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Violoncello [cello]

The bass instrument of the violin family. In the Hornbostel-Sachs system it is classified as a bowed lute (fiddle). The violoncello’s present name means, in Italian, a ‘small large viol’, as it employs both the superlative suffix -one, and a diminutive one, -ello. Such a bizarre name suggests that its early history is not straightforward. In this article the term Bass violin will be used for the earliest forms of the instrument: not until the early years of the 18th century did the smaller model of cello become standard, and the name violoncello was generally adopted at about the same time. The bass violin was given myriad names before this date: ‘bas de violon’ (Jambe de Fer, 1556, p.61f); ‘basso di viola’ (Zacconi, 1592, p.218); ‘bass viol de braccio’ (Praetorius, ii, 2/1619, ‘Tabella universalis’, p.26); and ‘basse de violon’ (Mersenne, 1637, ii, p.185). Other terms given in Italian prints from 1609 to 1700 include: bassetto, bassetto di viola, basso da brazzo, basso viola da brazzo, viola, viola da braccio, viola da brazzo, violetta, violoncino, violone, violone basso, violone da brazzo, violone piccolo, violonzino, violonzono, vivola da brazzo. The variety of names shown here were often localized in time, place, or both. They further suggest that in the 16th and 17th centuries the instrument existed in several sizes.

The two earliest prints that are known to include music for bass violin are Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (Venice, 1609), under the name ‘basso viola da braccio’, and Caterina Assandra’s Motetti op.2 (Milan, 1609), under the name ‘violone’. G.C. Arresti, in his Sonate op.4 (Venice, 1665), was the earliest known composer to use the term ‘violoncello’. This newer term was soon generally accepted in Italy and Germany, and after 1700 in France and England, though the term ‘bassett’ persisted in Austria during Haydn’s younger years. The abbreviation ‘cello’ is commonly used in English and German.

Origins and history to c1700

n Italy, until the early years of the 18th century and with the exception of Venice, the term ‘violone’ probably indicated bass violin. From the 1660s Venetians seem to have applied this term to a contrabass instrument. Depending on time and place in Italy, the terms ‘violetta’ and ‘viola’ could apply either to alto or bass instruments. What seems certain is that the bass violin first appeared and attained its present size, name and tuning south of the Alps.

The earliest-known evidence of the instrument's existence is found in Agricola's Ein kurtz deudsche Musica (Wittenberg, 1528), where the Geige appears as the bass member of a newly emergent, four-part violin consort. The earliest-known pictorial representation appears in an ‘Angel Concert’, painted by Gaudenzio Ferrari in 1534–6 on the dome of the sanctuary of the Madonna dei Miracoli in Saronno.

The history of the instrument, before it was called violoncello, may have been directly related to the material used for its strings. Originally, all four were made solely of sheep gut. Numerous illustrations of early bass and contrabass instruments demonstrate how great was the disparity in thickness between top and bottom strings. Thick strings, regardless of material, are afflicted by inharmonicity (the overtones are badly out of tune, resulting in a poor quality of sound).

The early bass violin existed in two sizes with different families of higher and lower tunings. Instruments with the higher tunings are somewhat older. Agricola (C1529) and Ganassi (Lettione seconda, Venice, 1543/R) were the first to mention a three-string bass instrument tuned F–c–g. Hans Gerle (Musica teusch, Nuremberg, 1532) was the earliest to describe a four-string cello, and gave the tuning that is used today: C–G–d–a. Praetorius (Syntagmu Musicum, ii, 2/1619) was the next to give this tuning. However in the intervening years, and even later, the tuning of the bass violin was most often one step lower, Bb'–F–c–g, given by Lanfranco (C1533), Jambe de Fer (C1556), Zacconi (C1592), Cerone (El melopeo y maestro, Naples, 1613), Mersenne (Harmonie Universelle) and Playford (C1664). This tuning continued the downward progression based on fifths established for the violin, the common note between soprano and bass instruments being g.

