A Cello for Violinists

July 18, 2016, 7:59 AM · The “Violoncello da Spalla” refers to a violin family basso instrument held across the chest with a strap around the neck. This “shoulder cello” (held against the right shoulder) was popular in the baroque era, both as an instrument to play outdoors as well as in the churches. It was favored in the basso continuo section for its clarity and ability to articulate nuance. Basso string instruments had many names, such as Violoncino, Violonzono, Fagottgeige, Bassetto, Viola da Spalla, and Violoncello da Spalla. They featured different tunings, number of strings, and were made in a variety of sizes. The great baroque music artist-scholars Gregory Barnett, Sigiswald Kuijken and Dimitry Badiarov have uncovered much information about “da Spalla” held basso instruments, from orchestra rosters and composition title pages, to drawings and paintings from the period, and by studying the few surviving originals that were not converted into other instruments.

Zachary Carrettin
Zachary Carrettin plays the Cello da Spalla.

I decided I wanted to lead the orchestra from the bass line, and so I reached out to some American luthiers to discuss creating a new instrument, and specifically examining the options with size/dimensions. A. Cavallo Violins in Omaha, Nebraska, took an interest and began reading the materials available online, and examining the art images from the period. They decided to make two instruments, the first based on a ¼ size cello body and the second featuring a smaller body size than that. (It should be clarified here that a ¼ size cello is not 75% smaller than a full size cello!). The ¼ size body is ambitious for the player, and comes close to the size of some Violoncellos Piccolo that were held between the knees, not up on the chest. However, my interest in the larger model was to have more depth and an unmistakable cello sound. Commissioning both instruments, I felt I could use them together for cello sonatas, and within the basso continuo section of the baroque orchestra. In choral music for example, these instruments can be added to the bassoon, violone, cello, chamber organ, or harpsichord in the continuo group. And, in concerto grosso repertoire, everyone in the band can play while standing, which creates an exciting dynamic.

The team at A. Cavallo Violins first created the larger model, which I played for a month prior to visiting the shop for adjustments and modifications. At first I thought the long string length would be unplayable for the left hand, but as time went on I encountered extended techniques, all based on flexibility of posture and method, from bow angle to the positioning of the cello; all things became malleable, opening up a world of possibility. Currently, the luthiers at A. Cavallo Violins are working on the smaller size, utilizing some of the modifications made to the larger instrument.

I'll introduce the larger Cello da Spalla on July 26 in a concert at A. Cavallo Violins in Omaha with Micah Fusselmann on viola da gamba, Alexander Ross on Baroque violin, and Kenneth Bé on Lute. Next, in October the Boulder Bach Festival will program both Cellos da Spalla in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #6, (replacing the violas da gamba in the ensemble). In November I perform with harpsichordist Mario Aschauer at Sam Houston State University’s Center for Early Music Research and Performance, and in December Aschauer, soprano Jennifer Bird-Arvidsson, and I present a concert in Boulder, CO, featuring Music in the Court of Vienna.

Playing a Violoncello Piccolo da Spalla is invigorating- the resonance abounds and the richness is intoxicating. Furthermore, I’ve found the technical challenges and solutions to have a profound affect on my violin playing. It is transforming my relationship to the violin, based on a heightened awareness achieved. When I switch from cello over to violin I’m able to sense and observe so many aspects of my playing and sound. It’s very different compared to switching from viola-to-violin, as the viola posture and method of playing is more similar to the violin than is the cello da spalla, held freely across the chest.

After twenty-five years of performing on baroque period instruments I’m now encountering a new collection of details and nuances related to the physiology of playing, and the psychology connected to that freedom of motion. Barnett, Kuijken, Badiarov, Malov, Vanscheeuwijck, Wissick, and others exposed the rest of us to a world that can be explored by violinists, violists, and luthiers interested in designing, re-creating, and playing basso instruments held freely across the chest. Special thanks to A. Cavallo Violins for taking this journey with me!

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