Learning 18th-Century Cello

I intend to document here my exploration of the 18th-century gut-strung cello, as I learn from 18th-century published Methods and iconographical images of cellists in action.

I have had no formal lessons in cello playing, but will be using my experience as a musician and performance-practice researcher to attempt to understand the art form, and should I never be able to play the instrument with any degree of success, I should be better-able to assess and appreciate other approaches by the recorded virtuosos of the last hundred years. And I intend to have a lot of fun doing so.

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Bowing

The Method books all describe overhand bowing, where the right hand is used in a similar way to modern bowing. [NB. when I say modern, in this context I mean post mid 19th century, or the Romantic era]. However, I am attracted to the older style of underhand bowing, as depicted in the following paintings from the mid 17th to 18th centuries:

This bow technique was inherited from viol playing, was used contemporaneously with it, and was (according to the Cambridge Companion To The Cello) used well into the 19th century, yet was certainly less common than overhand technique. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method, but as underhand technique was more common in Bach’s time, it will be my primary approach.

Here is a paper by Mark Smith, which appeared in a 1995 edition of Chelys, entitled, “The cello bow held the viol way; once common, but now almost forgotten.”:

One of the most celebrated virtuosos of the late 18th, early 19th century was John Georg Christoph Schetky. As cited in Mark Smith’s essay, the following was said of Schetky in 1799:

“He had the most accomplished control of the bow, with which he could balance such strength and flexibility. It was a marvel how he could produce equally well the finest sweetness and the greatest strength of tone, because his holding of the bow was different from all the violoncellists that I have ever heard, and about which other virtuosi who ventured to match him on this instrument (there were few of them) were amazed. It will be difficult for me to make others understand this method of holding the bow. Usually the bow is held with the thumb under, and with the four fingers directed over the stick, as with the violin, only that with the violoncello the arm hangs downwards, and the bow-strokes are directed downwards, whereas with the violin, [53] the arm is bent, the hand is raised, and the bow must be directed upwards. With Schetky it was otherwise. The thumb lay on the frog of the bow, the index- finger was alone on the stick; and the three other fingers were down on the hairs. Through the pressure of the lower fingers, especially the little finger, he conspicuously increased or decreased the pressure of the bow, and brought forth by this means the greatest power of the depths, or the sweetest oboe-tone in the upper regions.”

It is clear, then, that the underhand bow technique is a valid one, and deserves to be heard again, though hopefully by players far more advanced than myself. One such fellow is the bewigged and inestimable, Oreste de Tomasso:

And two such fellows are Jonathan Rees and Vladimir Waltham, once known as Duo Domenico (though their website seems to have disappeared).

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Instrument and Strings

A reproduction baroque cello is beyond my budget, so, like many players I have accepted a compromise in adapting a modern instrument. I did choose a cello which claims to be a copy of an original from 1717, though it does have some modern features: the Hidersine Reserve, Guadagnini “Simpson” cello, bought from Caswell Music in England. At my request they furnished it with gut strings, and removed the fine tuner from the tailpiece. It has the following features:

  • Solid Spruce Table
  • Solid Maple back and ribs with graphic flame
  • Carved Maple neck
  • Genuine Ebony fingerboard
  • Aubert Maple Bridge
  • Genuine Ebony tailpiece
  • Genuine Ebony pegs
  • Carbon Fibre endpin
  • Oil varnish

I might remove the endpin, replacing it with a wooden stop, and might “cheat” by replacing the ebony pegs with Wittner mechanical pegs, which would make life so much easier for the fine tuning of gut strings.

Some people quickly point out that the neck angle of a modern cello is greater than that of a baroque cello, though Roger Hargraves refutes this in a well-considered paper: https://www.roger-hargrave.de/PDF/Artikel/Strad/Artikel_2013_02_Evolutionary_Road.pdf

The strings it has at the moment are by Damian Dlugolecki, two plain-gut trebles, with two gut-core, silver-wound basses. I was not happy about the difference in sound between the wound and unwound strings, and as I play a scale across the strings, it is easy to detect when I move from the wound to unwound string. But here I remember a comment by the late, great Anner Bylsma with interviewer, Tim Janof:

TJ: You object to the modern goal of trying to make the sound quality uniform across the cello. What’s wrong with this? 

AB: This belongs to the aesthetics of the 1940’s and the Glenn Miller Band era, when everything had to sound smooth and even. I have nothing against Glenn Miller, I just don’t think it should be forced upon Bach. I also object to this because it is yet another way that we are trying to make everything the same. We don’t want to hear bow changes and we don’t want to be able to hear which string we are playing on. But it is the variety that makes the cello and other string instruments so beautiful. I am fighting against uniformity. [The whole interview is worth reading: http://www.cello.org/Newsletter/Articles/bylsma.htm%5D

Now I embrace the difference between materials, between each string.

