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Violoncello Piccolo in Bach's Vocal Works

Violoncello piccolo

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 3, 2007):
The following is based primarily upon Ulrich Prinz's presentation of the Violoncello piccolo as found in his "J.S. Bachs Instrumentarium", Kassel/Stuttgart, 2005, pp. 584-601.

A copper engraving of a Violoncello piccolo player depicted by Bernard Picart, 1701, shows a man in Baroque clothing with a wig holding and playing the instrument placed upright on a cushioned chair (not between the legs like a violoncello nor arm-held like a viola or a viola pomposa). The instrument appears to be larger than a viola but smaller than a cello. This instrument was in use during the first decades of the 18th century. It was certainly not a child-size violoncello, but one played by an adult in the manner depicted in the engraving.

None of the music theoreticians at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century mention this instrument. In the area of middle Germany where J. S. Bach lived, he is the only person to refer specifically to this instrument as a "Violoncello piccolo". There is no mention anywhere in Bach's entire oeuvre of an instrument called a "Viola pomposa". Only as late as 16 years after Bach's death is Bach incorrectly referred to as the inventor of the "Viola pomposa". After that there are 5 more instances where this claim is repeated in print. [All of these assertions are erroneous - see Howard Mayer Brown's article below.]

A second, important source of information about this instrument is J. G. Breitkopf's Music Catalog (of music available in manuscript form) from 1762 (Leipzig) in which he has listed under "Concerti a Violoncello", 41 compositions for "Violoncello piccolo, ô Violoncello da braccia". Among these are found 14 sonatas, 2 trios (the 2nd one of these by Tartini specifices "a 2 Violonc. picc. coll Basso"), 3 quadri and 22 concerti. The composers named are del Sgr. Beyer, Foerster, Goerner, Hering, Riedel, Rondinelli, Schachhofer, Schwalbe, Speer, Tartini and Wiedner. as well as 23 anonymous composers. From the incipits it can be determined that 27 of the
Violoncello piccolo parts use the treble clef basso clef (the little 8 under the clef), 7 use the alto clef, 1 has the tenor clef and 6 use the bass clef.

A third source is found in a dissertation by Hans Weber where there is a reference to a "Concerto 2 à Violoncello piccolo conc. e Violino. 2 Violini Viola e Cemb. Martino." This trail led to G. B. Sammartini and a set of parts in manuscript. This concerto was published by Newell Jenkins as Concerto in C major for Violoncello piccolo (treble clef basso) or for Violin (Edition Eulenburg London No. 1211) and recorded as a violin concerto. The foreword confirms that this work appeared in the Breitkopf Music Catalog of 1762, but there it was listed under Violin Concerti.

[Another source note mentioned by Prinz is found in the MGG1 listing of compositions by the Graun brothers {the MGG1 explains that often it is impossible to discern which brother composed which work because they frequently wrote only "Graun" on the manuscripts}. There is a Concerto for Violoncello piccolo with strings as well as a Sonata for Violoncello piccolo with continuo.]

A fourth source is found a few years later in a list of instruments from 1768 in Köthen. It lists 3 Violoncelli, 2 "Bassetti" one with 4 strings the other with 5. Five years later an inventory of the same instruments lists: "A Violon Cello Piculo with 5 strings made by J. C. Hoffmann, 1731" and "A Violon Cello Pic, mit 4 strings made by J. H. Ruppert, 1724".

In the inventory of Bach's estate at the time of his death, a list of string instruments (Chapter VI) begins with violins and violas and then concludes with "1. Bassettgen (6 rthl.), 1. Violoncello (6 rthl.), 1. dto (16 gr.) 1. Viola da Gamba (3 rthl.)". What else could this "Bassettgen" that costs as much as a Violoncello be but a Violoncello piccolo?

Who were the musicians who played this instrument? Probably they mainly played the violoncello or the viola da gamba. In Köthen it is possible that Christian Ferdinand Abel (viola da gambist) or Christian Bernhard Linike/Lienigke, violoncellist played this instrument. In Leipzig the possible players might have been Christian Rother (City Piper from 1708-1737) and/or Georg Gottfried Wagner, for whom Bach wrote a recommendation in which he commended his abilities "on the violin, violoncello and other instruments". Walter F. Hindermann, in his "Die nachösterlichen Kantaten des Bachschen Choralkantaten-Jahrgangs, Hofheim, 1975, p. 29, proposed the idea that the obbligato parts for the violoncello piccolo before April 2, 1725 (BWV 6) were played in the manner depicted in Picart's engraving from 1701, but that after this date it was played between the legs, possibly played by C. F. Abel, who traveled from Köthen to Leipzig to participate in the cantatas where this instrument was used.