An analysis of the tessitura used by Monteverdi favours the tuning of C–G–d–a. Other composers, such as Giovanni Valentini, (Musiche concertate, 1619), wrote bass lines that call for Bb'. The tuning based on Bb' was in use in France and England until the 18th century; Corrette (Méthode … pour apprendre … le violoncelle, 1741) stated that the tuning based on C was introduced to France around 1710, and J.F. de la Fond's A New System of Music indicates that by 1725 it was in use in England.

Although the term ‘violoncello’ was increasingly used in publications in the latter years of the 17th century, the earlier name for this instrument, ‘violone’, persisted well into the 18th century. Corelli used the term ‘violone’ for the bass string instrument in all his prints. The partbook for the bass string instrument in G.A. Silvani's Il secondo libro delle litanie op.14 (Bologna, 1725) was entitled ‘Violone o tiorba’. Ten years later, G.A. Perti's Messa e salmi concertati op.2 was published in Bologna, including a partbook entitled ‘Violoncello o violone di ripieno’.

Andrea Amati and his descendants in Cremona (c1511–1740), and Gasparo da Salò (1540–1609) and his successor G.P. Maggini (c1580–?1630/1) in Brescia, were among the earliest makers of bass violins. Other somewhat later makers included Francesco Rugeri (c1630–1698) and members of the Guarneri family (1623–1744) in Cremona, G.B. Rogeri (fl c1670–c1705) in Brescia, and members of the Grancino family (1637–c1726).

Technique and performers

The early bass violin rested on the floor while being played, this position was still used as late as the 1750s. Towards 1700 it became usual for the player to raise the instrument off the floor, supporting it with the calves, in the traditional posture of the bass viol player. This higher position made it easier for the performer to explore more demanding fingering and bowing techniques. Published tutors for the instrument do not exist before the 18th century.

Little is yet known about performers on the instrument, especially those north of the Alps. In the last decades of the 17th century, three men made reputations as solo cellists performing in and around Bologna: Petronio Franceschini (c1650–80); Domenico Gabrielli (1651–90), and Giuseppe Maria Jacchini (c1663–1727). All three were cellists at S Petronio.


The only repertory for the early bass violin that has thus far been investigated with any thoroughness is music that was used in the Roman Rite. Among the earliest surviving prints of pieces with a part for the bass violin (called ‘violone’ in each instance) are two published in Milan. The first, a motet entitled O salutaris hostia in Motetti à due, & tre voci op.2 (1609) by Caterina Assandra, a nun at the convent of S Agata, Lomello, near Milan, has a violone part with a very limited range, F–c', and could be performed in first position on either size of bass violin or on some kind of bass viol. The second, the Concerti ecclesiastici by G.P. Cima, was published the following year, and contains a Sonata per violino e violone.

Evidence that in late 17th-century Italy the violone had become distinct from the violoncello appears in G.A. Perti's Messa à 5 concertate con instromenti (c1675–85), which includes partbooks for violoncello, violone and contrabasso. The range of the violoncello part is D–c'.

The appearance of the term ‘bassetto’ adds to the confusion: the title of Andrea Grossi's op.1 (1678) reads Balletti … a tre, due violini e violone, and Giorgio Buoni's op.2 (1693) is entitled Suonate a due Violini, e Violoncello, yet in each case the bass partbook is labelled ‘Bassetto’.

Other early Italian composers for the bass violin (using various terminology) include (published in Venice): Claudio Monteverdi (viola da brazzo), Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610), Selva morale (1641), and Messe à 4 et salmi (1650); Alessandro Grandi (violone), Il secondo libro de motetti (1613) and (viola) Motetti a una, et due voci, libro III (1629); Giovanni Priuli (violone), Missae [8vv] (1624) and (viola), Delicie musicali (1625); Tarquinio Merula (violone), Libro secondo de concerti spirituali (1628), Canzoni overo sonate (1637), and Il quarto libro delle canzoni da suonare (1651); G.B. Buonamente (basso da brazzo), Il quinto libro di varie sonate sinfonie, gagliarde, corrente, & ariette (1629) and Sonate et canzoni … libro sesto (1636); Maurizio Cazzati (violone), Canzoni op.2 (1642), Sonate op.8 (1648). Composers who published in Bologna include Cazzati, Sonate op.35 (1665), and Varii, e diversi capricci op.50 (1669); Cherici (violetta), Inni sacri (1672) and (bassetto), Harmonia di devoti concerti op.2 (1681) and Compieta op.3 (Bologna, 1686). The following composers, publishing in either Bologna or Venice, specified ‘violoncino’ as the bass: G.B. Fontana, Sonate (1641); Domenico Freschi, Messe e salmi op.1 (1660); Simpliciano Olivo, Salmi di compieta op.2 (1674); Francesco Cavalli, Musiche sacre (1656) and Gasparo Gaspardini, Sonate op.1 (1683).

