By Philip J. Kass | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine
The established sizes for stringed instruments have been a subject of debate and gradual evolution over the course of centuries. Violins, violas, cellos, and basses all began life as multiple instruments of different sizes (although including basses here seems inappropriate—the one we use today has descended from the viol family, not the violin family). Violins, after some debate, settled in at 35.5 centimeters, about 14 inches, give or take a half centimeter. Violas, after a somewhat schizophrenic existence in which they varied from 17 1/2 to 15 inches, have settled into a 16 to 16 1/2-inch format that modern players favor (at least for the time being). The cello has also allowed for some variability, but a key moment in its development seems to have happened in the late 1600s, and primarily, but not exclusively, in Cremona. But this is not the entire story.
The earliest cellos were of multiple sizes, like the other early strings. The smaller Brescian ones seem to have been close to modern ideas, but it is not always clear whether these were conceived of as cellos per se or as multi-stringed instruments more akin to the viols. The early Cremonese ones ran rather larger, mostly around 31 inches in body length. For a lot of the early compositions, this was fine, as the cello was rarely a solo voice. There of course had to be some small instruments around, even if only for occasions—had the early cello teachers expected their preteen protégés to practice their scales on 31-inch cellos, the instrument and its entire repertoire would have gone extinct some centuries ago. But in the latter 1600s, there were increasingly cellists who developed the facility and virtuosity to play the instrument as a solo vehicle.
Here is where the Cremonese reenter the picture. They had for a century dominated the market and, since the 1630s, had no rivals. These makers provided instruments for the top of the market—the most well-heeled and successful musicians and patrons of that time. The early entrants into the smaller-cello market came from there—first and foremost, Francesco Ruggieri, who began making such instruments as early as the 1670s. Reflective of this trend, albeit perhaps also influenced by the existing stock of cellos in Brescia, Giovanni Battista Rogeri, and later his son Pietro Giacomo, constructed cellos in somewhat smaller dimensions. Later, in the 1690s, Andrea Guarneri (no doubt encouraged by his son Giuseppe) also began to make smaller cellos. However, by 1700, the big name in town was Antonio Stradivari, and whatever he decided usually became the standard.
Stradivari was in the process of establishing his preferred model for a violin and was creating his preferred model for a viola, so it is no surprise that he envisioned a preferred model for a cello. Indeed, part of what makes Stradivari so interesting is how completely he thought through the entire process of creating an instrument—architectural design, aesthetic beauty, exquisite and carefully planned craftsmanship, and, of course, sound. Stradivari had shifted the concept of design from the classic Amati-inspired instruments of the 1660s to something whose entire appearance bore a stamp of solidity, with heavier, stronger edging, an outline that infused a subtle sense of rectangularity, and an arching entirely in keeping with it. It looked like no one else’s work, nor would most other people quite understand it for some time, although players, from the standpoint of tone, did. The first of these new models seems to have been the “Countess of Stanlein” of 1707, and from that point onward, there was no turning back for Stradivari.
The change in measurements was subtle but significant. Whereas his earlier cellos had measured 31 1/4 inches (as compared to the newer, smaller instruments, which measured 29 inches, give or take), the new form, which we now know as the Forma B, measured about 29 7/8 inches. More critically, the breadth of the upper and lower bouts had been reduced by about an inch, with the center bout reduced proportionately, and the stop length was reduced to about 15 3/4 inches. What this meant was that the upper shoulders were much easier to work around when playing in higher positions, the narrow center bout allowed easier bowing, and the shorter stop meant that the spacing between pitches was easier. In some respects the narrowing of the form echoed Stradivari’s previous experiments with violins, specifically the Long Pattern, where a proportional shift between width and length led to a decidedly different end result. It would seem that Stradivari found far more success with this shift in cellos than he did with violins.
From the tonal standpoint, earlier writers seem fairly unanimous in their praise of the model and in particular the soloistic possibilities it allowed. Without sacrificing tonal depth, the new model provided a brilliance and power previously unavailable. Between the ability to soar above the fray in a solo and the greater facility now at hand, the soloist had a perfect concert vehicle. And that was the last word on the subject of size.
Or was it?
The reaction of the rest of the cello world resembled dead silence, it would seem. Partly this is because Stradivari’s ideas were slow to travel around the country—it was, after all, 18th century Italy, which consisted of at least ten different countries, all with their own border restrictions—and local customs were, then as now, driven by the primary players. In Venice, the beguiling richness of Goffriller’s cellos did not go away. Domenico Montagnana’s cellos, both shorter in length and broader in widths, produced a dark and powerful sound that continues to turn heads. In Lombardy, the cellist Carlo Ferrari, an early patron of Guadagnini, had a marked preference for a very small cello, and this is what we see from Guadagnini, Landolfi, and many other makers in Piacenza, Parma, and the Po valley.
And even in Stradivari’s own household, late in his life, he seems to have begun an experiment with even smaller forms, starting in the later 1720s, and led, presumably, by Francesco and Omobono. This was perhaps a further response to changes in demand such as those described already. Where it might have gone, though, is a moot point; Antonio, Francesco, and Omobono were all dead by the early 1740s.
And, of course, many of the older cellos were now being “cut down,” reduced in size, to make them comfortable for the local performers, and, surprisingly, mostly surviving the operation with their tonal qualities intact. This was especially true in the primary financial centers of the time, Paris and London, both of which were avid consumers of old Italian cellos. Later, in Cremona, the preeminent maker of the late 18th century, Lorenzo Storioni, whose own son was a virtuoso cellist, favored a smaller pattern based on the “old” Cremonese cello his son played. The real changes began, as in so many other subjects, at the end of the century, and in the chaos that ensued during the Napoleonic Wars.
By the late 18th century, the French, who had been enthusiastic buyers of Cremonese instruments, and who included many of the greatest early cello virtuosi, were giving up their adherence to the Amati and Stainer approach in favor of that of Stradivari, whom they increasingly viewed as the greatest luthier of all time. And by the early 19th century, French luthiers were favoring the Stradivari models over all the rest, and this included the Forma B. It thus became the standard for everything going forward.
Or did it? Well, yes and no. In a practical way, yes, but the siren song of Venice never quite leaves us. It will be interesting to see the entries into this year’s Violin Society Competition in Anaheim (set to happen, at press time, in November), just to see whose models hold sway with modern luthiers. We can be certain that there will be no unanimity.