Playing Schubert’s Sonata D 821 (‘Arpeggione’) on a 7/8 Stradivari-Type Five String Cello


The arpeggione is a small knee-held string instrument equipped with six strings in guitar-tuning (E – A – d – g – h – e’). Its shape resembles both a cello and a viola da gamba. Its E-string’s sound is quite different from a four string cello’s relevant high positions’ sound of the A-string, having a pronounced nasal, viol-like quality.

   The arpeggione was introduced in the early 1820ies and its popularity only lasted for about a decade. Nowadays the instrument is extremely scarce and the sonata Schubert wrote for it is mostly performed by cellists and viola players.

   Playing the work on a four string cello puts extreme technical demands on the player – it is one of the most difficult pieces played on a Stradivari-type cello. Like on the guitar the highest string on an arpeggione is an E; the passages which were intended for that string force a four string cellist into very high positions on the A-string as well on the D-string.

    Using a five string cello still presents many technical challenges, lacking one string, but the fact that its highest string also is an E –string might offer some facilitations.


I. Allegro moderato:


  • The e” in M.17 becomes easily reachable from the g’-sharp on the A-string in the previous measure.
  • The f” in M.20 still needs a rather difficult shift on the E-string, the biggest problem being to avoid a portamento.
  • When using the flageolet on the e” in MM.22,24 and 28 this passage becomes quite easy.
  • From M.31-57 there is no use of the thumb necessary.
  • The MM.60-62 still require quite high positions but are definitely easier to perform than on a four string cello.
  • The far shift on a four string cello to the e”-flat in M.67 becomes a shift to the 5th position.
  • The a” in M.69 can quite easily reached by using the flageolet on the previous e”.
  • The chords in MM.71 and 72 are now in the 1st to 3rd position.
  • The MM.74-157 can be played without using the thumb by cellists who can cover the octave in MM.102 and 104 using the first and fourth finger.
  • MM.161-164 are still difficult but could be realized without major compromises after investing some practicing time.
  • Until M.178-179 the use of the thumb is not necessary.
  • After M.179 only MM.201-204 make the use of the thumb necessary.

 II. Adagio:

(The measure numbers are consecutive for the movements II and III since the only double bar is at the end of the third movement.)

  • With the exception of MM.30-32 the movement can be played in the low four positions until M.69.
  • In M.70 the use of the thumb on the b’ is recommendable.

III. Allegretto:

  • Until M.216 there is no use of the thumb necessary.
  • MM.212-218 could be played in low positions followed by a rather big shift on the  in M.219. Another possibility would be to use in M.214 the second finger on the b’ (A-string) and later change to the first finger somewhere in M.216.
  • Proceeding until M.326 only the low five positions have to be used; use of the thumb is not necessary.
  • The f”-sharp in M.326 can be reached relatively easily by using the second finger on the flageolet A one beat before.
  • In the following measures (with the exception of M.346, the parallel place of M.316) only low positions can be used until M.414 where a shift into the 6th position on the e” becomes necessary.
  • With the exception of M.418 (parallel place to M.414) and MM.449-456 (parallel place to MM.212-219) low positions can be used until MM.496-510 and M.516-519; both of those places requiring the use of the thumb.



Stylistically there shouldn’t be any problems when performing the piece on a five string cello – the sound-quality of a high-level five string cello will possibly be quite similar, if not better, to the quality of an arpeggione, which sounds very much like a viola da gamba. Speaking from a strictly technical standpoint there is no doubt that the execution of the piece becomes  easier when using an additional string. It still is a difficult piece but the fifth string allows more frequent uses of low positions and saves many difficult shifts.

   The remaining crucial question is whether the possibly costly investment in purchasing such an instrument in order to perform one single piece of music is reasonable. Further research will strive to answer the question if there might be other compositions suggesting the use of a five string cello.

(For a list of pieces for which the use of a five string cello could be appropriate see Appendix D.)