18th and 19th centuries

Although there is evidence that Maggini, Francesco Rugeri and members of the Amati family manufactured a small type of cello before 1700, Antonio Stradivari is credited with standardizing and perfecting its dimensions in about 1707 with his smaller model, labelled ‘forma B’ and ‘forma B piccola’ on original patterns found in Stradivari’s workshop. The ‘forma B’ body length measured 75–6 cm, and its maximum width was 44·5 cm, being both shorter and narrower than at least 30 cellos that he made between 1680 and 1701. The most famous extant example of his older, larger model is the ‘Servais’ cello of 1701 (whose proportions have not been altered except for the modern neck, bridge and fingerboard) which measures 79 cm in body length and 47 cm in width. By the end of the 18th century, however, Stradivari’s ‘forma B’ dimensions, exemplified by his ‘Duport’ and ‘Mara’ cellos (both of 1711), had become accepted as the norm. Some makers, such as the Austrian-born David Tecchler (b 1668; d after 1747) in Rome, were still making larger cellos (known as ‘church basses’ in England) into the middle of the 18th century.

During the course of the 18th century, many of these larger, late 17th- and early 18th-century instruments were cut down in size to conform to the smaller dimensions established by Stradivari. This reconstruction often also included a new, stronger bass bar and a longer, thinner neck. At the time, such ‘repairs’ were considered desirable by players, but the unfortunate results of such alterations were often detrimental to the integrity of an instrument's acoustic design. Frets were still used on some cellos in the mid-18th century, as observed by Quantz (1752), and advocated by Robert Crome in his tutor (C1765).

Five-string and piccolo cellos

Although cellos with four strings predominated in Italy by the end of the 17th century, cellos with more than four strings were still used elsewhere. The advent of thumb position fingerings (the technique in which the whole hand is put on top of the strings with the thumb placed across and perpendicular to them, functioning as a moveable nut in relation to the other fingers) may have caused the redundancy of cellos with more than four strings at the beginning of the 18th century. However, five-string cellos were used in Germany into the middle of the 18th century. In addition to J.S. Bach’s solo cello suite no.6 bwv1012, written for a five-string cello, the cello part of his cantata Gott ist mein König bwv71, requires a range extended to c'' (f'' in Bach’s original, unorchestrated version), suggesting that an E string would have been required for the execution of this part. Five-string cellos also appear in numerous Dutch, Flemish and German paintings and etchings from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The correct definition of the violoncello piccolo has been widely debated. At least eight of Bach’s cantatas written between 1724 and 1726 have obbligato parts designated as such. The term piccolo means ‘small’. An original cello pattern of Antonio Stradivari is labeled forma B piccola di violincello but it is likely that Stradivari sought simply to distinguish this new smaller pattern from his earlier larger instruments. But these violoncello piccolo parts by Bach imply that a four-string cello tuned G–d–a–e' was used.

A late 18th-century account by E.L. Gerber (whose father was a student of Bach) claimed that Bach invented a special sort of small cello or large viola – called a viola pomposa – to facilitate the execution of rapid obbligato parts in the bass. Dreyfus has suggested that this instrument may have been the same as the Viola da spalla (‘shoulder-viola’) mentioned by J.J. Walther in his Musicalisches Lexicon (Leipzig, 1732), which was tuned like a cello but with an added fifth string and held over the shoulder by a strap. This reflects the broad variety of instrument sizes and types still being used in Germany around 1720, and the terminological ambiguity associated with them together with false rumors.

