I: J. S. BACH AND THE FIVE STRING CELLO

It is now almost three hundred years since Bach composed his six suites BWV 1007 – 1012, and still there are many open questions about them. Especially the problem which instrument to use in order to perform them properly is not really solved. Since their re-discovery in the beginning of the 20th century it was assumed that they were written for the Stradivari-type four string cello that had by then replaced its predecessors. Playing them on this type of cello however results in major technical difficulties already in the 3rd suite: In the Prélude of that particular suite the use of the thumb is necessary, a technique that was not in use yet at Bach’s life time. The most problematic suite however is the 6th which presents extreme difficulties if played on a four string cello because of the frequently requested high registers. Bach composed several other works for solo instruments but they do not show any similar examples of such outstanding technical demands. That is why in the recent past some musicians and historians started to doubt that the Stradivari cello was the instrument Bach wrote the six suites BWV 1007-1012 for. Their position is based on the following facts and conclusions:

-  The cello of Bach’s time is defined by historians as an instrument resembling a big viola1 (See pictures 1 and 2.), being held under the chin, across the body or  between the knees.2 (See picture 3.) It was originally intended to assist the double bass as an accompanying bass instrument and came in various sizes (from the small da spalla instruments to the big cellos of Andrea Amati) and tunings. Due to the longer strings the player’s left hand could cover a significantly smaller tonal range than it could cover using a violin.

 

Picture 1: A violoncello da spalla,  placed behind a violin. [This picture was taken from the Internet. If there are any copyright issues please contact us.]

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Picture 2: A modern replica of a viola da spalla, about the same size as a violoncello da spalla. Both instruments are arm-held. (This picture was taken from the Internet. If there are any copyright issues please contact  us.) 

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       Picture3: A violoncello piccolo (posession of the Musashino Instrument Museum; made by A. Gragnani ca. 1785) compared to a 4/4 cello. 

Full size + Piccolo

 (For more information about the size of a violoncello piccolo see Appendix A.)

–   The first five suites for cello, obviously intended for a four string instrument, are somehow untypical in their structures compared to Bach’s usual sophisticated technique of composition: they are much plainer and less intricate than for example the violin partitas and sonatas. The sixth suite however, which calls for the use of a five string instrument is the first one among the cello suites that equals the complexity and beauty of the violin sonatas and partitas. (See Appendix B.)

–   Bach owned and occasionally composed for a five string, arm-held instrument, called viola pomposa4, which he himself used to call violoncello piccolo5. It featured the usual low tonal range of a cello but the fifth string gave access to an additional tonal range almost as high as a violin’s. (The ‘modern’  violoncello piccolo used today, for example in some of Bach’s cantatas, is mainly built as a knee-held instrument.)

–   The four string Stradivari-type cello in its present size and way of holding established itself at the end of the 18th century6, more than three decades after Bach wrote the cello suites, and in a time when Bach and his work was already almost forgotten.

–   It is very unlikely that Bach intended to use two completely different types of instruments, a big Stradivari-type and a small, chin-held viola-cello, for the same cycle. Bach was a cembalist but also a violin and viola player, which means he could play the viola pomposa. There is no mention of him having played the cello. It is very unlikely that he switched within one cycle between instruments he was familiar with and instruments he wasn’t.

–   Playing all suites on any four string cello would result in a  relatively reasonable increase of technical difficulties proceeding from the 1st to the 5th7 suite,but proceeding to the 6th would present a sudden, grotesque rise to a level of difficulty that the cello repertoire only reached and dealt with more than fifty years later.8 At this point the following conclusion can be drawn:

–   Bach started to compose his cello suites for a viola-like four string cello, not for a knee-held, big, four string cello.

–   For the 6th suite Bach used a five string, arm-held instrument.9 The style of composition changed dramatically – the piece became as complicated and intricate as the violin sonatas and partitas. After discovering the possibilities of this five string instrument there would have been no reason to return to a four string one.

  The obvious questions are why this five string viola-cello did not survive him and why the cello didn’t evolve to become a five string instrument.

  Around the time when Bach composed the cello suites the Italian violin makers Stradivari, Montagnana and Gofriller decided the modern cello’s acoustically optimal final shape and size. The big, so-called ‘church cellos’ were mostly cut to that size around that time.

 

Picture 4: A Stradivari four string cello. (This pictures were taken from the Internet. If there are any copyright issues please contact us.)

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   It has almost exaclyt the violin’s proportions, enlarged by the factor of two. Like the violin it also had four strings. Since it was much bigger than the viola-cellos it had to be held between the knees. It could produce a bigger sound than all other cellos which is the reason why it slowly displaced its smaller relatives. Its longer strings resulted in a smaller tonal range than a viola-cello’s, but that wasn’t a major problem because of the role of the cello as a mere bass instrument at that time; there was no need to play very high or fast notes.

