Cello or Gamba?

John cello gamba Eli's

Hello and welcome to our blog! My name is John Ott, and I am the cellist and viola da gambist in L’Esprit Baroque. I love this music and all the history behind it. Researching all the composers and performers and publishers of this era, and the nobility they served, is fascinating to me. I write a lot of the program notes, and lately have been introducing the pieces we play in our live concerts.

One subject that is interesting and relevant to me is how to select which instrument I should use (if any) to play bowed bass continuo for my group. Since the Baroque style features a prominent basso continuo line, Janice and I are almost always playing every piece in the concert. For each piece I have to ask, do I use cello or gamba? Is it even appropriate for me to be playing on a piece? Many people have different opinions on this, but I will tell you what I do.

For Italian Baroque music, particularly after 1680, I pretty much always use the cello. The viola da gamba had gone out of fashion as a continuo instrument, and was only used in consort to create a particular sound. For earlier Italian music, I sometimes choose the instrument which most closely approximates the range of the piece (viola da gamba can play higher, but sounds less clear down low). Often the music is written in such a way that no bowed bass is necessary, especially if the keyboard part is played on an organ. In that case the instrument I should really be playing would be a theorbo (a large, bass lute), but I neither own one nor know how to play it well.

For French Baroque music, I almost always will be playing the viola da gamba. The French were in love with the viol both as a continuo instrument and as a solo instrument. (Frequently there are a few bars of solo written here and there in the continuo part, to keep the viol player entertained.) The cello didn’t really get a foothold in France until the 1730’s or so. However, there are a few cases where I would select a cello over a viol for late French music, notably that of Boismortier or Corrette, or of course playing a continuo line to a cello sonata. Even then, most of the parts are written for “viol or violoncello,” meaning that one can play them with either.

For English Baroque music, it completely depends on the time. The English were fickle, and gravitated toward whoever happened to be in London at the time. Before the Interregnum, the viol was the most prized instrument in the nation. However, since Oliver Cromwell all but banished music (and most of the composers were Royalists anyway), the English composers fled to continental Europe, where they became exposed to French and Italian Baroque music. When they returned after the monarchy was restored, they brought with them more modern styles of music and instruments, in particular the violin family. So viols played with viols in older styles, and cellos played with violins in the more modern music. Soon after, a large number of Italian musicians, including cellists, emigrated to London and made careers there. So by the time Handel arrived, the cello was the bass instrument of choice. However, a generation later, the great viol player Karl Friedrich Abel arrived with his friend Johann Christian Bach, and created another wave of fascination with the viol. Frequently, with English music, I have to look at when and where the music was performed, and often who it was performed by. (Most of that information is available, as every concert had reviewers writing about it.)

For German/Austrian music (and really for the rest of continental Europe), the cello and viol existed as roughly equal contemporaries, though cellists gradually became more common than viol players toward the middle of the 18th century. So I have to look for some clues.

When the instrument plays high, does it read alto or tenor clef? Though a lot of music used moveable C clefs, by the turn of the 18th century it became standard for cellists to read tenor and violists da gamba to read alto, and not vice versa. (It is amazing, I can read both fluently, but alto is difficult on cello and tenor is almost impossible on gamba. I don’t know why. They’re just one line apart.)

Does the instrument have prominent low C’s? Though a 7-string viol can play C’s, B’s and even A’s, the 7-string model was less common outside of France. Most music intended for viol only went down to D, the lowest string on the more common 6-string model. Low C on cello, however, is the bottom string, and is easy to play.

Who was playing it? Much of this music was composed for the courts of the various nobility, and therefore performed by the musicians of the court. Frederick II (the Great), for example, employed the great viol virtuoso Ludwig Christian Hesse. His successor Frederick William II himself played cello, and had the famous cellist Jean-Louis Duport at court. Knowing that information gives me a big clue.

What other instruments are playing? Viol pairs well with flute, cello pairs well with violin. I didn’t make this up, it’s in all the treatises.

Does the music sound more Italianate? Italian bass lines frequently feature quick octave jumps and other large leaps from the top to the bottom of the instrument, in a way that one of my Longy professors described as “boppy.” That style is certainly possible on gamba, though it sometimes takes careful aim between strings, but it is as easy as falling off a log on cello. I suspect that this style of writing is really what caused the cello to replace the viol as the primary bass string instrument by the end of the Baroque.

Those are among the criteria I use to select which instrument I play. My aim is to create an authentic interpretation of this piece so you can experience this music the way it was intended by the composer.

—John Ott

More about John, including information about online lessons, at johnottcello.com

One Reply to “Cello or Gamba?”

  1. Your explanations were very interesting . In particular concerning the later use of viola da gamba in French Baroque Music that seems to have used the instrument rather later than the 16th century to my surprise. Good luck.


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