19th century

The basic design of the cello changed very little in the 19th century from that established in the 18th century. 19th-century cello manufacture continued to rely principally on older Italian models, especially Stradivari's model ‘B’. However, crude alterations to older cellos at the beginning of the 19th century were very common. Exhortations against these practices occur frequently in 19th-century treatises and literature on violin-making, and suggest that efforts to establish more firmly the standard dimensions of the cello at this time occurred in response to the damage to many fine old instruments caused by these ‘repairs’.

Two different terms were still used in the Paris Conservatoire Méthode (1805): violoncelle to describe the solo instrument, and basse for the accompaniment and orchestral instrument.


The high demand for cellos in Italy during the period 1680-1740 was reflected in the growing output of Italian makers. In addition to Stradivari, other North Italian makers of good cellos in the late 17th and early 18th centuries included Domenico Montagnana, Sanctus Seraphin, Pietro Guarneri and Matteo Goffriller in Venice; Francesco Rugeri, G.B. Rogeri and Andrea and Guiseppe Guarneri in Cremona; P.G. Guarneri in Mantua; the Grancino and Testore families in Milan; and (slightly later) G.B. Guadagnini in Turin. The Gagliano family in Naples made cellos from about 1700 for well over a century. An important 19th-century maker was Giuseppe Rocca in Turin (later in Genoa).

Makers in the second half of the 18th century were influenced by the work of Stradivari and the Cremonese school, although features of the earlier English style were retained, such as high arching of the back and belly, and square bouts.

In France the documented ownership of good Italian instruments by prominent 18th-century French cellists, such as J.L. Duport, suggests that fine Italian cellos were readily available and preferred over locally manufactured instruments. However, French makers later achieved high standards in the production of cellos, such as the Lupot family in the second half of the 18th century, and Vuillaume in the 19th.

The bow

The evolution of the cello bow in the 18th century was influenced by that of both the violin and viola da gamba. Early cellists used bows of many different sizes; measurements of pre-Tourte, 18th-century bows range from approximately 67 cm to 74 cm in length and weight from 65 to 86 grams. Italian players were known to use thicker strings and correspondingly heavier bows that produced more sound. Quantz also provides evidence that cellists may have used different types of bow hair: coarser black hair on a heavier bow for orchestral use and white hair on a lighter bow for solo playing.

Holding the cello

Although all treatises and tutors of the 18th and early 19th centuries advocate supporting the cello by holding it solely with the legs, iconographic and documentary evidence indicates that endpins, stools and boxes were used by cello players, probably for reasons of acoustic enhancement or comfort, throughout the 18th century. The adjustable endpin was introduced after 1890. An increase in the number of women cellists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in England, may reflect the greater freedom the endpin offered, allowing the cello to be held in a side-saddle manner that did not conflict with prevailing rules of decorum. Lisa Cristiani (1827–53) was the only notable female cellist before the late 19th century.

Various types of endpin material – such as wood or metal – were thought to have special acoustic properties; Hugo Becker (1864–1941) apparently used not only a wooden endpin, but rested it on a box to enhance and augment his cello’s tone. Many prominent late 19th-century cellists, such as Alfredo Piatti (1822–1901) and Robert Haussmann (1852–1909), never used an endpin. Haussman was closely associated with Brahms and known to produce a very powerful tone. A photograph of the young David Popper from 1861 shows him holding the cello in the older manner, without an endpin.

Technical aspects

According to John Gunn in his Theory and Practice of Fingering on the Violoncello (C1789), earlier cellists held the neck of the cello with the fingers of the left hand at a slanted, oblique angle and the thumb behind the first finger. This position, a diatonic fingering system adapted from the violin, was adopted by English cellists, probably following Italian models, and is documented elsewhere as being used by some late 18th-century cellists, such as J.B. Janson (1742–1803), J.B. Tricklir (1750–1813), and Romberg as late as 1839.

Virtuoso left-hand techniques, such as the use of thumb position, were developed early in the 18th century by Italian cellists such as Salvatore Lanzetti (c1710–80). French cellists, beginning with Berteau, used harmonics as a technical effect, and works written by prominent 18th-century French cellists such as Jean Barrière, J.-B.-A. Janson, J.-P. Duport and J.B. Bréval often feature passage-work in the highest positions. 18th-century German virtuosos favoured thumb position fingerings for passage-work, using stationary, ‘blocked’ hand positions with fingerings across the strings, thus avoiding frequent position changes. They also had a propensity to use the fourth finger in thumb position. French cellists avoided using the C string until the early 19th century, possibly because of the lower pitch standard in Paris and the resulting lower tension of the string.

