Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bows, Piccolo, Baroque Cello


Let me start with an update on the piccolo.

This project is becoming more and more interesting! I am communicating with people from all over the world, trying to find what I need! I have emailed with builders and performers and have received so much new information! I don't know where to begin.

I wrote to several builders and performers in Europe. At least now I know what the instrument should look like. Or at least: what I want it to look like!

More or less.

Apparently Bijlsma plays a piccolo as small as a 1/2 size cello. Wispelweij's is a little larger: 3/4 size.

But there is also a full size 5-string cello in the instrument museum in Vienna, built by Posch in the 18th century.

It is therefore still uncertain for which instrument the 6th suite was written.

Some research suggests that it was likely written for the Viola pomposa/da spalla, which I briefly talked about in the "first steps".

I know that last instrument will not be what I am going for. I am now searching for a nice small (half or 3/4 size) piccolo.

I have several emails out to more specialists, now that I am narrowing down my search. I will get there eventually!


Now... All of this is great fun. But... I need a bow! I am borrowing my colleague's bow, but it is terrible!

A few years ago I went through a very emotional and exciting experience of buying a new (contemporary) bow. I love that bow. It was built by Roy Quade in Calgary. I contacted him, hoping against hope that he would make baroque bows, which, of course, he doesn't. He did give me some names of good baroque bow makers though.

So now begins the unexpected (I should have seen this coming though) emotional search for a nice baroque bow. I talked to two makers in Eastern Canada. Very nice people. I will expect a shipment of bows to try out soon.

If you want some interesting reading on the complications of building a baroque cello bow, take a look at this website: . Read some of the articles too. There is so much we don't know yet!

Baroque Cello

I am running into another unexpected issue, which I am afraid to say out loud (let alone write it in a blog for the whole world to see!)...

I don't really like the baroque cello I am borrowing...
When I first got it a few weeks ago it seemed so nice, so sweet. But now that we are becoming more intimately acquainted we don't seem to get along so well...

I am obviously beginning to remember what I want a baroque cello to sound like. This isn't it!

So... (my wallet does not want to talk about it any further!)...


Some more interesting reading (follow the links also)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Strings and Piccolo


I ordered new strings! They'll take a while to get here (from the States). I ordered all Pirastro Olive (silver wound gut string) for my wooden cello. It has been years since I have used gut on it! That should be fun! I know that my cello likes it.

For the carbon fibre I ordered Jargar Forte a and d and Obligato G and C.

Those Obligatos sound great on the Luis and Clark, but terrible on my Mirecourt! It is always interesting to see that it makes such a huge difference from one instrument to the next! What sounds great on one cello, sounds really terrible on another. It is trial and error. Too bad that my pocketbook doesn't allow me to keep experimenting unlimited!

I also took my Mirecourt to my luthier, still with the Eva Pirazzi on. The instrument has been sounding very tight lately, especially on the top. He moved the sound post and I have to say that it is a huge improvement! I look forward to the gut strings on it.

While looking for the right strings to order, I came upon some interesting string making sites. Check this out:

Piccolo Update

The saga of the piccolo continues. While I did get a response from a builder in the States that he is willing to build a viola da Spalla/ pomposa; this is not the instrument for me. Only violinists and violists can play it. It has to be played using violinists' fingerings and will have to be held against the shoulder. Not very practical or useful for us, cellists. Siegiswald Kuyken, a phenomenal baroque violinist, has taken this instrument on.

I touched base with a friend form university and asked her if she could recommend some luthiers in the Netherlands who might sell or even build a piccolo (and what does it look like?!).

This is the response I got from one builder:

"Hello Josephine,

I make two models of violoncello piccolo, a small Castanieri en a larger Stradivari model.

Currently I only have the larger model available, but it has 4 strings. And of course you do need a C string!

It costs 8000 Euro and I could change it into a 5-string instrument.

(BTW: It sounds very beautiful!)".

While this is all nice: I don't have 8000 Euros laying around (too bad!) and I would have a slight preference for the smaller size. The larger size has a string length of 68 cm (instead of 72 cm for a regular cello). The smaller size has a 63 cm string length.

At least I am one step closer to understand the actual size. Or am I?!?... My friend in the Netherlands wrote me the following:

A short while a go I played a gorgeous little piccolo cello at a colleague's house. She had the instrument on loan for a little while, which was exceptional, since the particular luthier does not habitually loan out instruments. Only Anner Bijllsma has been able to borrow it from time to time. It was a very small instrument; almost as small as a half size, looking absolutely awful but it sounded heavenly!"

A half size eh...

So the search continues.

