Over the years, the cello has evolved and while people are still using a classic cello, some prefer to use electric cellos on which you can find more info here. Even if the cello has changed over time, the way it sounds is absolutely fascinating and it gives depth to a lot of melodies that move the soul of even the most insensitive listener.
In this article, we are going to tell you a little bit about the history of the cello and about how it came to be what it is now, but first, we are going to tell you a little bit about what it is and how it works in order for you to have a better understanding of its history. So let’s begin our journey of finding out more about this wonderful instrument.
What is the cello and how is it different from other instruments?
The cello is a string instrument. Its name is short for violoncello, which is how the instrument is called in Italian. To play the cello, you will need to use a bow because it is a part of the violin family. However, compared to the violin, it is a lot bigger. Actually, it is the second-largest string instrument after the double bass.
Nowadays, the strings are usually made of metals like titanium, aluminum, chromium, or a combination of these materials. The great thing about the cello is that it can make sounds that last for a short period of time but it also can produce very long sounds. This versatility has made the cello one of the instruments that are preferred by many composers.
The cello sounds really well both in accompaniments and in solo pieces and the combination of instruments that the cello can take part in and still be distinguished is various. This is due to the fact that the cello has pitches that range from very deep to very high.
Unlike other music instruments, the cello is very large, so when a student is learning how to play the cello, they will outgrow it. This is why many cellos are made of cheap materials in order for students to be able to afford them. Only when they reach maturity they will need to buy one of high quality which is usually made of ebony.
The cello is not a successor of the viola
Many would say that the cello came out in the mid 16th century, but in reality, its history begins in 1500 when the violin family became very popular. Violins used to be called ‘viola da braccio’, which in Italian means ‘hand viola’.
This is important because most people think that the cello evolved from the viola, which back then was known as ‘viola da gamba’, which means ‘leg viola’. As we have said before, the cello is part of the violin family, therefore it is not a successor of the viola. Actually, the viola and the cello were present in the music industry at the same time for 250 years.
What is the predecessor of the cello?
The bass violin is the instrument that inspired the creation of the cello. This was an instrument that resembled the cello a lot but was a little bit larger. It was first designed to have three strings and later on, it came to have 4 strings.
Historians believe that the bass violin was invented in 1538 and it used to be called ‘violone’ which means ‘large viola’. Like all instruments across history, the bass violin has also evolved and has eventually been transformed into the cello.
Who were the cello-makers and when was the cello invented?
The cello dates back to 1535 when Gaudenzio Finali put it in a fresco which portrayed an angel who was playing the cello, but the viola and the violin were also present. However, the first man known to make cellos is Andrea Amati who passed his skills to his sons, Girolamo Amati and Antonio Amati. Today 6 of his cellos are still ‘alive’.
In Bologna, around 1660, wire-wound strings were invented. Luthiers started to play with this invention and, eventually, came up with a more proficient cello. Cello makers were now designing a smaller cello which was a lot easier to use.
The cello, however, was more suited to be played in small rooms due to its light sound, and this is why it had to be accompanied by other instruments when played in church. The most famous cellos are The Piatti, which was made by Antonio Stradivari, and The Davidov, made by Stradivari as well.
The Piatti was very expensive even at the time because Stradivari made it in more than a month and used maple to build this cello so that the sound would be richer. Furthermore, making a violin didn’t take that much time as making a cello.
The Davidov was owned by Jaquelin De Pre and, later on, by Yo-Yo Ma. The thing that has amazed people around the years was that the wood this cello was made of kept its integrity. This is thought to be because of the techniques used by Stradivari and also because he used maple for the back and the head of the cello, exactly like he did with the Piatti.
It is thought that Stradivari used very high-quality wood and that he spent a lot of time searching for the best one like he did for all of his instruments. Due to his capacity of finding such expensive wood, his instruments are still considered the best in the world.
How did the cello become popular?
An important thing you need to know about the cello is that there were no music pieces specially made for it in the beginning and composers began to write such pieces only decades later. However, cello owners used to play the music that was written for the violin.
The first cello composer was Luigi Boccherini, but, after him, Mozart and Beethoven came up with beautiful pieces of art that are still loved by almost everybody. They have inspired a lot of composers across history, so the cello is now present in a lot of sonatas and orchestral music pieces.
The baroque era
The baroque cellos were a little bit different in terms of construction from modern cellos and most of the differences are in the shape of the neck and also in its angle. Also, they didn’t have a pin at the bottom of the cello that helped the player keep it steady on the floor, which made it a little bit harder to keep it still.
Also, the shape of the bow used to differ from the ones used for modern cellos. Modern cellos, however, are louder than baroque cellos because the tension in the strings is higher. This is why they have fewer over-notes.
Popular cello concertos
After its invention, the cello became very popular because it is an instrument that can produce very deep notes, which have the effect of adding depth to any piece of music. This is why many composers fell in love with this instrument and have started to use it very often.
- Vivaldi – 25 concertos
- Boccherini – 12 concertos
- Haydn – 3 concertos
- Bach – 3 concertos
- Dvořák – 1 concerto
- Schumann – 1 concerto
The one thing that all these concertos have in common is the fact that the cello had an orchestra that accompanies a solo cello.