Vibrato is mentioned in a few 18th- and 19th-century treatises. The bow was held in a variety of ways by 18th-century cellists. The underhand grip, derived from viol technique, was still used towards the end of the 18th century by some players. The most common way of holding the lighter, convex bow was the violin-influenced overhand grip, above the frog, with the thumb under the stick. The use of the bow grip above the frog is documented in France, England and Spain to the end of the 19th century. French bowing in the 18th and 19th centuries was characterized by use of regulated bow strokes and varied bowing styles. The custom of holding the bow above the frog allowed for development of light and off-the-string virtuoso bowing techniques, such as slurred staccato.

In Germany, Romberg and his pupils, including Friedrich Dotzauer (1783–1860), held the bow on the frog, allowing for increased leverage and bowing power. It is possible that this manner of holding the bow developed when concave sticks began to be used in Mannheim in the third quarter of the 18th century. The pervasive influence of the Dresden school, originating with Romberg’s pupil Dotzauer, can be seen in 19th-century German and Russian cello technique, and throughout the 20th century; today the frog-held bow is the standard practice of most modern cellists.


In the early 18th century, when Italian cellists dominated the field, vocal clefs were most commonly used, i.e. bass (F4) clef, combined with movable c clefs to notate passages in high positions. In the middle of the century, this practice changed and passages not written in bass clef were written in g2 clefs, both at pitch and transposed one octave below. By the latter part of the century, it was common practice for high solo passages in cello music to be notated in theg2 clef an octave above the actual pitch played, although accompaniments and lower parts were still written in bass and tenor (c4) clefs.


The art of accompaniment was a special skill, the importance of which was emphasized in 18th- and early 19th-century cello methods (e.g. Baudiot, Baumgärtner, Corrette, Gunn, Kauer, Mozart, Quantz, Schetky). The accompanying cellist was seen as a subordinate partner to the principal melodic voice, instrumental or vocal, in aria, melody and recitative. Required skills for the cellist in this role included the regulation of time (rhythm, meter and tempo) in an ensemble, and the expressive articulation of musical character through the sensitive and appropriate use of bow strokes.

18th century performers and repertory

Composers and repertory

Antonio Caldara (c1670–1736): Lezioni (A-Wn EM 69); Benedetto Marcello (Amsterdam, c1734): six sonatas for cello and basso continuo; Vivaldi; Domenico Della Bella; Francesco Scipriani (1678–1753); Francesco Alborea (1691–1739); Salvatore Lanzetti (c1710–80); Boccherini wrote 11 cello concertos, 34 sonatas for cello and basso continuo, and dozens of string quintets with two cellos. Italian composers include without restriction: Boni, Vandini, Platti, Porpora, Antoniotti, Bononcini, Pergolesi, J.-B. Canavas, Caporale, Cervetto, and Graziani. Six solo suites by J.S. Bach; Anton Fils; Peter Ritter (1763–1846); M.G. Monn (1745); G.C. Wagenseil (1752 and 1763); Haydn’s Concerto in C (c1761–5) is the first cello concerto by a major composer of the Classical period; Kraft composed virtuoso sonatas, duos, salon pieces and concertos; Beethoven’s two sonatas op.5; C.P.E. Bach wrote three concertos for cello; Jan Šťastný (c1764–c1826); four sets of cello sonatas were published by Jean Barrière (1707–47) between 1733 and 1739; J.-B.S. Bréval (1753–1823), a student of Cupis, was a cello virtuoso, a prolific composer and a teacher, Bréval’s works for solo cello include seven concertos and several sets of continuo sonatas.