The clefs used for violoncello piccolo make quite clear how experimental this instrument really was. There is no other instrument in Bach's oeuvre where such a variety of clefs is employed. This is mainly due to the wide range of such a tenor-bass instrument: (Some repeated parts are actually different copies of parts for the same mvt.; also the same part may be notated differently in the score than it is on the part.)

Bass clef:
BWV 41/4 (changing back and forth to treble clef as well)
BWV 71/1,4
BWV 71/6 (ditto alto, tenor and soprano clefs)
BWV 71/7 (ditto tenor clef)
BWV 68/2 (ditto tenor clef )
BWV 115/4 (ditto treble clef)
BWV 115/4 (later revised ditto tenor clef)
BWV 199/6 (ditto treble clef)
BWV 234 (an inserted part designated as "Violoncello piccolo")
BWV 1012 (ditto alto clef)

Tenor clef:
BWV 68/2
BWV 71/6 (ditto alto, bass, soprano clefs)
BWV 71/7 (ditto bass clef)
BWV 175/4 (ditto bass clef)
BWV 185/2

Tenor clef:
BWV 41/4 (actually sounding notation is a tenor clef an octave lower)

Alto clef:
(BWV 5/3)
BWV 6/3
BWV 41/4 (ditto treble clef)
BWV 71/6 (ditto soprano clef)
BWV 71/6 (ditto tenor, bass, and soprano clefs)
BWV 115/4 (ditto bass clef)
BWV 180/3
BWV 1012 (ditto bass clef)

Alto clef:
BWV 41/4 (actual sounding notation is an octave lower)

Treble clef: (this would sound as a treble clef with a small 8 below it)
BWV 6/3
BWV 41/4 (ditto alto and tenor (with 8 below it) clefs)
BWV 41/4 (ditto alto and bass clefs)
BWV 49/4
BWV 85/2
BWV 115/4 (ditto bass clef)
BWV 175/4 (ditto bass clef)
BWV 180/3
BWV 199/6 (ditto bass clef)

Soprano clef:
BWV 71/6 (ditto alto clef)
BWV 71/6 (ditto alto, tenor and bass clefs)
BWV 1012/1 (ditto bass and alto clefs)

From a low C (two octaves below middle C) to c2 (in
BWV139/4 to d2, BWV 71/6 to e-flat2 and in BWV 1012 to g2

Number of Strings:
The use of 4 or 5 strings, when analyzed
chronologically, shows no distinctive development.

G - d - a - e1: BWV 71; BWV 5(?); BWV 180; BWV (139); BWV 6, BWV 49; BWV 85; BWV 183

c - g - d1 - a1: BWV 180; BWV 49 (assumed by Dürr)

C - G - d - a - e1: BWV 1012; BWV 199 (repeat performance); BWV 115; BWV 41; BWV 68; BWV 175; BWV (197a); BWV 234

Keys/Tonalities used:

C minor; Bb major/Gminor; F major; C major/A minor; G major/E minor; D major/B minor; A major/F# minor

Chords appear only in mvts. for an instrument with 4 strings:
BWV 71/7 (octaves only); BWV 180/3 (3-note final chord); BWV 85/2 (2-,3-, 4-note chords)


The violoncello piccolo is used only as an obbligato instrument in orchestrated compositions.

It appears as a solo, 5-string instrument in BWV 1012

As part of a trio (Violoncello piccolo, Voice, Continuo) in BWV 199/6 (BWV 5/5), BWV 180/3; BWV 41/4; BWV 6/3; BWV 85/2; BWV 183/2; BWV 68/2, BWV 175/4.

As part of a quartet (Instrument, Violoncello piccolo, Voice, Continuo) in BWV 115/4; BWV 139/4(?); BWV 49/4; BWV 197a/4(?)

In the middle of an instrumental section: BWV 71/4 (middle section, mm23-40)

According to voice used:

Soprano: BWV (199/6); BWV 180/3; BWV 115/4; BWV 6/3; BWV 49/4
Alto: BWV 85/1; BWV 197a(?)
Tenor: BWV (5/3); BWV 41/4; BWV 183/2; BWV 175/4
Bass: BWV 71/4; BWV 139/4(?)

