The Song Of The Cello

From Scroll to Endpin

The when, where and how of its music

May 21, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Let's talk cello.

It has the deepest voice in the violin family, yet it can reach notes a coloratura soprano couldn't top. It is heard in orchestras and string quartets, alone in a recital hall or supporting other instruments in a small ensemble. Its warm, sonorous tone and wide range of inflection make it the instrument closest, in sound and expression, to the human voice.

The cello was the instrument of Pablo Casals, Gregor Piatagorsky and Jacqueline DuPre, and is currently celebrated by the likes of Mstislav Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma. (Ma will be in Baltimore next week, chairing the World Cello Congress III.) But the voice of the cello isn't only known by classical music fans.

Oscar Pettiford and Dave Holland have made jazz albums on cello, while Jack Bruce of Cream and Roy Wood of the Electric Light Orchestra introduced the instrument to rock fans. Morey Amsterdam from "The Dick Van Dyke Show" used a cello as part of his comedy routine, while the film "Hillary and Jackie" dramatized the tragic life of DuPre. Then there's the Finnish group Apocalyptica, which does all-cello arrangements of Metallica songs.

Its range begins with the C two octaves below middle C, giving it a starting point an octave below the viola, and an octave and a half below the violin. Its upward range is almost limitless, but in practical terms it is generally felt that the instrument spans five and a half octaves. Only the piano and the pipe organ have a greater usable range.

Along with the viola, the cello is part of the violin family (in fact, its "full name" is the violoncello), and has been around since the early 16th century. Like the violin, the cello's shoulders are squared-off, as opposed to the sloped shoulders of the double bass. With a body length of almost 30 inches, it is half again as large as a guitar, although its neck doesn't protrude from the body as far as the guitar neck does. It has four strings, stretching 27 inches from nut to bridge [see illustration], and is played vertically, with its body between the player's knees.

Typically, the player fingers the strings with the left hand, and handles the bow with the right. Although the cello originally used gut strings, now they are made of steel, which produces a stronger tone and is more easily kept in tune.

In essence, the cello itself is merely a soundbox, amplifying the vibrations of those strings. Its body is hollow, with two "f-holes" to allow air to move in and out. The strings connect with the body of the cello by way of the bridge, which conveys the vibrations to the instrument's belly, or front. Beneath the bridge is a soundpost, a cylindrical piece of wood tightly seated between the belly and back of the cello.

The cello itself is usually made of varnished hardwood, and is held together with water-soluble glue. Although there are student instruments made of plywood, the best cellos boast backs carved from a single piece of maple. The fingerboard -- so-called because the player presses the strings against it with his fingers -- is made of ebony, as are the tailpiece and tuning pegs.

The essential bow

In most instances, the player uses a bow strung with horsehair. The hair of the bow is rubbed with rosin (made from the clarified residue of distilled turpentine), coating the hairs with a sticky dust. As the bow is drawn across the string, the friction created by the rosin causes the string to vibrate. This vibration is, in turn, passed from the bridge through the soundpost to the back of the cello, which then vibrates in sympathy with the string, projecting the tone forward in much the same way a speaker cone projects sound.

The cello strings may also be plucked with the fingers, a technique known as pizzicato. Although this technique is quite common on the double bass in popular music, it is not so widely used with the cello, as pizzicato does not afford the sort of sustain and articulation possible from bowing.

Control of the bow is the most important aspect of cello technique. Stephen Kates, a cello instructor at the Peabody Conservatory, likens bowing to the use of the tongue and lips in speech. "Imagine that we were not able to use your tongue or lips," he asks. "What kind of sounds would you be able to make? "The use of the bow, in its finest sense, is not only the vowels and consonants -- it's all the inflection. The depth, the wisdom, the poetry. ... It is clear, articulated speech. That is why string players spend countless hours learning to use the bow, not the left hand."

Even so, Gerhard Mantel in his book, "Cello Technique," points out that, "Although each hand has different functions, their cooperation cannot be split into `left' and `right.' " Indeed, when playing, the cellist's whole upper body engages in a symphony of movement, coordinating the hands, arms, shoulders and even torso in an effort to make the strings vibrate just so. As difficult an effort as it is to play the cello correctly, the sheer beauty of the resulting sound is ample reward.

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