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Concerning the cello

By Simon Riker

How many times have I heard someone say, “Oh, I just love the cello! What a beautiful instrument!”? Certainly too many to count or remember, since I began playing the instrument at the age of nine. Of course, it’s little wonder that the cello resonates so strongly with people, since its range and timbre so neatly overlap with the human voice, as many cellists will be quick to point out. So it is that even someone playing the cello for the first time could draw out a deep and round open C, with a tone rivaling a rare basso profondo, while intermediate players begin to work their way further up the fingerboard into the tenor range, and those who wish advance further must hone the quality of the upper-most registers, which scream and soar like a soprano (and I really do mean that in the kindest way possible).

The ease of relation and appreciation creates an irony in my own musical history, which is that I play the cello precisely because of its unpopularity. I clearly remember the session my third grade class attended near the end of the school year to sample and select the instruments which we would begin receiving instruction in when school resumed again in the fall. Working his way down a line of instruments, the band teacher called eager students one by one to the front of the room for a shot at making sound. Kids were practically jumping out of their seats to try the cool instruments like the trumpet and the saxophone — but when the cello’s turn came, it was met with silence. Being someone who seriously struggles with silence, it was in my nature to volunteer and “save the day”. All it took was one stroke of the bow across the lower strings for me to begin to appreciate the power of the instrument.  I felt its vibrations where it touched my legs, chest, and hands. Yes, I could do this, I thought to myself. I like this.

Little did I know how infuriatingly difficult the instrument is to play. Coming from several years of piano instruction, I was used to a different sort of relationship between technique and tone. Where the piano is straightforward — you know exactly what you’re going to get when you press a key, because consistency, equality, and reliability are infused in the instrument’s essence — so little about the cello seemed to be trying to help me produce anything beautiful at all. I learned to struggle with intonation on a fretless instrument, where each note’s success depends on the placement of your left-hand fingers down to the smallest fraction of an inch and the bow requires an attention to the subtlest degrees of difference in angle, pressure, and speed. Even the process of tuning the instrument was outrageous, and often led to my complete neglect of practice for extended periods of time.

That being said, I did pursue private study and continued with the instrument throughout high school. The instrument became more natural as I matured and practiced, and the orchestras and ensembles I played with brought me into pit bands around New York, across the ocean to Vienna and Salzburg, down south to New Orleans, and ever upwards until I had played Carnegie Hall. The cello brought me across the world, and now I feel like it’s only right to be mindful of where the cello itself came from, and where it may be going.

There is a consensus among musicologists that the history of the cello may be traced back, along with the rest of the stringed instruments, to those early hunters who first realized that plucking the sinews of their bows unleashed forms quite distant from the violent forces that had determined the weapon’s existence. Thus began a peaceful appropriation of the hunter’s equipment as a new branch of a cultural evolution no longer geared towards survival, but instead amusement. What followed were generations of experiments with the string’s length, density, material, and number; additions to the instrument’s body for the purposes of pitch and resonance, until we arrived (quite recently) at the viol in the 15th century, the violone (bass violin) in the 16th, and the violoncello (‘cello or cello for short: literally meaning “small large viol”) across the 17th and 18th centuries. Then, as orchestras became more organized structures, conformity became a necessity and the most successful, versatile instrument models became the norm of today.

These days we have the benefit of video, so my narrative will take a turn if you’re willing to come along. People are still doing cool things with the cello. Really cool things. Like A Cello Rondo, in which Ethan Winer plays 37 different cello parts to create one song. Or this head-banging rendition of “The Final Countdown,” featuring three distorted cello soloists backed by a full rock orchestra. The cello continues to bridge genres with the international success of Apocalyptica, whose Finnish metal sound is about as heavy as their name would imply. What they’ve done is fascinating to me, but Ben Sollee is perhaps more accessible, as a singer-songwriter who mixes folk, bluegrass, and jazz. I would even say that Kevin “K-O.” Olusola gives Justin Timberlake a run for his money with his cover of the recent hit, “Mirrors.” Finally, this tour would feel incomplete to me, personally, if I did not mention Eugene Friesen’s brilliant playing year after year with the Paul Winter Consort as they celebrate the winter solstice at the Cathedral  of St. John the Divine: here, the cello is an integral part of a New Age ensemble with a global consciousness, upholding an ancient pagan tradition.

It’s really all quite an elegant picture. In a sense the cello was born of carnivorous hunger, modified by playfulness and curiosity, and standardized by Western precision and discipline. Today the instrument is a forceful presence in genres of all kinds across the entire planet. And its journey isn’t even over yet: to see what’s next, it looks like you’ll just have to stay tuned.

Simon Riker grew up in Rye, New York, and has spent his entire life so far trying to get a job in a skyscraper. When Simon isn’t interning at Oxford University Press, he can be found studying Music and Sociology at Wesleyan University, where he expects to graduate next year.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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Image credit: Cello, isolated on white with clipping path. © Robyn Mackenzie via iStockphoto.

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