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…


  1. Hi Josephine,

    This is a very exciting project. I look forward to reading all about it.


  2. Hello Josephine,

    Good luck with your exiting project.


  3. ooohhhh¡¡¡ That's a big and very challenging project, I'm a cellist from mex and I'll be very interested in all the way of this project.
    Congratulations and happy (after all) playing.

  4. I occasionally google 'piccolo cello' just out of curiosity, because I play one, and I'm interested to see what the current news is about its renaissance. I came across your blog, and am impressed at the challenge you've set yourself.

    I haven't played on a 'modern' cello for years 'n' years, only Baroque cello and gamba. Based on that experience, I can say with some confidence that you're in for a pleasant surprise when you first sit down with a piccolo cello. If you can't find an historic 5-string instrument for sale or loan, you may want to consider looking for a quality smallish newer cello (3/4 or 7/8 size is about right) then hiring a competent luthier to re-engineer it for the addn'l string. Given the prairie climate, that could be your best bet for a stable, playable instrument. You're right to avoid the Chinese instruments -- I've played a couple and the quality just doesn't seem to be there as yet.

    Once you have it, try a broad range of Baroque and early-classical stuff on it, too, in addition to the Bach. You'd be surprised how fun Boccherini can be on a 5-string cello!

    Good luck with your project.

    BTW, say hello to George Andrix for me. He and I were in a string quartet together in Great Falls, MT, about (oh, man) 40 years ago. I had to go off to the Vietnam war, so the quartet broke up. But making music with George was about as much fun as I've ever had in a chamber group.

    Fred Inman

  5. Hi Josephine -

    I'm so excited to catch up with you (virtually, anyway) and to read about your project. I would love to fly back to Edmonton and attend the performance in person. Do you think you'll also record it?

    Things in Toronto are going well and I'm currently wrestling with Brahams. As you know, I'd rather play Bach!

    And to make a long comment longer, I told my current teacher about your carbon fibre cello -- she's very intrigued so I transcribed all the info from your website.

    It's wonderful to read of all your success and your passion for cello continues to ring true -- even via Internet.

    Best wishes always,

  6. Hi, just happened to hear about your wonderful blog... well, I think, everybody is correct. Oversized, undersized, middlesized... da gamba, da spalla, whatever... it is so baroque! Violin - do you think it's any clearer? Chin-on, Chin-off, on the shoulder, just under it...

    I just typed in some posts relating to this subject on my blog. Have a look :-)

  7. Hi,

    So fun to see I'm not the only cellist looking for a 5 string piccolo. The 6th suite aside, I want one so that I can smoke thumblessly away on fiddle tunes sans shifting. My democratically minded luthier thinks it would be fun and easy to throw a commercially available cello E string and a mandolin machine peg into a factory 1/2 pint cello. I'm cruising the classifieds for the cello, and plan to make the tail piece out of scrap walnut. I'm not worried about string spacing, since I fiddle with the violin held vertically and do just fine. If the kluge works and I find myself playing it multiple hours a week I'll have someone make me a good one. No matter what I will be able to explore the 6th suite, AND have a really fun toy that I can spill beer on at parties. How can I lose? - CR

  8. I have a plan to make a arpeggione like the viola pomposa in 2010.


  9. By the way, Josephine,
    I read my Galpin Society Journal article once again wondering what could lead you to the conclusion that I suggested an oversized violin, as you put it above, "...is Mister Badiarov correct in suggesting it should be more like an “oversized viola” and played on the shoulder?"
    I think, I did not suggest this. There is an extensive list of historical documents as well as ca.40 surviving instruments that would not allow to make such a suggestion or bend the historical data in favor of violinists or cellists. As a matter of fact, my objectivity is better than average, a must in the field of historical violin and bow making. Just a little note for the sake of clarity.
    Merry Christmas,
    All the best,