The 20th century
During the 20th century, the cello gained its most amount of fame and became very popular all over the world. Many famous composers began using it in their compositions but it also became used more often in modern music like jazz and neoclassical music.
Cher and the Beatles began using the cello in popular music and songs like ‘Yesterday’, ‘Strawberry fields’, and ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’. They made the cello an instrument that was well known among the youngsters as well. Rock bands, like Aerosmith, started to use it, and slowly, the cello became present in almost every field of the music industry.
Cello word origin
One of the questions you might want to learn the answer for could be how the cello got its name by which it goes today. The history of the cello is tightly woven with the origin of this word, and going back in time, to when Italian luthiers were making their first attempts to create such a musical instrument, is necessary.
The etymology of the word is quite straightforward. According to the cello history information available, this word is just the last part of the term ‘violoncello’. The Italian word means ‘little violone’, while ‘violone’ means ‘big viola’. It might be that who invented the cello didn’t think of its name as a derivative from another word, but just as this instrument has its origins in string instruments, it is quite natural that its name derived from an existing one.
So, in a nutshell, cello stands for ‘little big viola’. While the contradiction in this description might surprise you, it is the best way to describe the cello since it’s not big enough to be a double bass but not little enough to be considered a viola. After all, where was the cello invented? The right answer is Italy, and it’s safe to say that the Italian luthiers knew better how to call the new instrument they came up with.
How does a cello work?
How does a cello produce the beautiful sounds that have seduced music enthusiasts for centuries now? The mechanics might not be complicated, but the music played on a cello can be quite complex, hence the fascination this instrument is known for.
By plucking or moving the bow over a string, you will produce vibrations that move the air; when this happens, sound waves occur. The hollow body of the cello provides room for these sound waves to become louder. These are the basics of how any cello works. However, by employing differences in design, various effects can be obtained.
Pitch can be modified by tightening the string. The string length also plays a role in how the sound will ultimately be delivered. Tuning a cello involves adjusting the string tension, and this can be done with the help of the tuning pegs – these are present on the pegbox – and the fine tuners you will find on the tailpiece.
Cello instrument family
Cello belongs to the large string family, from which it gets its name, the way it works, and what type of music can be played on it. The violin is the first in this family, and it produces the highest-pitched sounds. This instrument is the smallest in the family, and it is mainly used in an orchestra for playing the melody.
Viola is slightly larger and comes in second. An untrained eye might not be able to tell the difference between a violin and a viola, but there are important aspects that set them apart. Besides being larger, it has thicker strings and produces a warmer sound. For this reason, in an orchestra, violas are in charge of playing the harmony.
A viola can be considered a small cello-like instrument if you want to look at things differently. The cello is considerably larger compared to its two siblings mentioned so far, and it is capable of producing a large variety of sounds, warm and low, as well as high and bright. The cello musical instrument cannot be held like a violin or a viola, and it has to rest on the floor, sustained by a metal peg.
The double bass is the biggest member of the string family to which cello belongs. Because of its large size and long strings, it is responsible for producing the lowest notes, and therefore, they play the harmony in an orchestra.
Fun facts about the cello
The versatility of this musical instrument is responsible for its popularity. If you’re interested in learning more about it, here are some fun facts.
- The oldest known cello in the world is The King, an instrument created by Andre Amati during the 16th century. Currently, it is housed by the National Music Museum in South Dakota.
- Back in the days, the strings for celli were made from sheep and goat guts; today, modern celli no longer rely on these animal parts, as their strings are made from metal.
- While you may know the cello as an instrument with four strings, that hasn’t always been the case; in Germany, during the 17th century, celli with five strings were nothing unusual.
- You call a cello a cello, but if you want to name more than one, the correct terms are celli or cellos.
- Until the 19th century, cellists needed strong legs because they had to hold the instrument; luckily for them, the endpin was finally added, and they no longer had to rely on their muscle mass.
- The person who made the cello truly popular during the 20th century was cellist Mstislav Rostropovich who introduced more than one hundred works for this instrument to the repertoire.
- Due to the wide range of sounds it can produce, the cello is considered the closest instrument to the human voice.
Famous cellists today
There have been many cellists throughout history who honored this amazing instrument, but if we focus on the popular names today, we will still find plenty of musicians in love with it.
Most probably, the most famous cello player alive is Yo-Yo Ma. With over 90 albums launched and 18 Grammy Awards, he is, indeed, the most accomplished name that must be mentioned here.
Stjepan Hauser and Luka Šulić are two professional cello players who have performed for a long time as the group known as 2CELLOS. With over 5 million YouTube subscribers, they are among the most popular players of this musical instrument today.
Alisa Weilerstein is another name that must be mentioned. A child prodigy who started playing the cello at the age of four, she also was accepted into the MacArthur Fellows Program, informally known as the Genius Grant.
Unfortunately, the space that we have for writing this article does not allow us to tell you everything about how amazing this musical instrument is. However, words are not enough and the music played on a cello will be able to tell you everything you need to know. Its history is as beautiful as the sound it makes.