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Doug Badger, Cellist

The Cello

History . . . read more

The violoncello (cello) is a descendant of the viol family, the name ‘viol’ being given to a family of bowed stringed instruments that emerged in 15th century Europe. Although the term ‘violoncello’ (meaning ‘little big viol’ essentially) was first used to describe an instrument (or instruments) of this period, the cello as we know it today only gradually evolved — over the course of the following two centuries — into the form with which we are familiar today, from a series of viol instruments that varied widely in size, shape and manner of playing. It is now even suggested that the Six Suites for Cello by J S Bach of the early 18th century — arguably today the most famous and celebrated solo works for the instrument — were in fact written for the ‘violoncello da spalla’, an instrument designed to be played on the shoulder. Never has the all-too-oft-heard witticism ‘how do you get that under your chin?’ seemed more apt!

So it was around the middle of the 18th century that the cello started to receive recognition as a solo instrument in its own right — as opposed to playing an obbligato or continuo role — and began to attract the attentions of the notable composers of the age such as Haydn and Boccherini (himself a cellist) who were amongst the first to write concertos for the instrument. Still, it wasn’t until the dawning of the 19th century that the ailing Beethoven penned his cello sonatas, which are widely accepted as the first sonatas in which the instrument is afforded a role of equal prominence to its keyboard counterpart. Since then, however, the cello has flourished and now enjoys a vast repertoire of virtuosic works, including some of the best-known and loved sonatas and concertos in the world of classical music as a whole.

The history of conventional string instruments is all the richer for the fact that — unlike the other common families of western instruments (keyboard, wind, brass and percussion) — the instruments themselves often have a lifespan of many centuries and become legacies that are handed down through generations, sometimes carrying with them, alongside their maker’s name, that of their more notable exponents too. It is these virtuosi and their remarkable instruments that are often responsible for inspiring some of the greatest masterpieces in the repertoire.

Famous Cellists

Just a handful of the great cellists who have made a significant impression on the world of classical music:

Pablo Casals (1876–1973) . . . read more

Revered as one of the greatest cellists and conductors of the 20th century, Casals is perhaps even better known for being the first cellist to make a complete recording of the Bach Cello Suites. In fact, until he rediscovered them in 1890, they had faded into virtual obscurity and it was only his championing of the works that has since restored them to their rightful place at the heart of the cello repertoire.

Mstislav Rostropovich (1927–2007) . . . read more

Simply one of the greatest cellists ever to have lived. He was not only a formidable player who could tackle the most fearsome works with apparent ease and profound insight but he was also responsible for premiering more new works than any other cellist in history as dedicatee of some of the most important and celebrated cello repertoire of the past century.

Until his recent death, Rostropovich played the Duport Stradivarius, named after the 18th century cellist Jean-Louis Duport who (along with his cellist brother Jean-Pierre) was a significant figure in European music at the time. History reports that the Duport Stradivarius was even briefly straddled by a rather clumsy Napoleon Bonaparte, the marks of which encounter are still visible on the instrument today!

Jacqueline du Pré (1945–1987) . . . read more

Arguably the most famous of all British cellists, Jacqueline du Pré was one of the most naturally-gifted musicians the world has ever seen and will always be best-remembered for her remarkable 1965 recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra, which has ever since remained the most popular interpretation of the work. Tragically, just as her star was burning at its brightest, her career was cut cruelly short when she was diagnosed in 1971 with Multiple Sclerosis and, although she lived for a further 14 years with her illness, she ceased performing publicly in 1973.

She played a number of instruments throughout her short career, most notably the 1673 Stradivarius (now known as the du Pré Stradivarius), currently owned by Lynn Harrell and the Davidov Stradivarius (named after the famous 19th Century cellist Karl Davydov) now played by Yo-Yo Ma.

Yo-Yo Ma (b 1955) . . . read more

One of the most versatile classical musicians of the modern era, Yo-Yo Ma has done more than any other cellist to broaden the appeal of the cello. Already a world-renowned soloist on the concert platform, he has since branched out beyond classical music into many other styles including traditional Chinese folk music, tango, bluegrass and jazz amongst others. He has won many accolades throughout his career, including multiple Grammy Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was bestowed upon him by President Obama in 2011.

In addition to the Davidov Stradivarius, he also plays the 1733 “Petunia” Montagnana, considered to be one of the greatest cellos of the period still in circulation.

Truls Mørk (b 1961) . . . read more

Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk is regarded by many as being currently the world’s greatest living cellist. He performs regularly as a soloist with the world’s most renowned orchestras and has released critically-acclaimed recordings of many of the great works including a Grammy-award-winning interpretation of the Shostakovich Cello Concertos.

His career was threatened in 2009 by an infection of the central nervous system which caused encephalitis and paralysis in his left shoulder. It was reported later that year that he feared he ‘may never play again’, although much intensive treatment has since enabled him to make an apparently full recovery and he returned to the concert platform with renewed vigour early in 2011.

Truls also plays a Montagnana, the 1723 “Esquire”, which features a scroll made by Stradivarius.

Han-na Chang (b 1982) . . . read more

One of the exciting young cellists to emerge in recent years, Han-na Chang was a protégé of the great Mstislav Rostropovich, who became aware of her precocious talent when he saw her win the Rostropovich International Cello Competition at the extraordinarily tender age of 11. She has since embarked on a hugely successful worldwide career as a soloist and, in recent years, has also begun to build herself a reputation as a fine conductor.

My Cello . . . read more

In 2004, my former cello teacher, Kitty Gregorson, sadly passed away shortly before her 101st birthday. She generously bequeathed to me her cello, which she had played for many decades and which had, in turn, been given to her by her former teacher, Ruth Waddell.

There is little paperwork with the instrument and what there is contains sketchy and often speculative information on the cello’s provenance. There is currently no definitive answer on the approximate date or even country of its origin, as many conflicting opinions have been offered by many of the experts who have viewed the instrument in the past century.

The most authoritative assessment thus far comes in the form of a letter, dated
1937, from Alfred Hill of Hill & Sons, who asserts that the instrument is
Florentine, although he suggests no date in this correspondence.

As you may be able to discern from the images on this page, the most
remarkable feature of the cello is its single-piece back of slab-cut maple,
which bears a stamp near the tailpiece that, if not a deliberate attempt
to deceive, would suggest that it came from the workshop of none
other than Antonio Stradivari himself. In fact, at present, the
maker’s label inside the cello bears the legend “Sotto la
Disciplina del Antonio Stradiuario F. in Cremona 1723”,
although this is likely a fake. Indeed, at some point
prior to this, the cello bore a different label (removed
by Alfred Hill) which bore the inscription of another
celebrated family of instrument makers: “Nicolaus
Gagliani fecit Neapoli anno 1716”!

The belly tells a different story as it appears
to have been cut-down from an instrument
of larger proportions to fit with this back.
This suggests that the back may have
been salvaged from a cello that had
become irreparably damaged in part
and a new instrument cobbled together
from various bits and pieces, like some
kind of magnificent Frankenstein’s monster!

Whilst I endeavour one day to unravel some of
the mysteries of this cello, what is most important
to me is that it is a beautiful instrument, both in form and in sound, and is a legacy, like many far more renowned cellos, that should continue to be handed down through the generations to be played and loved by many cellists to come.