Alborea, known popularly as ‘Francisc(h)ello’, was the most famous and admired virtuoso of the early 18th century, and his skill on the cello remained legendary for later generations of musicians including Quantz, Geminiani and Benda. Lanzetti, also became a touring cello virtuoso. Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805) was possibly the greatest cellist of the late 18th century. Joseph Weigl, Anton Kraft (1749–1820), Josef Reicha (1752–95); J.B. Mara (1744–1808); Lanzetti, Giovanni Bononcini (1670–1747) and Giacobbe Basevi Cervetto (1680–1783), Andrea Caporale (fl mid-18th century), Guiseppe Dall’Abaco (1662–1726) and Pasqualini de Marzis (fl 1740s) were known in England in the first part of the 18th century. Cervetto’s son, James (1748–1837), and John Crosdill (1751–1825) were the leading English cellists of the latter half of the 18th century. Robert Lindley (1776–1855), a pupil of James Cervetto, exceeded his master in ability and reputation. Martin Berteau (1708–71) was one such player who, according to legend, abandoned the viol for the cello after hearing Francischello (Francesco Alborea) play, and became the founder of the French school of cello playing. Berteau’s noteworthy students included François Cupis (1732–1808) and his nephew Jean-Baptiste (b 1741), J.-P. Duport (1741–1818), J.-B.-A.J. Janson (1742–1803) and J.B. Tillière (c1740–90). The most highly regarded of Berteau’s pupils was Jean-Pierre Duport. Among Duport's distinguished pupils were his brother Jean-Louis Duport, John Crosdill, Nikolaus Kraft (1778–1853), Peter Ritter and Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia. The players of the French school were distinguished by smoothness and purity of tone, and a high degree of left-hand skill, especially in high positions.

19th century composers and repertory

The cello’s capacity for cantilena playing in the tenor register, as well as for playing accompanying bass and tenor lines, is exploited by Romantic composers for dramatic and melodic effect in chamber works. Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Dvořák all wrote string quartets, quintets, trios and other works that contain prominent cello parts.

The core of the late 19th-century repertory for solo cello and orchestra consists of Schumann’s Concerto in A minor op.129, the Brahms Double Concerto op.102, Dvořák’s Concerto in B minor op.104, Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, Lalo’s Concerto in D minor and the first (in A minor) of two concertos by Saint-Saëns. There are also significant works for cello and piano from this period. In the operatic literature the cello section was often divided (e.g. Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Verdi’s Otello, Puccini’s La bohème), and many 19th-century operas have solo cello passages. In other orchestral works a solo cellist is often given important obbligato parts, for example the piano concertos in Bb and A by Brahms and Liszt respectively, Le carnaval des animaux by Saint-Saëns and Don Quixote by Strauss. Romantic composers also wrote section solos for the cellos in the symphonic repertory.

Performers and schools of playing

At the beginning of the 19th century distinct schools of cello playing existed in Austria and Germany, France, and England, with those of J.-L. Duport in France and Bernhard Romberg in Germany dominating. As a result of the migrations during the French Revolution there was interaction between the various schools. Dotzauer was a well-known performer and composer in his own time, he is best remembered for his contribution to cello pedagogy as the founder of the ‘Dresden school’ in Germany. The school had much influence with time throughout Europe. The technical principles of the French school, as outlined by Duport in his Essai and the Paris Conservatoire Méthode, were disseminated by his pupils and those of Janson. N.J. Platel (1777–1835), a student of Lamare, eventually founded the Belgian school of playing when he was appointed professor at the Conservatory in Brussels in 1826. Platel’s student, A.F. Servais (1807–66) was known as the ‘Paganini’ of the cello. In Italy and after Boccherini, no internationally prominent Italian cellist emerged until Alfredo Piatti (1822–1901). Robert Lindley was England’s leading cellist for most of his life. The patronage of the Russian Counts Saltïkov and Mateusz Wielhorski, and of Prince N.B. Golitsïn (the latter two of whom were amateur cellists), was an important factor in generating a rich Russian musical life in the 19th century, and helped to stimulate interest in the cello. K.Y. Davïdov (1838–89), a pupil of Carl Schuberth, is particularly associated with the Russian school, being the first Russian cellist to gain a professorship at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1862. David Popper (1843–1913) was appointed professor at the National Hungarian Royal Academy of Music in Budapest in 1886, establishing the Hungarian school of cello playing.

