The cello has its origin, along with the other instruments of the violin family, in Northern Italy in the early 1500s. As with other families of Renaissance instruments, such as recorders or viols, the members of the violin family came in different sizes in order to play the various voices of a polyphonic texture. The bass instrument of the family (not yet called a cello) spent the first 150 years of its existence without any music specifically written for it. Only in the late 17th century did there emerge, also in Northern Italy, a solo repertoire for the instrument, which by then was increasingly being called a "violoncello."
The Italian word "cello" is short for "violoncello," the instrument's full name (not violincello, as it is often misspelled). This, in Italian, is a diminutive of "violone," the term for a large bowed string instrument. "Viola" was a generic term for a bowed string instrument, of which there were two main families. The violas da gamba (leg violas) were played vertically, held on the legs, no matter the size of the instrument, while the violin family, known as violas da braccio (arm violas) were held horizontally on the shoulder (for the smaller members of the family, at least). The small violas (da braccio) were called by the diminutive "violino," and the large ones by the augmentative "violone."
Thus the violoncello is a "little big bowed string instrument": slightly smaller than the earlier violones, which were well suited to playing bass lines but not as handy for fast passagework or a melody in the tenor range. These smaller instruments were becoming more common in the late 17th century, and with them emerged a small solo repertoire, mostly composed by cellists, including Domenico Gabrielli, a native of Bologna. Though Gabrielli composed quite a bit of vocal music and some music for trumpet, he is mostly remembered now as the composer of some of the finest 17th-century music for cello, including 7 unaccompanied ricercars and the delightful sonata and canon on today's program.
Though we know of no solo repertoire written specifically for the cello before the 2nd half of the 1600s, there was in the early part of the century a repertory of ensemble canzonas and sonatas in which the instrument (or its slightly larger antecedent) could have played. The famous keyboard virtuoso Girolamo Frescobaldi, for example, composed dozens of ensemble canzonas for 1-4 instruments (plus keyboard continuo), published in 1628 and 1635. These were not written specifically for any instruments in particular, but the "basso" part in publications such as these often had an indication such as "per fagotto, o trombone, o violone" (for bassoon, or trombone, or violone). We are performing one canzona each from the 1628 and 1635 publications; though they open with the same motive, they quickly move in different directions thereafter.
Most of the ensemble sonatas or canzonas of this era have more treble than bass voices (the combination of two trebles and one bass was particularly popular), so Frescobaldi's choice to write for two basses and one treble was rather unusual; his publications also contain canzonas for one or two bass instruments without a treble. Though none of those is on today's program, we will open the program with a short sonata for two bass instruments by Frescobaldi's contemporary Biagio Marini, from his Op. 8 (1629).
Though the cello repertoire of the 17th century may have been sparse, the 18th century was a different story altogether. In the 1730s and 1740s, as instrumental music publishing began to take off, a number of published collections of cello sonatas appeared by composers both well-known and obscure. In an age before copyright law, the primary concern of the publisher was usually simply to make money, and the music in these publications was sometimes pirated, misattributed, or of questionable provenance or accuracy. Probably the best-known composer to have cello sonatas published in this time period, Antonio Vivaldi, is a case in point: 6 sonatas were published in Paris without Vivaldi's knowledge or permission, based on a manuscript that is not in Vivaldi's hand, with many details added that were not in the manuscript source (and in fact, it cannot be ruled out that some of these sonatas may not be by Vivaldi at all!) For the sonatas of this era on our program, however (those by Antoniotti, Masse, and Geminiani), it appears that the composers themselves were closely involved with their publications, which show a great attention to accuracy and detail.
Giorgio Antoniotti (also known as Antoniotto) was a Milanese nobleman who, having found himself on the losing (Spanish) side of the War of Spanish Succession in his home city, was forced to flee and make a living for a time as a Spanish army officer. He spent quite a bit of time in several European courts, and was well-schooled in music as a composer, theorist (he published a well-received treatise), and performer first on the violin, and then, apparently after suffering a hand injury in a swordfight, on the cello. The 12 cello sonatas of his Op. 1 seem to be his only compositions that were published, in 1733 in Amsterdam.
Though the cello was invented in Italy, and all of its earliest players may have been Italian, by the 18th-century the instrument had been disseminated throughout Europe, and in the 1730s and 1740s a French school of cello performance and composition began to emerge, as the instrument eclipsed the viola da gamba, which had remained popular there much longer than in Italy. Cellist-composers such as Martin Berteau, Jean Barrière, and Jean-Baptiste Masse published several collections of "Sonates," which share many characteristics of their Italian models but also could incorporate distinctly French characteristics such as French dances, rondeau forms, or detailed ornamentation. Not much is known about Masse except that he was a cellist in the Vingt-quatre Violons du Roy and the orchestra of the Comédie Française.
Francesco Geminiani, a pupil of the great Arcangelo Corelli, settled in London and was well-regarded as a violinist, composer, and pedagogue. He was a highly original composer whose mature style is on full display in his Op. 5 cello sonatas, published in 1746, "in which he made a particular study for the use of those who accompany" according to the title page, and indeed, the bass lines are quite a bit more involved than many others of that era. Though their four-movement outline may be Corellian, their unpredictable phrase structure, surprising harmonic progressions, dense texture and detailed ornamentation (similar to contemporaneous French music) are definitely Geminiani's alone.
By the 1790s, Haydn and Boccherini were well-known among the musically literate throughout Europe as their music circulated far and wide. Boccherini was a renowned virtuoso cellist as well as a composer, and his writing for the cello includes numerous challenging passages in the highest reaches of thumb position (as do Haydn's cello concertos). We can speculate that some of these works must have made it all the way to Sweden and were the inspiration for the organist, cellist and composer Johan Wikmanson to write in a similar style. In the National Music Library in Stockholm, there survive three movements, two in C Major and one in D Major, by Wikmanson for the unusual combination of cello accompanied by violin. Perhaps the D Major Allegro on today's program was the first movement of a multi-movement Sonata in D, but if so, this is the only part that survives. It shows not only Wikmanson's apparent technical prowess on the cello, but also his harmonic daring and sense of humor!
Jean-Baptiste Bréval was one of the leading French cellists and pedagogues of his generation. His Op. 39, published in the 1790s, is a set of trios for solo cello, violin, and a bass line (also played by a cello). Lighthearted and fun, the second of these trios will end our concert, and, we hope, whet your appetite for more!
©2018 Christopher Haritatos