Instruments | Cello | Late Baroque | Classical
Originally (and still occasionally) known as the ‘violoncello’, or ‘little violone’, the cello is tuned in fifths like the violin and viola, running bottom to top, C, G, d, a, the same tuning as a viola, but an octave lower.
There were early experiments with a smaller five-stringed instrument (with an additional E string to give it an extended upper range) called a violoncello piccolo. J. S. Bach composed the last of his six solo cello suites for this instrument.
The larger size of the instrument meant that a fingering technique different from that of the violin and viola was necessary. In the early eighteenth century, players started to rest the left thumb (kept tucked behind the neck by violinists) across the strings when playing in higher positions, taking the left hand along the fingerboard to produce higher notes.
From its essentially routine role in the early Baroque, the cello rose to a position of importance as a continuo instrument and frequently accompanied the vocal line in opera and cantatas.
Continuo, or basso continuo (‘continuous bass’), is the name both for a kind of bass-line music and the group of performers who played it. Given the florid, exciting melodic line, it is not surprising that Baroque composers usually felt the need to provide solid harmonic underpinning. The music was not usually composed in full; instead, the bass notes were written on the staff, with numbers indicating which chords to improvise above them. This figured bass was a code governed by rules about the choice of common chords. Where the composer wanted something out of the ordinary, the figures gave the basic information; players were expected to improvise, adding notes and shaping the music, according to their own judgement.
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