If you’re one of the many people who really loves the sound of the cello, you may be surprised to know that the official name of the instrument is the “violoncello” (as opposed to “violincello”). Even the most pretentious musicians, however, still call the instrument the “cello” and its performers are called “cellists” rather than “celloists.”
The cello is the bass member of the bowed string family, usually playing the lowest notes of the string parts. If the cello is the bass voice of the strings, then what is the double bass? The double bass (or string bass, or contrabass) also plays the lowest string parts; in fact, a great deal of orchestral music up until the twentieth century contains a single part for both the cellos and basses together, with the basses playing an octave lower than the cellos.
The cello has four strings, C-G-d-a, which are an octave lower than those of the viola. Cellos are played very much like violins and violas, with the obvious exception that, because of its size, the cello is held between the legs and secured on the floor by an “endpin” (a long metal or wooden rod that is spiked directly into the floor or held in a strap). Like all bowed stringed instruments, sound is produced when the strings are made to vibrate. This is usually done by drawing the bow across the strings. (String players call music to be played with the bow arco, which is simply Italian for bow.) A cello bow is somewhat shorter and wider than a violin bow, made of wood, and the hair that makes the strings vibrate is indeed made out of horsehair. (Animal lovers should know that most cellists no longer use cat gut for their strings, preferring combinations of metals and synthetic materials.) Other ways to produce sound on the cello include plucking (called pizzicato) and, as a special effect, striking the string with the wood of the bow (called col legno).
To change pitch on the cello, the left hand fingers are used to press down the strings – even a few millimeters to high or too low will produce an out of tune note. Since the cello is played “upside-down” when compared to the violin, the pitch actually goes higher as the player’s hand moves lower towards the floor. Because the large wooden body of the instrument is what amplifies the sound of the vibrating strings, it is the size of the cello that makes its sound more mellow and rich than the much smaller violin.
Part of the popularity of the cello is due to its versatility. Although it can play the lowest parts in music quite beautifully, accomplished cellists can play in the same high register as the violins with a beauty that parallels the human voice. Because of its wide range, some composers have used an ensemble of cellos split into several parts in orchestral works like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Rossini’s William Tell Overture.
Many great composers have written music featuring the cello. In the Baroque period, Bach produced a now-famous set of six suites for the cello alone (the first major example of this), and several Italian composers like Vivaldi wrote sonatas and concertos for the instrument. Classical composers also added to the cello repertoire including two wonderful concertos by Franz Joseph Haydn and five sonatas by Beethoven (which display both classical and romantic characteristics).
But the cello comes into its own, both technically and musically, in the Romantic period. Robert Schumann wrote a remarkable cello concerto in just two weeks, and Brahms created two masterful sonatas for cello and piano in addition to his concerto for violin, cello and orchestra. Perhaps the best-known cello concerto is the one by Antonin Dvorak, which fully explores the cello’s lyrical and technical abilities. Upon encountering this work, Brahms declared that if he had known it was possible to create such a concerto for the cello, he would have written one himself long ago! Other famous romantic works for cello and orchestra include concertos by Saint-Saens, Lalo, and Elgar, as well as Tchaikovsky’s showpiece, Rococo Variations. Richard Strauss in his Don Quixote utilized the dynamic qualities of the cello by casting it in the title role. Twentieth-century music lovers don’t have to look far to find music for the cello: Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, Witold Lutoslawski, Samuel Barber, George Crumb and many others have created major works for the instrument.
The performances of many historic cellists are available to modern audiences through recordings: Emanuel Feuermann, Gaspar Cassado, Pablo Casals, Jacqueline du Pre, and Leonard Rose all give wonderful glimpses into music-making of previous generations. But audiences may be more familiar with recent performers such as Janos Starker, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Yo-Yo Ma, who represent not only some of the world’s greatest cellists, but some of the world’s greatest musicians.