I may need to take the suggestion to purchase a small regular cello and have it rebuilt to a piccolo. I don't know yet.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

First Steps

You can comment on this blog at the bottom of the page.


Let me start with a description of what this blog will be all about. I will elaborate after that.

The project I will be working on for the next 10 to 14 months will be the preparation and performance of all six cello suites by Bach on four different cellos:

  • a baroque cello
  • a “regular” wooden cello
  • a carbon fibre cello
  • a violoncello piccolo (a 5 string baroque cello, slightly smaller than a regular baroque cello).

As far as I know this project is unique, even worldwide. Tracking down a violoncello piccolo will be a challenge. That journey I will share with you in the coming days, weeks and months. The instrument is seldom played in North America. Bach wrote his 6th suite for the violoncello piccolo, which is why I find it necessary to include it in the performance. Later I will explain more about the instrument.

Preparation of the performance requires an unusual amount of time. I will need to learn to play six suites on four instruments.
I will need a lot of time to get to know all of the instruments intimately, so that during the performances, I will be able to switch back and forth between each cello without compromising sound quality and intonation!

Every instrument will be very different in its approach and set up:

  • The baroque cello, built between 1600 until about 1780, has a neck that is set in differently from the “regular cellos”, the rounding of the bridge is different, and it uses gut strings, which have a tendency to dry out, squeak and be generally temperamentful. In addition, the tuning is lower than the current practice. In the dry Alberta climate I will have to replace the strings at least once a month.
  • The violoncello piccolo is a much smaller instrument and has a fifth (e1) string. The strings are quite different and so is the playing technique. It also uses un-wound gut strings. Including this instrument poses some challenges, but more about that later.
  • The “regular” wooden cello that I will use is my own French cello built in 1870 and is quite a large instrument. The strings I will be using on that cello for this particular performance are silver-wound gut strings, which are stronger than the un-wound gut, but still very vulnerable to humidity- and barometric pressure changes.

All three above mentioned cellos will have to be kept in a perfectly humidified (50% minimum!) environment to protect them from cracking or warping.

  • The carbon fibre instrument is made by Luis and Clark in Boston and is a very new instrument. Over the past 500 years violin builders have experimented, trying to improve the cellos sound and manageability, without much success, until now with Luis and Clark’s carbon fibre cellos. I play cello #117, built in 2006, which on a global scale means that they are still relatively unknown. The strings on this cello are 2 steel and 2 “perlon-core” strings. This instrument is totally unaffected by outside influences such as barometric pressure changes, humidity or cold. (Phew!)

There will be four different cellos from different time periods and eras, with very different sound and playability, but the music is from one composer, one era.
At the performances, I will show the audience (and myself!) how much the instrument that you play may affect the interpretation of the music.

In my musical career I have always had a strong affinity with baroque music and with the solo suites by Bach in particular. Over the years I have performed all of the suites, except the 6th one (which, to do it justice, should only be played on a 5-string Violoncello Piccolo), on various concerts.

I have never played a violoncello piccolo, which will be a fantastic challenge for me.
As a musician is essential to stay current on music performance practice. That also means staying current on development in “period” performance practice (performance in the style of the period that the music was written). While I have kept current as much as I can, this project will inspire me to become more prominently involved.

The challenge to perform all the suites on four completely different cellos is very exciting! I will learn so much in attempting to handle each instrument so differently.

I will need to do a lot of research in the use of the different instruments, their strings, bows, style and approach.

And this is where I will start my journey with you. I am looking forward to hearing your feedback and sharing my experience. It will be educational for all of us!

So I have started.

I ordered, and received, several copies of the Bach suites. I have always worked with the Barenreiter edition. In 1998 I bought Anner Bijlsma’s book “Bach the fencing master” which gave me a different inside in the interpretation and the bowing of the suites. In the past few years new editions of the suites have been released, such as a scholarly Barenreiter edition which includes several different old editions and comparing their differences. The other one is a Henle edition, which appears to my delight to be quite close to Bijlsma’s bowing ideas. I am sure that I will share many insights and out loud thoughts with you about that in the coming months: I am just starting!

The next step, of course, was the instruments. I own a beautiful Mirecourt cello. It is not easy to play, but has a warm sound. I also own a Luis and Clark carbon fibre.

The Baroque Cello

A colleague was so generous to lend me his baroque cello! I am so happy about that. It is one less worry. I do not know how long I can use it for, but I am really happy to start on it and may be able to complete the project on it. It sounds very deep and mellow. I will tune the a to 415, the tuning common in Bach’s time, rather than the 440 we are accustomed to today.

