Violincello and its history, the cello is much bigger than the violin and viola, so big in fact, that the performer positions the instrument between their knees and stabilises it with a spike on the bottom which digs into the floor. Like the violin and the viola, the four strings are tuned to perfect fifths – C – G – D – A, the same set-up as the viola, but one octave lower. The cello is played mainly in the bass clef, although cellists often have to read in tenor clef and even treble clef.
The violoncello originated in the 16th century through developments of the viola da gamba and the viola de braccio. Its earliest direct ancestor is likely the bass violin, utilised during Monteverdi’s time in the early 17th century. The mid 16th century saw the development of wire-wound strings which allowed the cello to be made smaller whilst creating a loud and penetrating sound because the string could sustain a much higher degree of tension than before. Despite this, bass violins were in fact even bigger than the modern cello at 80cm long, but it was the great Stravidiarius who decided to cut them down to 75cm to be more playable. Despite this development, there were many variations in dimensions across Europe until the dimensions were standardised in 1750.
The repertoire for the cello developed greatly with the technical developments of the instrument. Whilst for many decades it was considered only a ‘continuo’ instrument, functional as an accompaniment with the harpsichord, over the years it became a solo instrument in its own right. J.S. Bach wrote the Six Suites for solo cello, which presented the cello in an entirely soloist light without any accompaniment. One of the first real cello virtuosos was Boccerini, who was a major pioneer in developing the cello virtuosic technique, experimenting with many bow techniques and virtuosic playing in the higher register of the instrument. He wrote many sonatas and concertos for solo cello that exploited the full range and technical capabilities of the instrument.
Antonio Vivaldi also wrote 25 cello concertos during the baroque period. It was in the twentieth century when the cello repertoire really began to expand, largely due to notable soloists Rostropovich and Jacqueline du Pre. During this period many core concertos in the cello repertoire were written and performed.
Today, the cello remains an important solo instrument, as well as arguably of equal importance in chamber music and orchestral music. Pioneering musicians such as The Two Cellos have taken virtuosic playing to a new level with they renditions of modern pop such such as Billy Jean. The cello is also frequently utilised as a solo instrument in pop bands.