Baroque Bow

I have a decent-quality baroque bow made for me by Roger Rose, an early-bow specialist. In broad terms, modern bows give an even sound across the hair, whereas baroque bows fade somewhat as the string approaches the tip. So, a less sustained sound, better for shorter phrases and dance-style articulation, or to put it another way, the baroque bow is less Romantic-sounding than its modern counterpart.

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Methods

My current Method books are:

and

and

A quick comparison of the three has the Corrette aimed at continuo playing – baroque bass lines – the Crome has melodies for minuets, gavottes, etc, in the early Galant style, and the Baumgartner is concerned with a practical application of music theory on the instrument, making it very useful for a lute-style accompaniment from a single note bass line.

I will discuss each in turn:

Methode, Théoretique et Pratique Pour Apprendre en peu de tems le Violoncelle dans sa Perfection…Composée par Michel Corrette (1741?)

Preface: Corrette mentions the old tuning of Bb F C G. I’ve been playing at 392 pitch, known to Bach when he was playing at Cöthen, and at modern pitch the cello’s tuning of CGDA comes out as BbFCG – the same as the old tuning Corrette refers to. The lower tension caused by tuning a tone lower than modern standard, helps Bach’s music to breathe.

He also mentions that the cello can play some viol solos, or supplant the bass viol in ensemble works “with applause”.

Corrette recommends that beginners have lines drawn for the note positions, or inlay ivory or mother of pearl – what we might today refer to as flush frets. Robert Crome (see below) suggests raised metal frets, like on a guitar, which can be smoothed down over time to be flush with the fingerboard. Curiously, neither suggest fret gut, as used on viols and lutes.

Chapitre 1: How to hold the cello. The cello is supported by the legs – the end pin was not yet synonymous with playing the cello – in a similar way to the technique employed by gambists.

Ch.2: How to hold and lead the bow. Sarah Abigael Stone has provided a useful video in English, though confess to not always understanding her accent:

As mentioned earlier, I use a different technique, common with gambists, and depicted in various paintings. Here are another couple of underhand fellows:

With underhand technique, the middle finger rests on the hair, regulating the degree of tension in the bow.

Bow direction. Corrette employs the letter T (tyrant) to indicate a down beat, and the letter P (poussant) for an upbeat. With the underhand technique, that means push bow (strong), and pull bow (weak). He also indicates that you should have strong strokes for syncopations. So, overhand and underhand techniques both have strong and weak bow strokes, but crucially in the opposite direction.

Here’s another useful video from Sarah:

Sarah mentions no re-taking of the bow when playing two notes in one direction. This forms a big part of viola da gamba technique, with the bow very rarely leaving the strings. However, there are moments when he does repeat the T stroke:

Ch.3: Tuning. Corrette gives some advice checking tuning with octaves and 5ths on adjacent strings:

Ch.4: C Major scale. In perhaps a hangover from the technique of playing larger cello and bass instruments, and much like double-bass players today, Corrette does not use his third finger:

Ch.5: A discussion of accidentals and the chromatic scale.

Ch.6: Corrette’s fingering for the chromatic scale is 011224 and presumably 4 again:

Leçons

Sonate pour deux Violoncelles: Adagio, Allegro, Sarabande, Tempo di Minuetto

Ch.7: scales through to 4th position

Ch.8: Climbing back down to first position – various fingerings.

Ch.9: Intervals within one hand span

Ch.10: trills, etc

Ch.11: Different bow strokes: slurs of various numbers of notes, pizzicato (both alternating strokes and slurred – what Crome calls the feather. 

Ch.12: Chords with finger changes and arpeggios

Ch.13: G clef and alto clef

Ch.14: Position?

Ch.15: “Useful for those who know how to play the viol, and who want to learn the cello.” Where viol notes can be found on the cello (7-string viol).

Ch.16: “What the cello must observe in the concert concerning accompaniment and measure.”

Overall, much of the Leçons sound like continuo bass lines. 

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Robert Crome – The Compleat Tutor for the Violoncello (1765?)

Picture of large bass violin – discusses the “Bass Violin” in the Preface.   

Diagram of fretboard: “From Nut to Bridge 26 inches and half”

“Instructions for the Violoncello or Bass Violin”

Page 1: “for the greater ease of a Learner we would advize him to have an hole made in the Tail-pin and a Wooden Peg to screw into it to rest on the floor which may be taken out when he Pleases”.

