One Hundred Years of Violoncello: A History of Technique and Performance Practice, 1740-1840

By Cyr, Mary | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

One Hundred Years of Violoncello: A History of Technique and Performance Practice, 1740-1840


Cyr, Mary, Canadian University Music Review


Valerie Waiden. One Hundred Years of Violoncello: A History of Technique and Performance Practice, 1740-1840. Cambridge Musical Texts and Monographs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xv, 311 pp. ISBN 0-521-55449-7 (hardcover).

In this welcome contribution to the field of performance practice, Valerie Waiden broadens her scope beyond a single historical era to cover a critical period of one hundred years in the cello's history. She skilfully weaves two principal concepts or themes - innovation and nationalism - throughout her study of technique and performance practice issues and demonstrates how these themes helped to shape the continuous changes the cello underwent during this period and how the traditions of cello playing gradually coalesced into several different national schools. The result is an excellent resource for players and a very valuable addition to the sparse literature on historically-informed performance practice of the cello.

The hundred years from 1740 to 1840 coincide with the cello's rise to the status of a solo instrument.Tliey are further defined by the publication of Michel Corrette's Méthode théorique et pratique in 1741 and the death of Bernhard Romberg, founder of the Dresden school, in 1841. As Waiden demonstrates, Romberg was exceptionally influential as a performer and author of a cello treatise that was accepted for use at the Paris Conservatoire. The author regards the period 1790 to 1815 as the "apex of this era of change and growing nationalism" (p. 4) when cello performance techniques were transmitted from Paris by performers such as Jean-Pierre and Jean-Louis Duport, Jean-Baptiste Aimé Joseph Janson, and Jacques-Michel Hurel de Lamare, who travelled and performed throughout Europe. The interaction of their stylistic ideas and concept of bow design and instruments with those of players in each locale they visited helped to establish regional pedagogical centres of playing. The strength of Walden's approach lies in the way she surveys each cellist's individual contribution, adding a wealth of new biographical detail, and then moves to the larger issue of how the common interests and practices of certain cellists helped to define each school of playing. Biographical information is especially rich on Justus Johann Friedrich Dotzauer, Bernhard Romberg, Max Bohrer, and a host of other, lesser-known cellists whose playing styles, performing careers, and friendships with well-known composers influenced the regional schools of performance that became established all over Europe.

Although the author includes many references to the cello's role in chamber ensembles and as an orchestral instrument, she is concerned primarily with the cello's rise to popularity as a solo instrument and the techniques that soloists practised. A particularly valuable contribution lies in the chapters devoted to changes in the design and stringing of the instrument and bow. The cello itself was not yet standardized in dimensions during this period. Although Antonio Stradivari had codified the small pattern cello in 1707, the large pattern cello continued to be made throughout the eighteenth century. Waiden notes that there was also considerable experimentation in bow design during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although the most significant development was the replacement of the transitional bow by the Tourte design, there were also some other, unusual designs by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, such as a hollow steel bow in 1834, and a self-rehairing bow, also from the 1830s. Walden's insights about the changes in technique that were made possible by the Tourte bow are enlightening, for example, its ability to negotiate passages in continuous multiple-string chords, which were used by some composers for greater power of sound. The bow grip also varied considerably during this period, with the hand being held higher or lower on the stick, and even an underhand grip (like that for the viola da gamba) being used by some Italian and German players.

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