The origin of the cello
The bass viola da braccio
No one knows for sure when exactly the first cello was created. However, based on the instrument's first mention in writing, we know that it was being used at the beginning of the 16th century. At first it appears that the instrument was called the bass viola da braccio ("viola for the arm"). As the name suggests, this was a viola da braccio (one of the ancestors of the violin) that was capable of playing in a lower register.
Wooden mosaic in the Vatican depicting a bass viola da braccio
The history of the cello
How the structure of the cello has changed over the years
Cellos until the first half of the 17th century did not have a set number of strings, and instruments with anywhere from three to five strings were played in a variety of tunings. However, during the first half of the 17th century, cellos in Italy were generally four-stringed instruments tuned to C-G-d-a, and this gradually spread to other countries as well. From the 18th century onwards fingerboards grew increasingly long, the shapes of bridges and bows were changed, and other detailed modifications were made in order to these instruments louder. By the second half of the 19th century, cellos were generally supported on their end pins (until then they were held between the knees and played, like a viola da gamba). Steel (or nylon) strings became commonly used at the start of the 20th century, replacing the gut strings that were used until then.
Cello is a shortened form of the Italian word violoncello, which means 'small large violin. ... The cello is said to be the second-largest bowed string instrument in the world after the double bass. The oldest cello that exists to date is known as The King. Andrea Amati built it between 1538 and 1560.
Andrea Amati was the first person who got exposure for making the cello. While Amati was not the inventor of the cello, he rose to popularity for building cellos for Charles IX King of France. Paintings from the 12th and 13th centuries depict the violin, indicating that it existed in the music of that era. However, the cello was developed in the 15th century.
The reason for the cello’s late entrance into music was, in part, due to the trend of the sound ideal in Western European music. Back then, vocal music had supremacy over the whole music field. That meant the singers of that time would practically decide the ideals.
Extensive performance practices during the fifteenth century led singers to realize they needed a tone with high pitch and nasal. In other words, there was a demand for a sound that associates closely with today’s Eastern music. The need for this tone led to the creation of what is known today as the cello.
Antonio Stradivari is credited for determining the standard size of the modern cello. After 1710, he started to create celli that measured between the two original dimensions of the instrument (too large and too small). Other cello makers around Europe soon adopted the cello size introduced by Antonio Stradivari, making it the standard size for the instrument.
Cultural transformations and the demand for different tones furthered changed the sound of the cello. For example, there was a need for sounds that can be heard by larger audiences rather than soft sounds made for private, limited audiences.
Cello makers made innovations and alterations to the instrument to enhance its volume, precision, and receptiveness. For instance, they raised the bridge to intensify string pressure and increase volume. The neck and fingerboard were also stretched and re-angled for clarity and responsiveness.
Today, the cello has made its way into different musical genres. It has even got its dedicated style called Cello rock - a subgenre of rock music, underscoring gothic sounds. The modern cello is an interesting instrument, thanks to the innovations and improvements made to it. This instrument’s versatility ensures that it will continue to delight music lovers for hundreds of years.
Fun facts about the Cello instrument
- Cello is a shortened form of the Italian word violoncello, which means ‘small large violin.’
- The cello is said to be the second-largest bowed string instrument in the world after the double bass.
- The oldest cello that exists to date is known as The King. Andrea Amati built it between 1538 and 1560. You can go and see this instrument at the National Music Museum in South Dakota.
- A person who plays the cello is called a cellist or violoncellist.
- Initially, sheep and goat guts were used to make the cello strings. However, the modern cello strings are made of metallic material.
- The plural form of the cello is celli or cellos.
- Historically, cellos played in groups had thicker black hair on a denser bow and cellos for solo playing had white hair on a lighter bow.
- Cello is closely associated with European classical music.
- The cello has not always had four strings. In Germany and the Dutch areas during the 17th and 18th centuries, celli with five strings were prevalent.
- The cello is used commonly in Jazz, Rock, and Pop music.
- Liz Davis Maxfield and Mike Block are two of the most popular cello players in the world.
