Can a cello be played like a violin, upon the shoulder? It seems like a ludicrous suggestion, but bizarrely, forgotten in the mists of time there once existed an instrument precisely so: a small-sized cello played like a violin, and called violoncello da spalla (‘cello of the shoulder’).
The now-extinct 18th century instrument had music written for it by composers ranging from Antonio Vivaldi to Johann Sebastian Bach. It is even thought that the five-stringed version of the violoncello da spalla is what Bach had in mind when writing his Cello Suite no. 6.
It was designed to be performed upon by musicians who were otherwise accustomed to playing the violin or viola and who were unfamiliar with the viola da gamba or the conventional cello, played held in a vertical position between the legs. The violoncello da spalla is held by a strap on the shoulder and chest, and larger than a viola but smaller than a cello. It also emits a much lighter bass sound, due in part perhaps to its lack of direct contact to the ground.
The instrument is being revived, and made its London ‘debut’ as part of a programme from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) on 25 March 2014, at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. The concert formed part of the OAE’s Gamechangers series, looking at turning points in the history of classical music.
It was played upon by Sigiswald Kuijken, Belgian violinist, violist and conductor widely known for his interest in authentic instruments, and who teaches baroque violin at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague and the Koninklijk Muzieconservatorium in Brussels. The featured work showcasing the instrument was Vivaldi’s Concerto for Violoncella da Spalla in D, which had lain forgotten until as recently as 2004.
Kuijken believes that many compositions by Bach, Vivaldi and Corelli were written not for the modern cello, the instrument we associate them with today, but for the violoncello da spalla. The fact that it was often referred to as ‘violoncello’ makes this all the more confusing. Its more penetrating sound is what Bach intended for his Brandenburg concertos and cello suites.
Kuijken’s instrument was made specifically for him by the luthier Dmitry Badiarov in 2004 based on three surviving specimens and historical documents. Gregory Barnett’s scholarly book ‘The Violoncello da Spalla: Shouldering the Cello in the Baroque Era” was a great resource. I was fortunate to have seen two of the three instruments used as templates for the newly built instrument. They are housed at the truly magnificent Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels.
In an interview, Badiarov shared the results of some of his research. The violoncello da spalla was meant to be” a soloist instrument, or to be played as basso continuo, and never in a section. Either part is extremely exposed and requires formidable technical proficiency and musicianship.”
There are innovations being made to the revived instrument, most notably in the matter of strings. Gut-based strings which would have been used in the heyday of the instrument are fragile and extremely difficult to keep in tune. The renowned string manufacturers Thomastic have fashioned new modern synthetic core strings for the violoncello da spalla which Badiarov regards as “simply perfect.”
Playing the instrument is apparently not as cumbersome as it might look. It is suspended by a thick leather belt, so the left arm does not need to bear the burden of its weight. It gets slung across the chest and approximates the right shoulder. Obviously the instrument is too large and the chin makes no contact with it. However the left hand position is quite different to that used in violin playing: violoncello da spalla players stretch their first finger more often than the little finger, and ‘roll’ the palm to minimize the strain in stretchy passages or chords, as cellists or players of plucked instruments would do. It can be four- or five-stringed, and is played upon with a baroque bow.
What happened to the instruments after their heyday had passed? Over 40 surviving instruments are listed. A lot of specimens were either rebuilt as cellos for children, or turned into violas.
Will this revival of interest in the violoncello da spalla be fleeting, or will it be more long-lasting? Badiarov is convinced it is here to stay. He acknowledged that it will not become a commonly played instrument’ and that there will be no spalla discipline of study, or dedicated courses in conservatories in the foreseeable future. But its survival is ensured by that “tiny group of soloists curious enough to explore what else they can do in music.” Future tomes on the violoncello will have to give the spalla its rightful place in history. And the advent of better fractional strings for children’s cellos is making life easier for new spalla enthusiasts who can use these improved strings for this curious, old, yet ‘new’ instrument.
To see and hear the violoncello da spalla in action, go to YouTube and type in its name.
(An edited version of this article was published on 6 April 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)