   When this new cello had established itself at the end of the 18th century Bach (1685 – 1750) was dead and his music already was almost forgotten until the beginning of the 19th century and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s (1809-1847) re-discovery of Bach’s works. The problem of playing the suites on a big four string cello never presented itself during Baroque and early Classic: The cello suites had never really been introduced to the public until the beginning of the 20th century. By then the choice of instrument was never even questioned: the ‘cello’ (or cellos) Bach wrote the suites for was, wrongly, understood as the violoncello everyone used by now. The viola pomposa, the violoncello piccolo and other viola-cello models were long forgotten and out of use. Cellists nowadays still mostly think Bach’s cello was of the same size and type as the cello they now use.

  Beginning with Haydn and Beethoven, composers started to realize the possibilities of the Stradivari-type cello as a tenor instrument and the technical demands on the cello players started to rise because of the more frequent presence of high notes. The cello’s job of doubling the bass changed and it started to become a rival to the violin; just like Bach seemed to have it planned with ‘his’ cello. The tonal demands expanded and cellists like Salvatore Lanzetti10, the Duport brothers11 and Bernhard Romberg12 searched for ways to deal with this new role and the increasing technical difficulties. (See Appendix C for a ‘students’ tree’ of B. Romberg and J.L. Duport.) They came up with the idea of using the left thumb as a playing finger in high passages. Using the thumb as a playing finger is actually not the way how a cello (or any other string instruments) was intended to be played: If the thumb leaves the neck the fingers lose the necessary counter-pressure needed to push the string down easily and properly. But introducing that rather awkward way of playing the cello seemed to have been preferable to an evolution of the treasured Stradivari-model cello to a five string instrument.

  Stradivari must have been aware of his cello’s limited tonal range: A violin player’s left hand can cover the interval of a fifth in low positions, in high positions even more. A cellist’s hand only can cover a fourth, which results in the more frequent need of position changes. The thicker strings of a cello also request the use of more pressure from the left and right hand than is necessary for playing the violin. The cello bow is shorter than a violin’s; proportionally enlarged it should actually be much longer. All these factors result in a greater difficulty to execute fast passages, long slurs and high notes.

  But Stradivari probably stuck to the principle of four strings because of the good sound properties and because the role of the cello didn’t require playing high notes yet. Nonetheless, there were some cellists who picked up Bach’s proposition of using a five string instrument. Almost none of those instruments survived but they still can be seen depicted in drawings and oil paintings; some few can be seen in museums. The Musashino Academia Musicae Instrument Museum owns a relatively recently built Stradivari-size five string cello (See picture 5.); a fortunate coincidence, because its existence proves that there was a continuous interest in using such an instrument. It is an Italian instrument, built by Vincenzo Postiglione in 1880. It has basically the same measurements as the Stradivari four string models, only the bridge is slightly wider because of the additional string. It would be very interesting to hear its sound, but it would be too risky to equip this antique instrument with modern strings.

Picture 5: The Postiglione five string cello.  5

  Since there are almost no old playable instruments available anymore recently some few cellists in Europe and America started to use new, full-sized, five string master-made cellos for playing Bach’s sixth suite13. However, the number of such cellists still is very small and there is no wide-spread documentation available about construction, sound and usability of their instruments. There are CD recordings featuring five string cellos, but since those are studio recordings they cannot deliver any conclusive data about actual sound properties.

  The problems of Bach’s suites and the general difficulty of playing the cello are still being widely ignored. Bach’s 6th suite is now quite often being performed by viola – and violin players using contemporary copies of Bach’s viola-cellos14, but cellists still seem to believe they have to struggle on an instrument the work never was meant for.

   A few cellists managed to master the 6th suite somehow on a four string cello. However, the question remains why so few cellists use a five string instrument.

  The only reasonable possible objection against the use of a five string cello could be an acoustic disadvantage compared to a four string cello. Because of the presence of an additional fifth string there will be the need for a bigger bridge, a broader fingerboard, a thicker neck and a bigger tailpiece. Those changes will probably cause some loss of vibration of the body and thus lead to some loss of volume. The overtones of the additional string will possibly make up for some of that loss, but it is impossible to tell without trying and comparing.

   In Japan it is presently impossible to do such research because there are no five string cellos available that could be compared to a high-class four string cello. The old ones are in museums and are not built to be equipped with modern strings. The new, five string cellos available on the market are either cheap, mass-produced factory instruments or ‘electric’ cellos15, used in Rock- and Pop-music.

