By Jacy Burroughs
1. Cello comes from the Italian term violoncello, which actually means “little violone.” (No, I didn’t spell violin wrong.) The violone is the lowest-pitched instrument in the viol family, a group of stringed instruments that were used primarily before the eighteenth century. During the twentieth century, it became customary to abbreviate violoncello as “cello.”
2. The cello is actually part of the violin family, which came into prominent use in the eighteenth century. There are several differences between instruments in the viol family and violin family. Viols have flat backs while members of the violin family have curved backs. Viols have c holes rather than f holes and six strings instead of four strings. Viols are also tuned in fourths with a third in the middle, have frets, and are played with an underhand bow grip. Members of the violin family, on the other hand, are tuned in fifths (with the exception of the double bass), do not have frets, and are played with an overhand grip of the bow. (Again, the exception for the latter is the double bass bow, which may be held either way.)
3. The plural of cello is either celli or cellos.
4. Most cellos have a decorative inlay called “purfling.” While purfling gives the cello an aesthetically pleasing appearance, it also serves a practical purpose. Purfling helps prevent cracking of the wood due to playing, travel, weather, or being dropped or struck.
5. Cellos (and other string instruments) are held together using hide glue. This glue is made from boiling animal connective tissue. It is strong, but malleable. The glue is weaker than the wood, allowing it to shrink or expand without cracking the instrument.
6. Cellos come in many different sizes. Standard or full-sized cellos are referred to as “4/4” and smaller cellos may be referred to in fractional sizes, such as 7/8, 3/4, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/10 and 1/16. Smaller cellos are essentially the same as full-sized cellos, just proportionally scaled down for children and shorter adults. While it is a bulky instrument, the cello is actually relatively light weight, weighing only five to seven pounds. It is actually the case that adds on most of the weight.
7. Mstislav Rostropovich, a cello virtuoso in the 20th century, was in large part responsible for the growth in the cello repertoire. He commissioned and premiered over 100 new works for cello.
8. The cello has a rich repertoire of concerti and sonatas. Arguably the most famous and important cello pieces are J.S. Bach’s Six Suites for Cello. Vivaldi wrote 25 cello concerti, Boccherini wrote 12, Haydn wrote at least three, and Saint-Saens and Dvorak wrote two each. Other notable cello concerti include Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Bloch’s Schelomo. The most famous sonatas for cello and piano were written by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Poulenc and Britten.
9. While the cello is far more famous as a member of the orchestra and string chamber ensembles, it has made several appearances in popular music. In the 1960s, it was featured in “Eleanor Rigby” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles. More recent bands that have used the cello include Aerosmith, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and One Republic.
10. Some famous cellos include the “King,” which was built by Andre Amati between 1538 and 1560. It is one of the oldest known celli and is located at the National Music Museum in South Dakota. Yo-Yo Ma plays on the Davidov Stradivarius cello, which was formerly played by Jacqueline du Pre. Notable celli like these are not actually owned by the performer. They are loaned to the performer by an organization. For example, Yo-Yo Ma’s cello is actually owned by the Vuitton Foundation.
As a horn player, these are some of the facts about cello I found most interesting. I encourage string players to chime in with additional, pertinent and fun information!
Jacy Burroughs is the Online Merchandiser for Sheet Music Plus. She has degrees in horn performance from the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is a freelance horn player in the Bay Area.