The cello (/ˈtʃɛloʊ/ CHEL-oh; plural celli or cellos) or violoncello (/ˌvaɪələnˈtʃɛloʊ/ VY-ə-lən-CHEL-oh; Italian pronunciation: [vjolonˈtʃɛllo]) is a bowed (and occasionally plucked) string instrument of the violin family. Its four strings are usually tuned in perfect fifths: from low to high, C2, G2, D3 and A3, an octave lower than the viola. Music for the cello is generally written in the bass clef, with tenor clef and treble clef used for higher-range passages.
The cello section of the orchestra of the Munich University of Applied Sciences is shown here.
Cellos are part of the standard symphony orchestra, which usually includes eight to twelve cello players. The cello section, in standard orchestral seating, is located on stage left (the audience's right) in the front, opposite the first violin section. However, some orchestras and conductors prefer switching the positioning of the viola and cello sections. The principal cellist is the section leader, determining bowings for the section in conjunction with other string principals, playing solos and leading entrances (when the section begins to play its part). Principal players always sit closest to the audience.
The cellos are a critical part of orchestral music; all symphonic works involve the cello section, and many pieces require cello soli or solos. Much of the time, cellos provide part of the low-register harmony for the orchestra. Often, the cello section plays the melody for a brief period, before returning to the harmony role. There are also cello concertos, which are orchestral pieces that feature a solo cellist accompanied by an entire orchestra.
The cello is less common in popular music than in classical music. Several bands feature a cello in their standard line-up, including Hoppy Jones of the Ink Spots and Joe Kwon of the Avett Brothers. The more common use in pop and rock is to bring the instrument in for a particular song. In the 1960s, artists such as the Beatles and Cher used the cello in popular music, in songs such as The Beatles' "Yesterday", "Eleanor Rigby" and "Strawberry Fields Forever", and Cher's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)". "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys includes the cello in its instrumental ensemble, which includes a number of instruments unusual for this sort of music.
The cello can also be used in bluegrass and folk music, with notable players including Ben Sollee of the Sparrow Quartet and the "Cajun cellist" Sean Grissom, as well as Vyvienne Long who, in addition to her own projects, has played for those of Damien Rice. Cellists such as Natalie Haas, Abby Newton and Liz Davis Maxfield have contributed significantly to the use of cello playing in Celtic folk music, often with the cello featured as a primary melodic instrument and employing the skills and techniques of traditional fiddle playing. Lindsay Mac is becoming well known for playing the cello like a guitar, with her cover of The Beatles' "Blackbird".
Main parts of the cello
The cello is typically made from carved wood, although other materials such as carbon fiber or aluminum may be used. A traditional cello has a spruce top, with maple for the back, sides, and neck. Other woods, such as poplar or willow, are sometimes used for the back and sides. Less expensive cellos frequently have tops and backs made of laminated wood. Laminated cellos are widely used in elementary and secondary school orchestras and youth orchestras, because they are much more durable than carved wood cellos (i.e., they are less likely to crack if bumped or dropped) and they are much less expensive.
The top and back are traditionally hand-carved, though less expensive cellos are often machine-produced. The sides, or ribs, are made by heating the wood and bending it around forms. The cello body has a wide top bout, narrow middle formed by two C-bouts, and wide bottom bout, with the bridge and F holes just below the middle. The top and back of the cello has decorative border inlay known as purfling. While purfling is attractive, it is also functional: if the instrument is struck, the purfling can prevent cracking of the wood. A crack may form at the rim of the instrument, but spreads no further. Without purfling, cracks can spread up or down the top or back. Playing, traveling and the weather all affect the cello and can increase a crack if purfling is not in place. Less expensive instruments typically have painted purfling.
Neck, fingerboard, pegbox, and scroll
Above the main body is the carved neck. The neck has a curved cross-section on its underside, which is where the player's thumb runs along the neck during playing. The neck which leads to a pegbox and the scroll. The neck, pegbox, and scroll are normally carved out of a single piece of wood, usually maple. The fingerboard is glued to the neck and extends over the body of the instrument. The fingerboard is given a curved shape, matching the curve on the bridge. Both the fingerboard and bridge need to be curved so that the performer can bow individual strings. If the cello were to have a flat fingerboard and bridge, as with a typical guitar, the performer would only be able to bow the "outer" two strings or bow all the strings. The performer would not be able to play the "inner" two strings alone.
