In January I wrote about the different families of musical instruments, or ways of categorising musical instruments. You can read my post by clicking here:
Facts about Families of Musical Instruments
So for the first part of this year I want to focus on the string family, as we learned more about the woodwind and brass families last year. I have previously written about the violin (link to this post below if you want to check it out), and so following on from this post I wanted to move on to another member of the string family – the cello.
What is the cello and how do you play it?
- The violoncello, cello for short, is a member of the string family of instruments. This family is called the string family because they are all played by either plucking, strumming or running a bow along a number of strings.
- You will sometimes see this instrument’s name written as ‘cello as it this is the shortened version of its name.
- The cello is one of the larger instruments of the string family. It is not the largest, that is the double bass. However in many ensembles like string quartets and even smaller orchestras, then it is often the largest of the string instruments in that ensemble.
- If you have read many of my posts telling you about the different musical instruments, you will know that the larger a musical instrument, the lower the notes or pitches are that it can produce. This is no different for the cello. It produces much lower notes than the violin and often has the role of providing a bass line when playing in an ensemble.
- The body of the cello is made out of wood, often a wood such as spruce, maybe with different woods used for its sides and back. The cello will be hollow inside to allow air to vibrate inside the body of the instrument. There are two S or F-shaped holes carved into the front of the cello to allow the air, and so the sound produced, to escape the instrument.
- The cello has four strings that run from the scroll at the very top of the instrument, to just below a bridge under the S-shaped holes. These strings, like for the violin, used to be made from something called catgut, which was actually made from sheep intestines. However today they are made from metal alloys instead- much less disgusting to think of!!
- To play the cello, you need to either pluck the strings or run a bow along them to make the string vibrate. Each string is tuned to a particular note, and to change pitch a player will press down on a string along the neck of the cello. This has the effect of shortening how much of that particular string can vibrate and produces a higher pitched note that if the string was played without pressing it down anywhere. Plucking or bowing any string without pressing a finger down on it is called playing the open string.
- The lowest string is furthest to the right on the neck of the cello, and the highest string is on the left. The strings are tuned to the notes (going from the lowest string to the highest) C, G, D and A.
- Plucking the strings produces a very short note, and playing this way is called playing pizzicato. Bowing, on the other hand, produces a smoother, longer note.
- The bow used to bow the strings has hair on it. Traditionally the bow would be made from horsehair, but many more cellists are using bows with hair made from synthetic material today.
- Cellists will rub something called rosin onto their bow before playing, which helps the hair on the bow to “grip” the string.
- Someone who plays the cello would be called a cello player, or more likely a cellist.
History of the cello
- The cello has been around for a long time. It was first known as a bass violin, or viola da bracchio in Italy, and dates from the 1500s with its earlier ancestors being instruments like the harp and the lyre.
- One of the first people to make cellos was a luthier (or violin maker) named Andrea Amati. One of the cellos he made still survives to this day, and is housed in the National Music Museum in South Dakota, USA. Given the name “The King”, this cello was made in the mid-1500s, and in around 1560 the back of the cello was painted and gilded to become part of a set of 38 string instruments that Amati made and gave to the Court of King Charles IX in France.
- “The King” cello mentioned above was initially made with 3 strings, but in Germany and Holland cellos with 5 strings were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today cellos all have 4 strings.
- You may have heard the name Antonio Stradivari. Like Andrea Amati, Stradivarius was a luthier. He made some of the world’s most beautiful, and valuable, violins. He also, like Amati, made cellos. There are still some Stradivarius cellos in existence, just 63, and given how few there are now, they are all extremely valuable instruments.
- At first when composers wrote music featuring cellos their role was quite limited – they were there to play the bass line of a piece of music and that was about it. As time went on, the cello began to have solo works written for it, like the absolutely beautiful Cello Suites BWV 1007-1012 by Baroque composer J.S. Bach.
- The role the cello played in an ensemble changed, and composers began to give cellists more interesting music to play, even to write solo concertos for the cello to play.
- Before the 18th century, the cello had no spike as the bottom of the instrument. What is the purpose of this spike? Well it is to help balance the cello on the ground so that it is easier for a cellist to play. Before the spike was added, cellists would have to balance the instrument just with their body – primarily their legs.
- There are a number of cellists including, in no particular order, Yo-Yo Ma (featured in the video I have included above), Steven Isserlis, Mstislav Rostropovich, Pablo Casals, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Jacqueline du Pré and Jacques Offenbach.
- There are also some people, famous for other things, who are cellists as well, including:
- Actors Emily Blunt, Christopher Walken, Ryan Gosling and Charlie Chaplin.
- HRH King Charles III.
- Louis Braille, who invented braille, the reading and writing system for visually impaired people.
- American football player Keith Jackson.
- American President and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson.
Cello World Record
- On 29 November 1998, the World Record for the largest cello ensemble was set in Kobe Japan. Kazuuki Momiyama conducted 1,013 cellists playing a concert of 9 pieces for cello ensemble in a “Concert of 1,000 Cellos”.
- On 19 December 2014, the World Record for the longest marathon cello playing was set by Carel Henn in Bonnyville, Canada. Henn played the cello for 26 hours from 19 to 20 December 2014 as part of a fundraising attempt to raise money for the Bonnyville Baptist Church.
- The most expensive cello in the world is one made by Antonio Stradivari. It was bought by the Nippon Music Foundation for a staggering $20million! Why was it so expensive? Well, I mentioned above that Stradivarius cellos are very rare. And this one had been owned by 19th century cellist Jean-Louis Duport. The Duport cello, as it is now known, was sold with visible dents in it, but this did not diminish its value as it is rumoured that those dents were made by Napoleon when Duport allowed him to hold his cello.
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