The cello’s full name is violoncello, and its origin is as the bass voice of the family called viola da braccio, literally ‘viol for the arm’. The viola da braccio was itself the ancestor of the modern viola. The smallest member of the family was given the Italian diminutive -ino, and so the violino – ‘little viola’– came into being. The biggest member of the family was therefore given the augmentative -one and became the violone ‘big viola’.
The size of the instrument was at first variable, and there is some evidence that early violones were actually held under the chin like the violin and viola. Fortunately the spike had not yet been developed….. The violone proper was also referred to as the bass violin and was invented in Italy in the 16th century specifically to be used in ensemble with the violin and viola. This version was a real whopper, and apart from the impossibility of holding it under the chin, it was not very easy to play with any agility. So slightly lighter instruments, though still in the bass register, were developed, which could be used to tackle more virtuosic music. Because these were smaller than the original ‘big viola’, another diminutive – ‘cello’ was added, and so violoncello ‘little big viola’ became its somewhat contradictory name. The now common shortening ’cello (with or without the apostrophe) therefore just means ‘little one’ or ‘cute thing’ in Italian. This must be ironic for cellists, whose main reason for test-driving a new car is to ensure that the boot is large enough to accommodate the ‘little one’.
To start with, the violoncello’s strings were tuned in fifths with the violin, but very soon the modern tuning of C, G, D, A – an octave below that of the viola – was adopted as more practical for ensemble playing. Antonio Stradivari was primarily responsible for standardising the size of the instrument in the early 18th century. The body of the cello is now usually 75–76 cms. During the course of the 18th century the neck too was lengthened, along with those of the rest of the family of instruments, and the string length of about 69 cms was established.
Early pictures of cellists show them seated with the instrument upright but resting on the floor. This made playing difficult because the left hand had to help support the instrument as well as do the fingering. Players then began to hold the cello between the knees, supporting the bottom of it with the calves as with the viol. This freed up the left hand and made it possible for the cellist to play a more demanding role in the ensemble. The thumb could be moved from the back of the cello neck to the strings and serve as a mobile bridge so that the fingers could reach further down the instrument for playing in higher registers. The introduction of the spike or endpin to support the weight of the instrument improved matters still more.
Further advances occurred in the later 18th century with the invention of the concave bow made of pernambuco wood. This gave a much greater flexibility to the bowing technique, and the cello was able to further its reputation as a truly virtuosic instrument already established from the superb solo suites of J.S. Bach and the concertos of Haydn. Among the most sought after instruments today are the wonderful cellos created by Antonio Stradivari (Cremona 1644–1737) and Domenico Montagnana (Venice 1686–1750).
There is a long-standing opinion that the sound of the cello is the closest an instrument can get to the quality of the human voice. Certainly the superb romantic concertos of Dvořák, Schumann and Elgar, not to mention Brahms’ double concerto for violin and cello, show the instrument at its lyrical heights. The cello is also a glorious chamber instrument and its ability to convey a huge range of tone colour, dynamic and sensitivity have been wonderfully exploited by many composers, including Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert and in the hands of great players like Pablo Casals, Mstislav Rostropovitch, Pierre Fournier, Paul Tortelier, Jacqueline du Pré and more recently Yoyo Ma, Stephen Isserlis, Natalie Clein and many others.
The cello is also used in popular music of which the Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is perhaps the most iconic example.
The downside to being a cellist? Travelling. It’s difficult to fit into cars, trains and buses. When you fly, security always assumes the case contains a bomb – or a terrorist. You have to buy a separate seat for it on the aeroplane but it still doesn’t qualify for a free drink.