My first hours on the baroque cello were, to put it mildly, a disaster! I had forgotten how the different tuning can upset your ears! I must have played the prelude of the first suite a thousand times before, and the suite has a certain ring to it. But on the baroque cello I felt so lost! A g did not sound like a g! The ring is different; the overtones are so completely different!

Oddly enough I did not find the string crossings to be a problem, even though the strings are much further apart on this cello, the bridge is much lower, and they are gut. Nor did I seem to have difficulty with the action on the left hand, again in spite of the greater distance between the strings. The measurement of this particular baroque cello is very large, which will cause me some intonation grief in the coming months, I am sure!

Day 2 on this cello was much easier, and I have to say that now, after a little over a week with the instrument, my ears are getting used to making the switch to the lower tuning and it is getting easier!

On Friday played with some colleagues. Violin with basso continuo (harpsichord and cello). Such great fun! That too, started with quite the intonation issues, partly due to the fact that the harpsichord was out of tune, but it gradually got better as the violinist and I got used to the different type of intonation.

I have decided to play the suites all in one concert (probably a Sunday afternoon) as follows:

  • Suite 1: Baroque cello
  • Suite 2: “Classical” wooden cello


  • Suite 3: Baroque cello
  • Suite 4: Carbon fibre cello


  • Suite 5: “Classical” wooden cello, with a scordatura (the a-string tuned down to g)
  • Suite 6: Violoncello Piccolo

Pieter Wispelweij once said in an interview: "Instruments are not all the same, so one's technique varies from instrument to instrument. But certain things become very clear, like the fact that intense vibratos, pressing deeply into the strings, and certain attacks are not feasible on baroque instruments."
As I said; it will be an interesting journey to see how my own interpretation will vary on all the different instruments.

The Violoncello Piccolo

When I decided that I needed to include the piccolo cello in the performances, it was a decision based on my musical upbringing. My teacher in university was an avid baroque musician, being an amazing baroque cellist as well as a gambist. During my years with him, it became understood that one does not play the 6th suite unless one plays it on a violoncello piccolo. In the Netherlands there was (and still is) a very strong period instrument and interpretation tradition, where the piccolo regularly appears on the stages.
So my decision was made without much thought. But… WHERE TO GET ONE? All right, that is what local luthiers are for, right? Well… they are all very enthusiastic, but have no clue where to get one, or even what it would look like!
Ok, so onto the internet to baroque specialty string stores, right? Hmm… no piccolos there either, except for the odd very cheap Chinese one. This may be a terrific instrument, but I can’t risk it.

More internet research suddenly makes the whole instrument dubious!
There is a lot of controversy about it. It has been referred to as a Viola Pomposa (pompous viola), viola da spalla (spalla=shoulder) and violoncello piccolo.
At this point in my research I certainly do not claim to be an expert yet, but let me try to share the controversy with you. I will start with some photos and drawings, which will probably leave you (as did it leave me!) with a lot more questions:

Yes, this is what we all imagine a piccolo looks like, isn’t it?

Hmmm… odd way to hold a cello…

Wait a minute…: a VIOLA??!!!

Gee-whiz, that must be challenging!

Ok, so that confused us, didn’t it?

The violoncello piccolo appears to have been an invention of Bach, who wanted to have a cello that could play higher. As it was not custom in Bach’s time to use the thumb on the string, it was uncommon to play above the g1 on the a string. The first five suites never venture above that g1. Some scholars have noted that this may be proof that the instrument that we call cello today, may have been held on a shoulder (likely the right, since the instrument was too large to fit on the left shoulder like the violins), much like the other members of the violin family.

When you consider that it was also not customary to play one single instrument, like we do today, but more, this makes sense. It is much easier to move to another instrument if it is held in a similar matter.

There are, however also drawings and paintings that show the instrument being supported on a stool or table, standing on the ground, or even held between the knees.

And then there is the name. There is some evidence that Bach called the violoncello piccolo a viola pomposa. It also may have been called a viola da spalla (shoulder viola).

Viola da Spalla by maker Dmitry Badiarov:

Most sources are unclear, since little appears to have been written down about it.

So here I am: looking for a “regular” violoncello piccolo”. An instrument that I have always simply referred to as a “smaller cello with 5 strings”.
So what do cellists such as Bijlsma and Wispelweij play? Why are there no pictures of them on the web? Yes, of course I have seen many piccolos in the past, but never paid close enough attention to their actual size!

Is it as small as a ¾ cello, as some builders tell me? Or more like a 7/8th size, as others are certain of? Or is Mister Badiarov correct in suggesting it should be more like an “oversized viola” and played on the shoulder?

For now, I am looking for what I always believed a piccolo to be, but who knows where that will lead…