A work of great strength and beauty. ALEXANDER BAILLIE
History of the CelloThe history of bowed string musical instruments in Europe dates back to the 9th century with the lira of the Byzantine Empire, a bowed instrument closely related to the Arab rabab. The Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911) of the 9th century, in his lexicographical discussion of instruments, cited the Byzantine lira as a typical instrument of the Byzantines along with the urghun (organ), shilyani (probably a type of harp or lyre) and the salandj. The Byzantine lira spread through Europe westward and in the 11th and 12th centuries European writers use the terms fiddle and lira interchangeably when referring to bowed instruments (Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009). In the meantime the Arab rabab was introduced to the Western Europe possibly through the Iberian Peninsula and both bowed instruments spread widely throughout Europe giving birth to various European bowed instruments.
Over the centuries that followed, Europe continued to have two distinct types of bowed instruments: one, relatively square-shaped, held in the arms, known with the Italian term Lira da braccio (or Viola da braccio, meaning viol for the arm), family of the modern violin; the other, with sloping shoulders and held between the knees, known with the Italian term Lira da gamba (or viola da gamba, meaning viol for the leg), family of the Byzantine lyra and the modern cello. During the Renaissance the gambas, were important and elegant instruments; they eventually lost ground to the louder (and originally less aristocratic) lira da braccio. However, the a gamba playing position remained popular to larger instruments that could not be played with a braccio position.
The violoncello da spalla (sometimes "violoncello piccolo da spalla" or "violoncello da span") was the first cello referred to in print (by Jambe de Fer in 1556)
"Violone" means a larger "viola" (viol), while "-cello" in Italian is a diminutive and spalla means "shoulder" in Italian so that violoncello da spalla suggest a "little big violin" that may be held on the shoulder so that the player could perform while walking or that the early, short-necked instrument was hung across the shoulder by a strap.
Monteverdi referred to the instrument as "basso de viola da braccio" in Orfeo (1607). Although the first bass violin, possibly invented by Amati as early as 1538, was most likely inspired by the viol, it was created to be used in consorts with the violin. The bass violin was actually often referred to as a "violone," or "large viola," as were the viols of the same period. Instruments that share features with both the bass violin and the viola de gamba appear in Italian art of the early 1500s...
The invention of wire-wound strings (fine wire around a thin gut core), around 1660 in Bologna, allowed for a finer bass sound than was possible with purely gut strings on such a short body. Bolognese makers exploited this new technology to create the cello, a somewhat smaller instrument suitable for solo repertoire due to both the timbre of the instrument and the fact that the smaller size made it easier to play virtuosic passages. This instrument had disadvantages as well, however. The cello's light sound was not as suitable for church and ensemble playing, so it had to be doubled by basses or violones.
Around 1700, Italian players popularised the cello in northern Europe, although the bass violin (basse de violon) continued to be used for another two decades in France.
Many existing bass violins were literally cut down in size in order to convert them into cellos according to the smaller pattern cello as developed by Stradivarius, who also made a number of old pattern large cellos (the 'Servais'). The bass violin remained the "most used" instrument in England as late as 1740, where the violoncello was still "not common." The sizes, names, and tunings of the cello varied widely by geography and time. The size was not standardized until around 1750.
Despite similarities to the viola da gamba, the cello is actually part of the viola da braccio family, meaning "viol of the arm", which includes, among others, the violin and viola. Though paintings like Bruegel's "The Rustic Wedding" and de Fer in his Epitome Musical suggest that the bass violin had alternate playing positions, these were short-lived and the more practical and ergonomic a gamba position eventually replaced them entirely.
A cello strung with gut strings. Note the absence of fine-tuning pins on the tailpiece.
Baroque era cellos differed from the modern instrument in several ways. The neck has a different form and angle which matches the baroque bass-bar and stringing. Modern cellos have an endpin at the bottom to support the instrument (and transmit some of the sound through the floor), while Baroque cellos are held only by the calves of the player. Modern bows curve in and are held at the frog; Baroque bows curve out and are held closer to the bow's point of balance. Modern strings normally have a metal core, although some use a synthetic core; Baroque strings are made of gut, with the G and C strings wire-wound. Modern cellos often have fine-tuners connecting the strings to the tailpiece, which make it much easier to tune the instrument, but such pins are rendered ineffective by the flexibility of the gut strings used on Baroque cellos. Overall, the modern instrument has much higher string tension than the Baroque cello, resulting in a louder, more projecting tone, with fewer overtones.
No educational works specifically devoted to the cello existed before the 18th century, and those that do exist contain little value to the performer beyond simple accounts of instrumental technique. The earliest cello manual is Michel Corrette's Méthode, thèorique et pratique pour apprendre en peu de temps le violoncelle dans sa perfection (Paris, 1741).