Suggests use of a 7th fret for tuning: Page 4: “But if you can’t put your Instrument in tune by these directions you must have recourse to the Representation of the Finger Board following…with lines drawn across and measure out the 7th or last line from the nut, and when you have got the exact distance, the a piece of Fiddle String tight on the neck under the Strings, which will make a Frett, and will be a standard for tuning all the strings.”

Page 6: Doesn’t use 3rd finger. Chromatic scale for first six notes on any string: 0 1 1 2 2 4 4

Pages 6-7: “Of Stopping the Notes in Tune

Tho’ the Learner may have a good Ear, it will be some time before he can Stop the Notes perfectly in tune and therefore it will be a great help to him at first to have his Finger board Fretted, like that of the Guittar, and when the Fingers are acquainted with the Finger board, have the Frets filed down”. 

Page 14: The Feather: “for the Slur; the Bow is to keep on the String, and for the Feather; it is just taken off the String, but with the same Bow” – staccato slur. 

Page 18: Upper octave fingering on one string: 1 2 3 4

List of Tunes

  1. Minuet. C major
  2. Minuet. F Major
  3. Jigg. G major
  4. Gavot. C major
  5. Minuet. A Major
  6. Gavot. Bb Major
  7. Foots Minuet
  8. Marionets
  9. Joes Hornpipe
  10. Mulberry Tree
  11. Cotillon Les Portraits a la Mode
  12. Cotillon: La Rosalia
  13. La Nanoine
  14. La Promenade
  15. La Nouvelle Hollandoise
  16. Masquerade Minuet
  17. See the Conquering Hero
  18. Ye Fair Posses’d
  19. This cold flinty Heart
  20. Lovely Nancy with Var.
  21. Come haste to the Wedding
  22. Duet
  23. The Priest in his Boots
  24. Water Parted
  25. Farewell ye green Fields
  26. Let Gay ones and Great
  27. Belleisle March
  28. Lady Coventry’s Minuet (duet)
  29. The Echoing Horn
  30. Handels gavotte
  31. Coldstream March
  32. The Sun from the East
  33. The Queens Minuet
  34. Lovely Nymph
  35. Johny Magil
  36. Feltons Gavot
  37. Mrs Bakers Hornpipe
  38. Dearest Creature
  39. Sweet Willy O
  40. Vicar and Moses
  41. Gavot in Thomas and Sally
  42. Geminianis Minuet
  43. March in the Occasional Oratorio
  44. Come rouse Brother Sportsman

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Frets

“If the violoncello has frets, as is customary upon the viola da gamba, the violoncellist must, in playing notes marked with flats, depress the strings a little above the frets, and apply a little more pressure with his fingers, in order to stop them with the additional height (that is, of about a comma) that their ratios require as opposed to those of notes marked with sharps” J. J. Quantz, On Playing The Flute, 1752, Chapter XVII, Section IV – 15, p.245

Now, I’ve absolutely zero desire to discuss the pros and cons of frets on a cello, as I think most people’s thoughts on that will be fairly orthodox. Rather, I’m interested in two things:

1. Any other references to frets on the early cello?

As mentioned above: Corrette recommends that beginners have lines drawn for the note positions, or inlay ivory or mother of pearl – what we might today refer to as flush frets. Robert Crome suggests raised metal frets, like on a “guittar” (the correct spelling for the 18th-century wire-string instrument which is a cross between a cittern and a guitar), which can be smoothed down over time to be flush with the fingerboard. Naturally, neither suggest fret gut, as used on viols and lutes, as they cannot be installed all the way up the fretboard.

2. What EXACTLY is Quantz saying? 

He appears to be saying, “don’t make the flats so flat”.

“…and apply a little more pressure with his fingers…” – that usually means sharpening the note. 

“…in order to stop them with the additional height (that is, of about a comma) that their ratios require…” So, pushing harder against the fret, or slightly sharp of the fret, in the direction of the bridge, will give a more true intonation for flat notes? This is subtle and interesting. What temperament was he working with? 

I’ve seen viol players placing their fingers slightly over the fret (bridge direction), often right on top of it, unlike lute and guitar players who press down just behind the fret (nut direction). Here was me thinking they had a bad technique, but perhaps they were intonating on the fly. It is interesting that Quantz was aware of a disadvantage of frets over fretless playing (where any tempered interval can be found), and detailed a technique to circumvent it. 

And, of course, just as interesting that he assumed that among his readers would be players of the fretted cello as late as 1752. 

Most authors imply or state explicitly that frets can be useful for beginners and amateurs. So, if you find intonation difficult, especially in the upper positions, and have no desire to pursue a professional career, there is no reason why frets should not be considered.

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A lot more to come, so come back soon.