(For the benefit of people who are not familar with the performance techniques of Baroque music, I include a brief explanation of the concept of "continuo". The continuo was the "rhythm section" of a Baroque ensemble, consisting of various combinations of instruments as described in the article. The continuo part was often written as a "figured bass" or "thoroughbass". This was a single-note bass part with various numbers written above the notes, the numbers giving more or less the same information as modern chord symbols. For more information, read Agazzari's 1607 description.)


Music score

A New Sound for Familiar Music


The Cello as an Accompanying Instrument in the 18th Century

by Dimitry Markevitch

For years, it has generally been accepted that the usual, normal, and preferred accompanying instrument for 18th-century music is the harpsichord. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, in his well-known Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, states that "the best accompaniment to a solo, one which is free of criticism, is a keyboard instrument and a cello". Most modern performers assume, especially when confronted with figured basses, that a keyboard instrument with a cello is the only possibility. The reality is different. If you study early editions and read contemporary reports of 18th-century concerts, you will discover that the cello is often mentioned as the accompanying instrument to a soloist, whether violin, flute, voice, or another cello. Of course, much iconographic evidence shows a poor cellist sitting next to the harpsichord, struggling to read the score over the harpsichordist's shoulder. However, the cellist in this scene is usually depicted with an orchestra or large ensemble.

The term "basso" causes some confusion. As a general rule "basse" and "basso" mean the cello. Even today a French luthier will always call the cello a "basse". Furthermore, the term "basso continuo", or figured bass, does not necessarily mean that a harpsichord is called for. Any type of chordal instrument, such as theorbo or lute, could be used. In large ensembles the continuo is played by several instruments. In church music the organ is most likely involved.

When the composer specifically wanted the accompaniment of the harpsichord, he usually specified "cembalo", "cembalo e violoncello", or something similar. Even when a composer specified "cembalo" and provided a figured bass, these specifications were often ignored. Sebastien de Brossard says in his Dictionnaire de Musique from 1705, that "Basso continuo is often played simply and without figures on the bass violin". (There was also a practical side to the question, as good harpsichords were not always available, and a cello, even if cumbersome, is still easier to carry than a harpsichord.)

Lady cellist It should be obvious that no realization is called for when the bass carries no figures. To quote again from C.P.E. Bach, "a good accompaniment exposes the ridiculousness of the demand that accompaniments be realized from unfigured basses". The examples of such unfigured basses are numerous, especially in Italian instrumental music from the last of the 17th century to the works of Boccherini for violoncello and basso. In the Rondo of Boccherini's Sonata in C Major, G. 17, the bass is asked to play "sul ponticello al punto d'arco", an instruction obviously impossible to carry out on a harpsichord. Works like these clearly indicate the use of a cello for the bass. Boccherini's 32 sonatas must be played with a second cello accompaniment to appreciate how good they sound for two cellos.

The evolution towards keyboard-dominated music can be seen in the compositions of the cellist Jean Louis Duport. He made his debut in Paris at the Concert Spirituel on February 2, 1768, accompanied on a second cello by his older brother, Jean-Pierre. He later produced sonatas for cello with bass, but his last work, probably composed in 1815 and published posthumously, is a duo for cello and piano.

Thus the turn of the century, with the advent of the pianoforte, marks the beginning of the end of the practice of accompaniment by a second cello. Still, in the Paris Conservatoire method, Methode de Violoncelle et de Basse d'Accompagnement, published in 1805 and written by Henri Levasseur and Charles Baudiot, cellists and "Professeurs de Basse au Conservatoire", a whole section is devoted to cello accompaniment. This section describes at length the role of the cello in accompanying, particularly in recitatives. The prerequisites are a perfect knowledge of harmony and a familiarity with figured chords. It shows the best manner of playing these chords and gives examples of realizations of figured basses by the cello. Nowhere is there mention of the harpsichord or any other instrument.

As early as 1741, Michel Corrette in his method, the first to appear, writes at length about the use of the cello for accompaniments.

If all countries give preference to the cello to play the basso continuo, it is not without reason, the bass being the foundation of harmony. It is thus necessary to choose the bass instrument which is the most sonorous and with which one can play all sorts of music: powerful, simple, figured, etc. Because a music which lacks a strong bass always leaves much to be desired by the ear. Those jealous of the cello will always lose their arguments against the progress which it makes every day. To all others, the cello satisfies ears sensitive to harmony. Also voices are charmed to be accompanied by it, realizing that nothing makes them shine like the accompaniment of this sonorous instrument which articulates so well its tones and speaks so distinctly; so different from the instruments which only make cymbal-like and nasal sounds to which it is necessary to ask each minute the name of the note which they have just played, the ear having heard only a confused noise which forbids hearing all the beauty of the harmony of which the bass is the principal object. It relates itself also very well with the transverse flute; and the violin could never be better accompanied than by the cello which is its true bass, being of the same family.

Corrette's last statement is corroborated by the fact that musicians such as Corelli, Vivaldi, and Tartini preferred being accompanied by a cello. In the original Sala edition of 1705, Vivaldi's Sonatas Opp. 1 and 2 were labeled for "Violine e Violone o Cembalo", that is for violin and cello or harpsichord.

From the appearance in 1685 of Corelli's Sonatas for Violin and Cello or Harpsichord, Op. 2, it is clear that a cello was the rule and the harpsichord the exception. This explains why there are so many early editions labeled thus: for "violin and bass", "violin and cello", "cello and bass", "violin and bass violin or harpsichord". This last instance is found in the works of Handel and others, as published by Walsh in London, who continued to use this label until past the middle of the 18th century. Handel's famous Water Music was published in 1733 with a "thorough Bass for Harpsichord or Bass Violin".

It may be hard for us to accept the cello as an accompanying instrument, because the 19th century imposed the use of the piano, and practically all the editions for the last 150 years have accompaniments arranged for this instrument. But if we go back to the 18th century, we see that authors such as Jean-Baptiste Baumgartner and John Gunn expected the cello to accompany. Baumgartner, in his method published in The Hague in 1774, gives very detailed instructions on cello accompaniment, with a table of chords. And Gunn, after advising study and practice of accompaniment, prints excerpts from well known works by Corelli and Handel.

Historical arguments would be meaningless if the cello did not sound good as an accompanying instrument. But the fact is the cello sounds great as an accompanying instrument, and when cellists begin to revive this practice, I am sure they will discover what a joy it is, especially since the imagination can be given free rein. The number of works which can be played with cello accompaniment is extremely great as it covers the majority of accompanied instrumental solo, duo, and trio works from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th, thus opening up a vast area of repertoire for the cellist who wishes to explore this wonderful literature.

Strings, Vol. VI, No. 3, Nov./Dec. 1991


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