The 20th century

The cello' identity as a solo instrument has been confirmed in the 20th century. The endpin or spike was regarded as an accepted part of the instrument and revolutionized technique. It also allowed women to play the cello in a dignified manner. Before the 20th century, few women played the instrument owing to the way in which it was held, although a handful of women compromised by playing ‘side-saddle’. Paul Tortelier later devised the longer, angled spike which was also adopted by Mstislav Rostropovich. During the 20th century many large concert halls were built; consequently there arose a need for a larger sound. Players began experimenting with steel or steel-covered gut strings, replacing the gut strings in use until this time. Although steel strings are the most widely used today, some cellists have reverted to gut for some if not all of their strings. In other respects, the construction of the instrument itself has not changed, having reached a standard form in the previous century.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the German school of cello playing was leading the field with many distinguished soloists and chamber music players, many of whom were also teachers. The two most influential figures were Julius Klengel (1859–1933) and Hugo Becker (1864–1941). But it was Pablo Casals (1876–1973) who brought the cello into equal popularity with the violin as a solo instrument. Casals popularized chamber music and, in particular, brought the Bach solo suites into the regular cello recital repertory.

Many other 20th-century cellists have contributed to the development of the instrument. They include Alexander Baillie, Christopher Bunting, Gaspar Cassado, Orlando Cole, Rohan da Saram, Joan Dickson, Emanuel Feuermann, Amaryllis Fleming, Jacqueline du Pré, Pierre Fournier, Raya Garbousova, Maurice Gendron, Karine Georgian, Natalia Gutman, Lynn Harrell, Florence Hooton, Steven Isserlis, Antonio Janigro, Ralph Kirshbaum, Julian Lloyd Webber, Yo-Yo Ma, Enrico Mainardi, Mischa Maisky, Zara Nelsova, Siegfried Palm, Gregor Piatigorsky, William Pleeth, Gabor Reijto, Leonard Rose, Miloš Sadlo, Felix Salmond, Eleanore Schoenfeld, Luigi Silva, Daniil Shafran, Frances Marie Uiti, Raphael Wallfisch and Phyllis Young. Many are or were also great teachers.


In the 20th century an enormous amount of music was written for the cello by composers from all over the world. Rachmaninoff's Sonata in G minor (1901), Dohnányi's Konzertstück in D (1904), Bloch's Schelomo (1915–16), Fauré's two Sonatas (1918 and 1922) and Elgar's Concerto (1919) are but a few examples. Webern, in his atonal Drei kleine Stücke (1914), and Debussy, in his Sonata (1915), were among the first to break with Romantic tradition. The composers who followed include: in the UK, Bax, Benjamin, Bridge, Britten, Delius, Finzi, Holst, Ireland, Rubbra and Walton; in France, Caplet, d'Indy, Françaix, Honegger, Ibert, Milhaud, Poulenc and Tortelier; in Russia/former USSR, Denisov, Glazunov, Glière, Grechaninov, Gubaydulina, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, Myaskovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Tishchenko and Ustvol'skaya; in the USA, Barber, Carter and Piston, and US citizens born elsewhere: Bloch, Hindemith, Krenek, Schoenberg and Stravinsky; Wellesz (Austria); the Czech Martinů; Henze (Germany); Pijper (Holland); Bartók, Kodály (Hungary), Casella, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Dallapiccola (Italy), Chávez (Mexico), Enescu (Romania), Villa-Lobos and Ginastera (S. America), Casals and Cassadó (Spain), Larsson (Sweden), Sallinen and Kokkonen (Finland).

Prokofiev wrote three concertos for cello, the first Symphony-Concerto (1950–51, rev. 1952), was published posthumously in 1955, completed by Rostropovich and orchestrated by Kabalevsky. Britten's Cello Symphony (1963, rev.1964) is dark, disturbing and highly innovative and incorporates many new ideas such as the clever use of trilled. Shostakovich's Cello Concerto no.1, op.107 (1959); Lutosławski's aleatory Cello Concerto (1969–70); Schnittke's First Cello Concerto (1986), written for Natalia Gutman; Samuel Barber's concerto (1945) is one of the most challenging works known for the cello; Rostropovich, one of the major musical figures of the latter half of the 20th century, commissioned over 100 works for his instrument from composers such as Britten, Lutosławski, Penderecki, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Dutilleux's concerto Tout un monde lointain … (1967–70) was one of these: it is a carefully crafted work which is free in thought, and follows Debussy and Ravel in its colourful and evocative scoring.

