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29 August 2010

J.SBach - Violoncello da Spalla Suites

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For which instrument did Bach actually write his Cello suites –violoncello, violoncello piccolo, or "viola pomposa"?

The myth of Bach's invention of the viola pom- posa, recurring from the late eighteenth century until the present day is likely – despite substantially docu- mented refutations – to impress the minds of music- lovers for a long time to come. Unfortunately, no source from Bach's immediate circle or period proving that he was the inventor of this instrument is known to survive, nor is there any music from Bach's hand con- taining such a designation. There are mid-eighteenth century compositions for "viola pomposa o violino" by Georg Philip Telemann, Johann Georg Pisendel, Christian Joseph Lidarti and Johann Gottlieb Graun. These compositions are for an instrument with five strings, tuned as the viola with an additional e''-string. However, according to Johann Nikolaus Forkel (Musikalischer Almanach, 1782) and Johann Adam Hiller (Lebensbeschreibungen, 1784), Bach's viola pomposa was tuned in the cello range: C-G-d-a-e'. In his scores Bach invariably chose the formal name "violoncello piccolo"– "viola pomposa" is probably a collo- quial name for the instrument. If everything seems so clear, where do the confusion of terms and our uncer- tainty with the terminology and the use of instruments come from?In the end, it seems we are trying to draw a distinction where there was never any clear line. When we take a closer look at contemporary encyclopaedias, we notice that in the Baroque period the term "violon- cello" did not necessarily refer to the type of instru- ment as we know and play it today, but to one which could take several forms and names, and could be played in several ways. Gottfried Walther says in his Praecepta der musicalischen Composition (1708): "The Violoncello is an Italian bass instrument resembling a Viol; it is played like a violin, i.e. it is partly supported by the left hand and the strings are stopped by the fin- gers of the left hand, partly however, owing to its weight, it is attached to the button of the frockcoat". Johann Mattheson describes it in Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre (1713) as follows: "The excellent Violoncello, the Bassa Viola, and the Viola di Spala are small bass violins in comparison with the larger ones, with five or six strings, upon which one can play all manner of rapid things, variations, and ornaments with less work than on the larger machines. Additionally, the Viola di Spala, or Shoulder-Viola produces a great effect when accompanying because it cuts through strongly and can express the notes clearly. A bass [line] cannot be brought out more distinctly and clearly than on this instrument. It is attached by a band to the chest and thrown at the same time on the right shoulder, and thus has nothing that in the least holds back or pre- vents its resonance." The Vocabulario degli Accademici della Crusca (1612) defined the violone as "a large low-pitched viola, which is also called basso di viola, and violoncello when of smaller size". Pictures, written documents, and about 40 surviving instruments show that early violoncellos were made in different sizes, ranging from the size of a large viola to the modern full-sized violoncello. Unlike the present day, when small instruments are made only for the use of chil- dren, these smaller instruments were played by profes- sionals.

There were several other terms in use for that type of small bass instrument: "Viola di fagotto" or "Fagottgeige" was used for instruments probably mounted with double-wound strings to which they owed their bassoon-like sound. In Italy, "viola da braccio" generally referred to any member of the violin family, but in Venice after 1620, it meant more specif- ically an alto, tenor or bass violin. "Viola da collo" was yet another colloquial term for a small arm-held bass instrument. However, "violoncello" was the most common and formal term used by the publishers and composers after the new instrument was generally accepted. Before that, publishers preferred the designation "violone" or "bassoon" or some other bass instrument already in vogue. In fact, publishers' resistance was so strong that the violoncellist Giovanni Battista Vitali never used the term violoncello in any of his publications! Some composers were even forced to accept designations such as "violoncello se piace" despite the importance of the violoncello part, or to write "violone" on the title page and "violoncello" in
the parts! As we have seen above, the late 18th century sources stated that Bach's viola pomposa had been tuned in the normal cello range. However, many later researchers rejected this possibility and assumed that the instrument had to be tuned in another way – higher than was given in the primary sources. Though some scholars accepted the tuning found in historical sources, why did many others reject it, considering the sources to be erroneous?

The reason is the strings: the vibrating string lengths of the surviving instruments classified as violas pomposa or violoncellos piccolo are only half those of modern cellos. In order to sound at the same pitch they must have approximately the same weight, and this poses a physical problem. Moreover, no original strings have survived. This may explain the researchers' mistrust of the sources. Consequently, for the reconstruction of the instrument such strings had to be conceived from scratch. So it was clear that the strings would be a major obstacle when making the first violoncello piccolo for Sigiswald Kuijken in 2002-3.

