The cello, or more precisely violoncello, is one of the oldest members in the viola family and one of the main elements in every orchestra thanks to its unique sound. We first hear mention of this amazing instrument sometime in the 15th century when it was used by traveling musicians. It was very heavy and big and back then it didn’t have the end pin we now see in the modern cellos. Let’s take a closer look at this interesting instrument.
The history is somewhat long and tumultuous, beginning in Italy where it was considered one of the most popular instruments. It was painful for the artist to play due to its size and weight and the need to balance it with the force of the legs; you can imagine that playing the cello in a muddy market was not the most pleasant experience. The size of it modified and this is why the name means “little big violin” in Italian. The length of the neck changed over the years and the final form was established sometime in the 18th century.
The neck of the cello is very special in the viola family being curved to the back and very long compared with other instruments. This is one of the main factors that contributes to the bass sound, the other being the strings which are much thicker than any other viola string in the whole range of instruments. Playing the cello is the equivalent of playing the bass guitar in a rock band and many people actually call the cello the “bass violin”. It requires much practice in order to achieve the necessary good posture because the cello is notorious for causing back.
The cello notes start in C and go all the way to G and D making it complimentary to the higher pitch of the violin. The combination of the low notes of the cello and those higher pitched notes of the violin make them the perfect combination in an orchestra where you will usually find the players at the front taking a leading role in the musical proceedings.
In the baroque period the cello was a true superstar because its notes were very appropriate to the overall atmosphere of the period. Likewise, today we find many solo cello parts in the modern orchestra repertoire because its sound is very beautiful, soulful and easy to distinguish. There are also plenty of famous musicians that have had successful solo careers following time spent playing with an orchestra and their following has certainly become more mainstream as a result. One of the main, characteristic features or techniques used is called tremolo which basically means that the musician makes a vibrating noise that can only be produced by a cello. Tapping is another great thing a cello can do, and this is why it is considered one of the most versatile music instruments of the traditional orchestra but more recently in other genres of music too.