Early History of the Cello

A Reading

Last week began an undertaking of proportions I have never before attempted. It was the beginning of a reading-through and recording of the book The Violoncello and Its History by Jospeh Wasielewski.

It might seem odd that one would want to do anything other than read and reference the scholarly work. However, it came out of prolonged period of uncertainty. I wasn’t sure how or what to proceed with. So, I began reading (I have always wanted to read a book through and record it.)

This book is a substantial history of the cello and the most complete written up to that time. It certainly is worthwhile exploring more deeply and extracting bits of information which help bring “Forgotten Cello Music” back to life. In this journey I have been on, it is easy to simply play and churn out more recordings that ultimately still remain uncared for and relics of the past. These readings are one more way to give meaning and purpose to old, unplayed music.

Past Posts

I have written several blog posts, which reference The Violoncello and Its History. It really is good source material. At any rate, the information is interesting. To read old posts regarding this book see the following links:


Here are some things I’ve noticed in the introduction and the sections regarding Italy and Germany in the 18th century.

The introduction includes all that which leads up to the development of the cello and the leading Gambists (the family of Gamba instruments are the cello’s precursor). To be more accurate, there is a family of Viols of which one type is a gamba–and within that group of gamba (i.e. viols held by/at the knees) there are a number of varying sizes. Each one could be strung up with anywhere from 5 to 7 strings. Only the largest viola da gambas will concern us with the emergence of the Violoncello.

1. There is much talk of small ensemble (namely the English consort) playing and orchestral inclusion

2. It is utilized widely as part of the basso continuo

3. Since the b.c. is written in figured bass the viola da gamba players must have a good knowledge of theory and how to execute all the chords represented in the figured bass

4. The viola da gamba would eventually be used as the approximate template for the developing cello

5. A large number of Viola da Gambas were converted into cellos or destroyed (being considered superfluous if they were of inferior construction) due to the demand and popularity of the emerging role of the cello.

Women mention in the text of the Introduction

The Introduction is mostly about the Viola da Gamba but does transition into the cello world toward the end. It is an astounding 40 pages of introduction. This volume, on a whole, is replete with biographical sketches of notable musicians. It was a pleasant surprise when I read about two Viola da Gamba players who were women. One of the gambists was from the early 1600’s and the other from the early 1700’s.

The first mentioned, Dorothea V. Ried, apparently played with sublime beauty.

Amongst the German gambists of the first half of the eighteenth century a lady held a prominent position, DOROTHEA V. RIED, one of the five daughters of the Austrian musician, Fortunatus Ried. Johann Frauenlob says of them, according to Gerber, in his Essay on Learned Women: “That although two of them were still very young—one was scarcely eight years old—their father had brought them on so well in music that with their two brothers they had given at Vienna, Prague, Leipsic, Wittenberg, and other places such evident proofs of their talent as to have excited universal admiration, for people thought they heard heavenly rather than earthly music.” 

Wasielewski, Joseph. The Violoncello and Its History. 32

The Second noted, Lenora Baroni, played two often instruments used in figured bass, the Theorbo and Viola da Gamba.

“It is worthy of remark in this place that the famous Italian singer, Lenora Baroni, born about 1610, was according Maugars’ testimony, a clever theorbo and gamba player. As such she was in the habit of accompanying herself in singing.”

Wasielewski, Joseph. The Violoncello and Its History. 36

These, I note simply because of how much they stand out. In a sea of unknown, male gamba players, there emerge these two females. At least the author felt they had enough impact on the instrument to include them! Besides, it’s nice to hear about some outstanding women amongst the plethora of players who also composed mediocre music for their instrument. (There are countless times that J. Wasielewski points out musical compositions only to deride them for their general lack of originality and interest.)

Wading through all the anecdotes and purely historical settings of these myriad gambists takes time. It is very easy to resort to skimming rather than reading, taking in the data. However, when I made the effort to search out information regarding the actual instrument it become somewhat more useful and interesting. (Still, I think he spent too much of the book on the Gamba–specifically, personal stories of the players are a bit wordy. However, the history of the Violoncello is intertwined with the family of Viols, so, it cannot be shortened by too much, else the foundation upon which the Violoncello was built will be not well understood since the cello did not materialize from nothing.)

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