The technique of winding gut strings with metal wire (mostly silver) was discovered in the second half of the seventeenth century. The winding allowed shorter low-sounding strings to be produced, which furthered the fabrication of smaller bass instruments: depending on the proportion between the gut core and amount of silver, violoncellos could be made in all possible sizes. Several trial sets were tested on a common viola whose bridge I placed closer to the tailpiece in order to obtain the necessary string-length of 42.8-43cm. That viola was definitely not an optimal tool to match the physical characteristics of the strings, however it permitted development of double-wound strings necessary for the violoncello piccolo: because of the double silver winding they weigh about the same as common cello strings. Of the many string makers I contacted for the production of these strings, only a few found effective solutions, and only after a discour- aging number of unsuccessful trials. Some string makers declined even to try, believing such strings were physically impossible to make and denying the existence of instruments that required it in the past. However, I could count on the tremendous expertise of Mimmo Peruffo, the string-maker and researcher at Aquila Corde Armoniche, who reconstructed the first strings of the right type for the instrument, closely fol- lowed by Damian Dlugolecki, and by Daniel Larson at Gamut, the latter actually using the technical specifica- tions kindly provided by Aquila. The modern strings for the use on a Baritone violin of the Violin Octet family were developed by John Cavanaugh of Super- Sensitive. Nicholas Baldock of Cathedral Strings also makes baroque strings for the instrument.

It is apparent from pictures and from playing instructions that the technique of playing bowed string instruments was not standardised in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Judy Tarling (Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners, 2001) writes: "There is no area where the 'methods of practitioners' differ more than in the manner of holding the instrument", citing no less than eighteen sources between 1556 and 1761 which are far from consistent. Ulrich Drüner (Bach-Jahrbuch 73) draws attention to the fact that a modern violin and viola are expected to be held on the arm, while a violoncello is invariably held between the legs. This expectation, however, did not exist until the middle of the eighteenth century. As late as 1756, Leopold Mozart stated in his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule: "In our days, also the Violoncello is played between the legs." Baroque composers, including Bach, never seemed to concern themselves with the ways instruments should be held. The acoustic properties of instruments and their tessitura were given absolute priority over the way the players handled them, which was left up to their personal pref- erences. For example, Giuseppe Jacchini played the violoncello da gamba, while his pupil Carlo Buffagnotti played it da spalla, across the chest.

Due to the variable sizes and playing techniques, bass instruments were held in at least three distinct ways:
1. Suspended vertically with the aid of a belt, scarf or a rope;
2. Supported vertically against the floor, or a stool, near or between the legs with or without a spike or an end pin;
3. Suspended horizontally against the shoulder or across the chest, usually with an aid of belts, buttons or other devices, though these devices are not always mentioned.

While cellists or gamba players were generally unable to play a bass instrument da spalla, violinists or viola players could do it immediately or with only lim- ited practice. On the other hand, violinists and viola players are generally incapable of playing the same instrument da gamba without a great deal of practice.

There are two ways to approach the repertoire that is appropriate for the violoncello da spalla:
1. Focus exclusively on works which specify 'violoncello piccolo'. Using this method the repertoire is restricted to the few masterpieces by Bach – the nine cantatas BWV 6, 41, 49, 68, 85, 115, 175, 180 and 183, and the six suites for unaccompanied violoncello BWV 1007-1012;
2. The second approach is more complex, reflecting the fact that baroque performers enjoyed considerable freedom in choosing the medium for their performance. The above-mentioned resemblance of an instrument strung in this way to the sound of a bassoon not only explains the colloquial terms "viola di fagotto" and "Fagottgeige", but also suggests that the many seventeenth century Italian publications which call for either violoncello or bassoon, may call, in effect, for a small shoulder- or leg-held violoncello of suitable size: somewhat larger for bigger ensembles and simple parts, tutti and continuo, or somewhat smaller for smaller ensembles and more elaborate solo parts or continuo in chamber settings. The evidence and analysis collected so far suggests that much of the »cello« repertoire, from the second half of the seven- teenth century until the first half of the eighteenth cen- tury, can effectively be performed by violists or violin- ists on an arm-held instrument. Performers and musi- cologists can explore whether these instruments are practical, musically convincing and historically justifi- able. The appropriate size of instrument can be chosen by the players according to the technical and acoustic demands of the piece. The list of possible composers is not limited to those who worked within the da spalla tradition: Giovanni Battista Vitali, Domenico Gabrielli, Giuseppe Jacchini, Antonio Caldara, and Giovanni and Antonio Maria Bononcini. There are numerous duets for violin and cello (without con- tinuo) from the late 1680s and 1690s that treat the cello as an equal partner to the violin, as well as several other pieces which contain obbligato cello passages, such as Arcangelo Corelli's op.5, just to mention one famous example. This satisfies the definition Mattheson gives to the instrument.

