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Title: Steven Isserlis—Sonata for Solo Cello Op. 133, by Sergey Prokofiev; Steven Isserlis, violoncello. Label: Virgin Classics. Format: CD. Catalogue#: VC 7 90811-2 259 804-231. Track: 4.

Contextual Associations

The modern violoncello (or simply ‘cello’), a bowed box-lute chordophone, is the bass member of the violin family of string instruments (see separate entries for violin and viola) that was developed in Western Europe. See Baroque violoncello for a summary of the social uses and associations during the early centuries of the cello’s development; the modern cello pictured and discussed here was in existence from around 1800. By the turn of the 19th century a substantial repertoire of solo (unaccompanied, sonata and concerto) literature existed for the cello, and this literature has increased in the 19th and 20th centuries. The cello has been a mainstay both of orchestras (see symphony orchestra and string orchestra) and of chamber music (see String Chamber Ensembles and Piano and String Chamber Ensembles) throughout the history of those idioms. The performance of this repertoire is today most concentrated in tertiary educational institutions around the world, which typically include in their faculty a professor of cello and offer degrees in cello performance at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Professional cellists find employment in orchestras, chamber ensembles, freelancing in the commercial music industry (performing and recording), and studio teaching. A few professional cellists in any generation attain international recognition and perform recitals and concerto engagements with symphony orchestras throughout the cosmopolitan world. Historically, in Europe of the 19th century and anywhere in the world where Europeans were introducing themselves (through trade or imperial conquest) and their cultural habits, the cello was played both by highly trained professionals and by amateurs. However, unlike with the violin, musicians from genres outside of the classical music establishment and from music cultures around the world have never adapted the cello to their own sensibilities and traditions.


The resonator of the violoncello is a curvaceous, somewhat figure-8 shaped wooden box consisting of arched top (‘belly’) and bottom plates glued to a side band (‘ribs’) that are proportionally much deeper than those of violins and violas. The ribs, constructed from six curved strips of thinly-shaven maple, are reinforced internally at their four corners (where they come to points) and at their top and bottom with blocks--the top block is used to anchor the neck to the resonator, the bottom one to anchor the endpin, which has to withstand the full force of the instrument’s string tension. The belly is made of thinly-shaven spruce, the back plate of maple. Two stylized f-shaped soundholes (‘f-holes’) are cut into the belly. Several coats of varnish are applied to the resonator exterior. The neck (including the pegbox and scroll) is fashioned from a piece of maple the bottom end of which is joined with a mortise and glue to the top internal block of the resonator. An arched, slightly angled, fretless fingerboard of ebony wood is glued to the topside of the neck and extends several inches over, but without touching, the resonator belly. At the top end of the fingerboard is a horizontally positioned ebony nut. The pegbox has four laterally mounted wooden tuning pegs, two per side. The scroll at the top end of the neck is purely ornamental. The four strings have gut or steel cores over wound with very fine wire. The bottom end of each string is tied to one end of a wooden tailpiece, which in turn is tied to the endpin that is anchored into the resonator ribs. The strings then run over and make contact with a high, thin and arched bridge, which is a separate component that stands on the resonator belly and that is held in place by the downward force of the string tension. The strings then ride over the full length of the fingerboard, make contact with the slightly higher nut, and are then wound around the tuning pegs with which their tension can be controlled. Each string has the same active vibrational length (the distance between the bridge and the nut) of 27 inches. They are set into vibration with rosined horsehair stretched the length of a slightly in-curved wooden bow. The energy of the vibrating strings is transferred to the resonator through the bridge, an action that is enhanced by a soundpost and a bass-bar inside the resonator (the former is wedged between the two resonator plates below one of the bridge’s feet, the latter is glued to the bottom side of the belly, runs nearly the entire length of the resonator, and passes beneath the other foot of the bridge).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A seated cellist holds the instrument, with the aid of an adjustable metal floor peg, in front of him- or herself tipped back somewhat from vertical with the resonator sides lightly pressed between the insides of the thighs. The back of the neck nearly touches the player’s left shoulder and the scroll is about level with the head. The thumb of the left hand is hooked around the backside of the neck and the fingers of the same hand are used to alter the vibrating length of the strings by pressing them against the fretless fingerboard. Harmonics can also be produced on the strings by lightly touching them at specific points. The strings are generally set into vibration with a rosined horsehair bow held at its frog end by the performer’s right hand, though they are sometimes plucked with the right hand fingers (called pizzicato) instead. The strings are tuned to: C2 - G2 - D3 - A3 (interval pattern of P5 - P5 - P5). The practical range of the instrument is C2 to A5, a little under four octaves. Higher pitches can be produced by either pressure stopping the A-string beyond the fingerboard or by producing harmonics on the A-string. Parts for the cello are typically notated at pitch in the bass clef. Because the fingerboard of the instrument has no frets, the performer can produce either chromatic intervals or microtonal ones over the cello's entire range. This design feature also makes the performance of subtle and bold ornamentations and sliding pitch inflections possible. Additionally, there are several effects producible with the bow. Finally, two strings can be sounded simultaneously. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on the violoncello.


By 1800, after 250 years of evolution, the cello had basically attained its modern design (see Baroque violoncello). The only significant feature yet to be incorporated was the adjustable the adjustable endpin, introduced in 1845 and which didn’t become standard until the second half of the 19th century.

Bibliographic Citations

Dilworth, John. 1999. “The Cello: Origins and Evolution,” In The Cambridge Companion to the Cello. Robin Stowell, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-27.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015:

Marx, Klaus. 1984. “Violoncello,” NGDMI v.3: 805-814.

Stowell, Robin, ed. 1999. The Cambridge Companion to the Cello. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.322 chordophone--necked box lute or necked guitar: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - joined

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: friction peg

Method of sounding: bowing (direct) and plucking (direct)

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretless fingerboard)


50.4 in. length 17.3 in. greatest width 4.8 in. height of ribs

Primary Materials

string - wire-wound gut


Klaus Geisler


165F Geigenbaumeister

Entry Author

Roger Vetter