The nut is a raised piece of wood, fitted where the fingerboard meets the pegbox, in which the strings rest in shallow slots or grooves to keep them the correct distance apart. The pegbox houses four tapered tuning pegs, one for each string. The pegs are used to tune the cello by either tightening or loosening the string. The pegs are called "friction pegs", because they maintain their position by friction. The scroll is a traditional ornamental part of the cello and a feature of all other members of the violin family. Ebony is usually used for the tuning pegs, fingerboard, and nut, but other hardwoods, such as boxwood or rosewood, can be used. Black fittings on low-cost instruments are often made from inexpensive wood that has been blackened or "ebonized" to look like ebony, which is much harder and more expensive. Ebonised parts such as tuning pegs may crack or split, and the black surface of the fingerboard will eventually wear down to reveal the lighter wood underneath.
Historically, cello strings had cores made out of catgut, which, despite its name is made from sheep or goat intestines which are dried out. Most modern strings used in the 2010s are wound with metallic materials like aluminum, titanium and chromium. Cellists may mix different types of strings on their instruments. The pitches of the open strings are C, G, D, and A (black note heads in the playing range figure above), unless alternative tuning (scordatura) is specified by the composer. Some composers (e.g. Ottorino Respighi in the final movement of ‘’The Pines of Rome’’) ask that the low C be tuned down to a B-flat so that the performer can play a different low note on the lowest open string.
Tailpiece and endpin
The tailpiece and endpin are found in the lower part of the cello. The tailpiece is the part of the cello to which the "ball ends" of the strings are attached by passing them through holes. The tailpiece is attached to the bottom of the cello. The tailpiece is traditionally made of ebony or another hard wood, but can also be made of plastic or steel on lower-cost instruments. It attaches the strings to the lower end of the cello, and can have one or more fine tuners. The fine tuners are used to make smaller adjustments to the pitch of the string. The fine tuners can increase the tension of each string (raising the pitch) or decrease the tension of the string (lowering the pitch). When the performer is putting on a new string, the fine tuner for that string is normally reset to a middle position, and then the peg is turned to bring the string up to pitch. The fine turners are used for subtle, minor adjustments to pitch, such as tuning a cello to the oboe's 440 Hz A note or to tune the cello to a piano.
The endpin or spike is made of wood, metal or rigid carbon fibre and supports the cello in playing position. The endpin can be retracted into the hollow body of the instrument when the cello is being transported in its case. This makes the cello easier to move about. When the performer wishes to play the cello, the endpin is pulled out to lengthen it. The endpin is locked into the player's preferred length with a screw mechanism. The adjustable nature of endpins enables performers of different ages and body sizes to adjust the endpin length to suit them. In the Baroque period the cello was held between the calves, as there was no endpin at that time. The endpin was "introduced by Adrien Servais c. 1845 to give the instrument greater stability". Modern endpins are retractable and adjustable; older ones were removed when not in use. (The word "endpin" sometimes also refers to the button of wood located at this place in all instruments in the violin family, but this is usually called "tailpin".) The sharp tip of the cello's endpin is sometimes capped with a rubber tip that protects the tip from dulling and prevents the cello from slipping on the floor. Many cellists use a rubber pad with a metal cup to keep the tip from slipping on the floor. A number of accessories to keep the endpin from slipping; these include ropes which attach to the chair leg and other devices.
Bridge and f-holes
The bridge of a cello, with a mute (the mute is not in use)
The bridge holds the strings above the cello and transfers their vibrations to the top of the instrument and the soundpost inside (see below). The bridge is not glued, but rather held in place by the tension of the strings. The bridge is usually positioned by the cross point of the "f-hole" (i.e., where the horizontal line occurs in the "f"). The f-holes, named for their shape, are located on either side of the bridge, and allow air to move in and out of the instrument as part of the sound-production process. They probably actually stand for an old style medial S, for words related to Sound. The f-holes also act as access points to the interior of the cello for repairs or maintenance. Sometimes a small length of rubber hose containing a water-soaked sponge, called a Dampit, is inserted through the f-holes, and serves as a humidifier. This keeps the wood components of the cello from drying out.