 

CONCLUSIONS:

  • The optimal choice for a proper performance of Bach’s 6th cello suite would be using a viola-like instrument, a choice that is not an option for a cello player.16
  • For a cellist a five string cello would be the obvious choice for the performance of Bach’s 6th cello suite17. A five string cello also would greatly facilitate the execution of the Sonatas BWV 1027-1029 on a cello (ultimately rewritten for a 5- or 6 string viola da gamba) and various Baroque- and early Classic concertos and sonatas.
  • Further research would concentrate on comparing the sound properties of four- and five string cellos and the possible use of a five string cello for playing compositions of classic and romantic repertoire.
  • There are very few high-quality five string cellos available for research in Japan.

 

  These conclusions led us to the project that we hoped to get support for:

UILDING A FIVE STRING CELLO AND TESTING ITS PROPERTIES.

Fortunately the project was approved in April 2013 and the following report will show the proceedings during the next three years. 

 

THE TEAM

While working on the applying procedures, Doll and Yamazaki had already started talking to the violin maker Yoshio Ueda, who owns the shop ‘Ekoda Strings’ in Nerima/Tokyo, about taking the part of constructing the instrument. He agreed to start working on the project, beginning in April 2013.

 


1 Johann Mattheson: Das Neu-Eröffnete Orchestre (1714) “ The violoncello, the bass-viola, the viola da spalla are small bass- violins with 5 and 6 strings.”
 
2 J.G. Kastner; Traité Général D’instrumentation (1834): “VIOLA DA SPALLA (shoulder viola)- There is no information on the way that this instrument was tuned; It was suspended from the right shoulder with a ribbon. It is to be presumed that the viola da spalla was an approximate equivalent to our current violoncello, because one still finds village musicians who suspend the violoncello from the right shoulder with a strap, whereas our artists hold it between the knees
 
3 Anna Magdalena wrote before the Prélude: ”a cinque cordes” (for five strings) and added the notation C, G, D, a, e’; not specifying any particular instrument:
Prélude
4 J.G. Kastner; Traité Général D’instrumentation : “VIOLA POMPOSA – This instrument was invented by the famous Johann Sebastian Bach. It was taller and higher than the ordinary viola, but it was held it in the same position as the viola; it had a fifth string in addition to the four strings of the viola, tuned to E […]. As the violoncello was being perfected little by little […] the viola pomposa was […] easily forgotten since it was heavy, and thus, inconvenient to manipulate.”
 
5 This habit of Bach must have been the reason for all of the later misunderstandings of the title ‘Suiten für Violoncello’: Bach’s actual choice of a violoncello’ for the sixth suite  was actually a viola-cello, most likely  the viola pomposa, an arm-held big viola, very similar or identical to the violoncello da spalla (Picture 1, and not a small version of  a Stradivari-type violoncello.
 
6 Leopold Mozart; Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule; 1787; “Nowadays the violoncello […] is held between the legs, and one can justly call it […] a leg-fiddle.”
 
7 In the suites I to V the tonal range does not require the use of any other clef than the bass-clef.
 
8 In Anna Magdalena’s copy already in measure 9 of the Prélude the high notes make the use of the C-clef necessary; interestingly in its alto version, which usually is used for viola and viola da gamba.
 
9 Klaus Marx; Die Entwicklung des Violoncells und seiner Spieltechnik bis J.L.Duport. On page 52 Marx states that the sixth suite was written for “a flat instrument, held like a violin and tuned C G d a e’ ”.
 
10 Salvatore Lanzetti (1710-1780), Italian cello virtuoso and composer; Lanzetti is said to have been one of the first cellists to use the left thumb as a playing finger.
 
11 Jean-Pierre Duport (1741-1818) and Jean-Louis Duport (1749–1819), French cello virtuosos and composers
 
12 Bernhard Romberg (1767–1841), German cello virtuoso and composer
 
13 One of them is the German cellist Joachim Schiefer, who provided us – together with the violin maker Thorsten Theis – with very valuable information about their five string cello. Another one is the German cellist Matthias Beckmann.
 
14 Mostly the viola da spalla. See  D. Badiarov’s documentation.
 
15 Those instruments have no sounding body- the vibration of the bridge is being transported directly to an electric amplifier.
 
16 Some violin and viola players have recently started to play the suites on replicas of the violoncello- or viola da spalla, a cello-like, five string instrument that hangs on a strap around the player’s neck. That is not an option available to a cellist.
 
17 In 1981 the German musicologist Werner Grützbach wrote in his book Stil- und Spielprobleme bei der Interpretation der 6 Suiten für Violoncello von J.S.Bach: “If a normal cello would be equipped with a fifth string an original performance of the 6th suite would be possible. Some cellists already did so successfully.”
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