In regard to Bach, we know that the composer possessed violoncellos piccolo with both four and five strings. Instruments of this nature were made by Johann Christian Hoffmann, a contemporary of Bach in Leipzig, and by several other instrument makers from all over 17th-18th century Europe. The majority of such instruments have been lost, while others were rebuilt into violas or into violoncellos for children. Nonetheless the scarcity of surviving examples does not imply they never existed! Surviving examples of violoncellos piccolo made by Hoffmann, which were the departure points for my work, are to be found in the Brussels Instruments Museum and in the Leipzig University Music Instrument Museum. An anony- mous mid-eighteenth century instrument very similar to the Hoffmann instruments is shown in the Bach Museum at Eisenach, and some forty other instru- ments are preserved in collections around the world. Practical experiments show that Bach solos, even the relatively simple ones in cantatas, are not playable on an arm-held instrument with a string-length longer than those of Hoffmann-type instruments (c43cm- 51cm), and in any case, not using the diatonic (violin) fingering given by Bartolomeo Bismantova in his Compendio Musicale in 1694. So we can suppose that Bach's violoncello piccolo / viola pomposa was a Hoffmann-type instrument.

Analysing the notation and performance mate- rials of several cantatas, we also see that the violoncello piccolo parts in cantatas BWV 41, 49 and 85 are notated in the treble G (violin) clef, and were probably played by the first violinist rather than by a violoncel- list. Even more convincing is the example of cantata BWV 6, where the violoncello piccolo part was first written in the first violin part, and only later given to the viola. Of course, we should not exclude a da gamba performance as one of the possibilities.

Due to the loss of the autograph, Anna Magdalena Bach's copy is one of the most important
sources for the cello suites. Many modern violoncel- lists use a violoncello piccolo for the last suite, although Anna Magdalena did not use the term "pic- colo", but wrote "à cinq cordes". Johann Sebastian Bach never used this French term in any of his works, so it is possible that Anna Magdalena is entirely responsible for it, just as the use of a smaller violoncello in the sixth suite is the choice of modern players. Besides the pos- sibility of input from Anna Magdalena, it is feasible that all six suites were meant for the violoncello pic- colo. Lambert Smit, who played an important part in reconstructing the violoncello piccolo da spalla, combined a traditional analysis of original sources with practical study of Bach's music, concluding that the number of unavoidable shifts is no more than average for baroque music, whereas the execution on a full-size instrument requires ceaseless shifting. Historical evidence suggests that Johann Sebastian, being proficient on both the violin and viola (nothing is known about him as a violoncellist da gamba), would then have been the first to play the Suites for an unaccompanied vio- loncello on his own violoncello piccolo, played on the arm: the Suites I to V on a four-stringed and Suite VI on a five-stringed instrument.

New and enriching aspects of music by Johann Sebastian Bach are revealed by the use of this instrument which was known in Bach's circle, and for which he obviously wrote. Any violinist or violist can rapidly become accustomed to the fingering almost identical to that of the violin. The right-hand technique is more challenging: it requires the avoidance of the near-ver- tical movement for up- and down-bows in which the weight of neither the arm nor the bow are in balance with the rest of the player's movements. The particularly large amount of silver in violoncello piccolo da spalla strings gives them their characteristic sound, similar to male voices or viols, especially apparent when playing messa di voce or full-bodied chords. Their tension is about half of that of common cello strings, their core is thin, and they are extremely reactive to changes in bowing. The response of the instrument's small body is fast and accurate. The dynamic range is greater than that of a large violoncello, especially at the piano end although, while the instrument is capable of powerful forte, it is not absolutely as loud as a large violoncello.

Over the course of more than a decade Sigiswald Kuijken has encouraged me to pursue the study of baroque violin-making and playing - both as a luthier at my violin-making studio and as a member of La Petite Bande. His musicianship, artistic philosophy and personal example have inspired me in what has now evolved into an historically informed violin- making practice. It has also enabled me to pay tribute to the supreme and sublime music of J.S.Bach on the violoncello da spalla – the instrument for which Bach composed the cello suites. Without Sigiswald Kuijken’s highly constructive influence neither this recording nor many other things dear to my heart would have ever been possible. To him this recording is wholeheartedly dedicated.

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