by Broderip & Wilkinson, with excellent musical examples by Giacobbe Cervetto
Genealogy and Cello
One thing that most of us have in common is the interest in where we come from. We like to know our own ancestral history and perhaps even trace the current generation back in time through a family tree. This kind of knowledge seems to give people a sense of belonging, indeed some pride of life.
If, per chance, one doesn’t know so clearly from whence he or she came there seems to be something missing. I mean, to put it in the perspective of knowing one’s family history, that when you know, it gives you more meaning, projects from your being so that your step is sure and purposeful.
That frequently leads to the point, especially with the globalized world we now live in, when we question why we do things the way we do them. I mean, we were raised a certain way, did that thing a specific way, pronounced words a particular way, etc. Going back in history, as it were, tracing the ancestry, and, if you’re lucky enough to find some written material, read about life back then is bolstering. It aids a person in validating customs, habits, little idiosyncrasies (at least in the eye of another person not raised that way), and finally the life you are leading now.
For me, looking back in time, reading old material about cello playing is sort of like looking into the family history. Very often, as I teach, students ask questions that pertain to symbols and terminology. Early on in my teaching career, I had to confess that I simply didn’t know, only that we just did it that way.
The more I read old material, the more I realize that some elements of playing date back a long, long time. It also makes me think that, while some things may seem a little odd to the beginner, that the progenitors of string playing had to call each element something. Grunting, it seems to me, is quite an inefficient way of communicating.
One example in cello playing, students will often wonder why you say Up Bow and Down Bow. The bow rarely goes up or down as we learn those terms. The simplest answer is that the fore-bearers said it that way, therefore we continue on that way. That, in turn, having created a universal jargon, makes communication quick and easy. (If an argument arises, it is usually a hopeless endeavor to convince them otherwise until they hear everyone using those universal terms.)
An Old Treatise, One of the Earliest
Borderip & Wilkinson’s Complete Treatise for Violoncello is a prime example, because it is so old. It utilizes much of the same language that English speakers still use in the present day. You can, occasionally, read some term that differs but often times the connection is readily understandable.
There is one glaring example where separate terminology for note types meet a fork in the proverbial musical road. The British have retained the old, and seemingly original names for Whole, Half, Quarter notes, and so on. That is, semibreve, minim, crotchet. Whereas, the Americans have adopted the German (as far as I can tell-or could the Italians have done that first?) way of naming the same, only translating them into English. Otherwise, both countries share a remarkably similar musical jargon.
As far as understanding cello playing specifically, and where some idiosyncratic jargon originates, and is perpetuated one must read many Cello Treaties and Method books across the 250 year history of the cello.
Why Bother with an Antiquated Cello Treatise
My argument for this Early cello treatise, from c. 1784 (likely a bit later) is that it contains language that native English speakers used to describe the workings of the cello. As far as English speakers are concerned, we had to translate virtually everything from Italian since the viola da gamba and violin families originated in Italy. Knowing some of the earlier ways of translating and describing all the various elements of cello playing can be enlightening.
It is fascinating to read a document such as this. It seems that when something works well, the amount of changes made are few, and small at that. (I’m not speaking of that actual act of playing the instrument. That is a completely different topic and will come into view later on when I arrive at the 19th century.)
We have passed down these terms from teacher to pupil for over 200 years. It is how we understand the language. What a brilliant little discovery, even if this treatise is cast off as little more than a curiosity. It still shows us a piece of history about the amazing Cello.
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