There was a rush of compositions for solo cello from 1900 to 1960: there were over 160 composed. One of the most popular is the Sonata op.8 (1915) by Kodály, who was a cellist himself. We cite without restriction some major works: Hindemith's Sonata op.25, no.3 (1923); Iannis Xenakis in his Nomos alpha for solo cello (1965–6); Franco Donatoni's Lame (1982); Luigi Dallapiccola's Ciaccona, intermezzo e adagio (1945); Ernst Krenek's Suite op.84 (1939). Most of the composers mentioned above, and many others including Poulenc, Janáček and Alexander Goehr, have written works for cello and piano. Villa-Lobos wrote for at least eight cellos in Bachianas Brasileiras nos.1 and 5 (1930–45), no.5 (with soprano soloist) being the most popular. Composers for the cello have experimented in ways hitherto unknown. James Dillon's Parjanya-Vata (1981) employs streams of double stops covering all the registers of the instrument (the score has the appearance of piano writing). Jonathan Harvey, in his Curve with Plateaux (1982), uses the sixth and seventh octaves of the cello, multiphonics with mute, clashing quarter-tones, glissandos over four strings with sul ponticello and sul tasto bow strokes. Karlheinz Stockhausen's Spiral (1969), for amplified cello and short-wave radio, requires the performer to improvise within specifications marked on impulses from the radio. Tavener's The Protecting Veil for cello and orchestra (1987) captured the public imagination as a spiritual minimalist composition on a religious theme, and exploits to the full the composer's exuberant lyricism. Other composers whose works employ quarter-tone and multi-stave writing, amplified cello and graphic effects, include Roger Redgate, Michael Finnissy, Mauricio Kagel, Brian Ferneyhough, Morton Feldman, James MacMillan, Colin Matthews and Arvo Pärt.


The cello was used in a jazz-related context as early as 1916–17 when Walter Kildare, cellist from the Clef Club, recorded in London with his brother Dan’s string band, Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra. In 1926 it appeared in recordings by singer Ethel Waters with Will Marion Cook. However, the cello was not used with any frequency in jazz until the bop era of the late 1940s and the 50s, when it was taken up by a number of double bass players, some of whom gained significant reputations on the smaller instrument. Harry Babasin recorded pizzicato cello solos with Dodo Marmarosa (Bopmatism, 1947, Dial). Oscar Pettiford recorded on the instrument in a quintet with Duke Ellington and in a quartet with Charles Mingus (Cello Again, 1952, Roost). The following year Pettiford and Brabison recorded on cello together. George Koutzen also recorded on cello with Mingus in 1952. Chico Hamilton’s band featured cello between 1955 and 1962, played at first by Fred Katz and then by Nat Gershman. Another important jazz cellist was Calo Scott (Vinnie Burke’s String Jazz Quartet, 1957, ABC-Paramount). Other bass players who adopted the cello included Ray Brown, Ron Carter and Sam Jones, but with Carter’s introduction of the piccolo bass (tuned an octave higher than the double bass) this practice lost impetus.

From the late 1960s the cello once again found use as a solo instrument in styles derived from bop, in fusions of jazz with ethnic and classical music and in free jazz. Exponents include Irène Aebi, David Baker, Diedre Murray and, in the 1990s, Matt Turner, Michelle Kinney and saxophonist Ivo Perelman. Three pre-eminent cellists since the late 1970s are Ernst Reijseger, Tristan Honsinger, who performs ferocious free improvisations, and Abdul Wadud who combines a virtuoso classical technique with heartfelt, incisive improvisations (e.g. By Myself, 1977, Bisharra).


Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

"Cello" Teachers:

  • Angela Hounanian
  • Avetis Gyoychan
  • Bendeguz Kovacs
  • Magdalena Maria Sokola
  • Nastasia Yertsava
  • Noemi Boroka Tetezi
  • Ribal Kallab
  • Roman Storojenco
  • Sergiu Zare

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