently well on the cello. This post is not about transcriptions—that I leave for another post, it is only make one aware of the role they played along side the “serious” music such as concertos and sonatas.1

The Book about the history of the Violoncello.

This 200 page book takes us on a thoroughly examined journey into the life and development of the Cello. It begins with the pre-cursor known to us as the VIOLA DA GAMBA. for many decades the gamba and the cello coexisted and often were used simultaneously in the bands of patrons. Only when the need for a more powerful sound was needed more regularly did most groups began opting exclusively for the cello. (And when they began to notice how much cooler the cello.)

For the bulk of the book Wasielewski divides the history up by century, country, and specific individuals who made significant contributions to the cello’s progress in technique and music.

In the 1700’s we quickly realize, by virtue of the sheer number of names mentioned, that the instrument had become quite popular. Already, there was a market for soloists and for them to write music to take on tour.

The 1800’s were not much different in that broad sense either. Except that more well-known composers began writing big solo works for the cello. These compositions are not only solo pieces but they increasingly assigned greater technical demands upon the cellist. Just by listening to a number of selected works throughout these two centuries it is noticeable how much more ingenuity and virtuosity is needed to play the cello.

That is not to say that the cellist was not required to play difficult music in the 1700’s but rather that it was more predictable and adhered to the practice of the day.

By the time we get to the end of his exploration and listing of cellists (many of them composers as well) we are well aware of the vast collection of compositions that Nobody now hears of!!! Fortunately, there are efforts being made by some record labels—Naxos might be the first of its kind, Brilliant Classics, and Bis, Hyperion (to some degree)—to target unknown works.

Back to The Violincello and Its History: At the CONCLUSION of the book there is another obvious factor in the hindrance of the cello’s emergence into the soloists limelight. That is, volume/power. When the book was published strings were still mostly gut core with steel winding. It would not be until the mid-20th century that we get the powerful metal strings like chromium, aluminum, steel, and tungsten. We don’t use strings with gut in them anymore. If there is a non metal element is some composite material.

It becomes more clear with that knowledge as to why there were fewer concertos being written. The violin’s higher pitch simply made it more capable to playing over the orchestra. While the sheer girth if the lower strings made playing rapid passages rather cumbersome and unwieldy. (Rather like the cheapest of steel strings students purchase too save money-more than 50% less.)

1 Isn’t it ironic that the 1800’s are chock full of transcriptions that were utilized and performed a great deal? Yet, the method books of the day are mostly laden with dry exercises that rarely held any performance interest. However, the 1900’s are rife with method books teeming with transcriptions, while the performance life of a transcription is limited to a soiree or a family gathering. Indeed, Suzuki’s method books are built on the transcriptions he made for his violin volumes 1 and 2.

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