Baroque violoncello

Also:       Baroque cello      

Title: 6 suites a violoncello--Solo senza basso, by Johann Sebastian Bach; Anner Bylsma, Baroque cello. Label: RCA Red Seal/Seon. Format: CD. Catalogue#: RD70950-2. Track: I-12.

Contextual Associations

The Baroque violoncello is a necked box-lute chordophone that originated in northern Italy in the mid-16th century and remained in use throughout Europe and beyond through the end of the 18th century when it evolved into the modern violoncello. As was the case with most types of European Renaissance instruments, the violoncello was one of a family (called a consort) of variously-sized instruments of the same design, the other two members being called the violin and the viola; the violoncello was the bass register member of the consort. During its early history the violin consort had two primary uses: the doubling of vocal parts (which could also be done with other consorts); and the accompanying of dance whether for nobility at court or commoners in the village. Especially in this latter use, it was played by professionals and both the performers and the instruments were held in low social esteem. In the course of the 17th and early 18th centuries (during the Baroque era) it was used primarily to reinforce the bass line of basso continuo parts for chamber and orchestral music. Starting only in the final quarter of the 17th century did composers begin to compose idiomatic music for the violoncello as a solo (accompanied and unaccompanied) and an ensemble (chamber and opera and symphony orchestra) instrument. A considerable literature of published music for the violoncello was created that is still available to and performed by present day amateur and professional cellists. Starting in the mid-20th century the interest in period-informed music performance--the early music movement--rekindled interest on the part of some professional players in earlier forms of the violoncello. A few such performers today play on extant instruments or copies thereof, presenting solo recitals, playing in early music ensembles, and recording. Baroque cellos are also played today by amateur enthusiasts and college students in early music ensembles. The instrument pictured at left is a 19th century German-made modern violoncello that has been retrofitted as a Baroque cello.


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 are made of gut, however the two lowest-pitched ones are wound with very fine silver wire to add to their mass. 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 27.8 inches. They are set into vibration with rosined horsehair stretched the length of a straight or slightly out-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 cellist emulating period practices is seated and holds the instrument, without the aid of a floor peg, roughly vertically and in front of them either with resonator sides between their legs and the bottom end resting on the floor, or by pressing the middle part of the resonator sides between the insides of their 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. 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. Harmonics can also be produced on the strings by lightly touching them at specific points. 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. The violoncello has tremendous expressive potential in that it has a wide dynamic range, all sorts of articulations from voice-like connected phrasing to fast staccato passages are possible, a wide variety of ornamentations can be produced on it, two strings can be sounded simultaneously and arpeggiated chords can be produced by sounding notes on three or four strings in quick succession, and sliding pitch inflections, including vibrato, are easily produced.


The violoncello originated in Italy in the first half of the 16th century, referred to at that time as viole de braccio and often possessing only three strings. By the last quarter of that century the instrument had taken the form that it pretty much has retained up to the present day (with four strings), however most violoncellos of the time were larger in size than later instruments. The invention of wire-wound gut-core strings, when applied to the bass string of the violoncello around the middle of the 17th century, made it possible to obtain an acoustically satisfying C2 with a shorter string, and this led to a reduction in the overall proportions of the instrument (many older and larger violoncellos were then or eventually reduced in size; see National Music Museum website link in Bibliography). However, well into the 18th century makers were producing a number of violoncello variants both in terms of size and in their number of strings (many instruments were made with a fifth string tuned to an E4). In the course of the 18th century makers introduced longer necks and fingerboards in response to the new musical demands composers of the time were placing on performers. By the end of the 18th century most makers were producing instruments that were basically like the ones still produced today (see violoncello), save for the absence of the adjustable endpin, which didn’t become standard until the second half of the 19th century. Interestingly, the physical dimensions of a cello produced by Antonio Stradivari in 1707 would eventually become the standard for modern instruments.

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.

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

Douglass, David. 2007. "The Violin," In A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. 2nd edition, ed. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 156-169.

National Music Museum. “The King Violoncello by Andrea Amati, Mid-16th Century,” accessed 1/25/2014:

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


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Southern Europe

Nation: Italy

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)


48.4 in. length 17.3 in. greatest width 4.7 in. height of ribs

Primary Materials

string - wire-wound gut
string - gut

Entry Author

Roger Vetter