In the followsection are materials quoted from the current Grove Music Online (Oxford University Press, 2007, acc. 4/2/07) which either serve to confirm Prinz's detailed research or still give information which has not taken it into account, hence must be considered incomplete and/or outdated.

Suzanne Wijsman reports the following:

>> Five-string and piccolo cellos.
Although cellos with four strings predominated in Italy by the end of the 17th century, cellos with more than four strings were still used elsewhere. The advent of thumb position fingerings (the technique in which the whole hand is put on top of the strings with the thumb placed across and perpendicular to them, functioning as a moveable nut in relation to the other fingers) may have caused the redundancy of cellos with more than four strings at the beginning of the 18th century. However, five-string cellos were used in Germany into the middle of the 18th century. In addition to J.S. Bach's solo cello suite no.6 BWV 1012, written for a five-string cello, the cello part of his cantata "Gott ist mein König" BWV 71, requires a range extended to c'' (f'' in Bach's original, unorchestrated version), suggesting that an E string would have been required for the execution of this part. Five-string cellos also appear in numerous Dutch, Flemish and German paintings and etchings from the 17th and 18th centuries. (see fig.2).
The correct definition of the violoncello piccolo has been widely debated. At least eight of Bach's cantatas written between 1724 and 1726 have obbligato parts designated as such. The term piccolo means 'small'. An original cello pattern of Antonio Stradivari is labelled forma B piccola di violincello but it is likely that Stradivari sought simply to distinguish this new smaller pattern from his earlier larger instruments. But these violoncello piccolo parts by Bach imply that a four-string cello tuned G-d-a-e' was used.

A late 18th-century account by E.L. Gerber (whose father was a student of Bach) claimed that Bach invented a special sort of small cello or large viola - called a viola pomposa - to facilitate the execution of rapid obbligato parts in the bass (see W. Neumann and H.-J. Schulze, D1972, p.469). Dreyfus (D1987) has suggested that this instrument may have been the same as the "Viola da spalla" ('shoulder-viola') mentioned by J.J. Walther in his Musicalisches Lexicon (Leipzig, 1732), which was tuned like a cello but with an added fifth string and held over the shoulder by a strap. However, there is evidence of the earlier existence of both small and large four- and five-string instruments (Stradivari, apparently, also made a five-string viola), and it seems doubtful that this was actually Bach's invention. Rather, it reflects the broad variety of instrument sizes and types still being used in Germany around 1720, and the terminological amibiguity associated with them. (Surviving instruments that may be examples of the viola pomposa, viola da spalla, or violoncello piccolo are listed by M.M. Smith, B1998.)<<

Howard Mayer Brown carefully distinguishes correctly between the viola pomposa and the violoncello piccolo:

>> Viola pomposa (Italian).
A five-string viola, tuned either c-g-d'-a'-e'', i.e. like a regular viola with an additional e'' string, or possibly d-g-d'-g'-c'' as Galpin suggested. It was in use from about 1725 to about 1770 and was played on the arm. Some writers (for example H.C. Koch and J.G. Graun) also called it 'violino pomposo'.

The only surviving music for the instrument comprises two duets for flute and viola pomposa or violin by G.P. Telemann (from "Der getreue Music-Meister"), a double concerto by J.G. Graun, two "sonate da camera" by J.G. Janitsch, and a solo sonata with continuo by C.J. Lidarti. The invention of the instrument was erroneously ascribed to J.S. Bach by several late 18th-century writers, apparently because they confused the viola pomposa with the violoncello piccolo which J.C. Hoffmann of Leipzig made for Bach and for which Bach occasionally wrote.

F.T. Arnold: 'Die Viola pomposa', ZMw, xiii (1930-31), 141-5 [see also the rejoinders by G. Kinsky (xiii, 325-8 and xiv, 178-9); F.W. Galpin (xiv, 35-8); H. Engel (xiv, 38 only); reply by F.T. Arnold (xvi, 35 only)]
F.W. Galpin: 'Viola Pomposa and Violoncello Piccolo', ML, xii (1931), 354-65
H. Husmann: 'Die Viola pomposa', BJb 1936, 90-100
W. Schrammek: 'Viola pomposa und Violoncello piccolo bei Johann Sebastian Bach', Internationales Bach-Fest III: Leipzig 1975, 345-54
U. Drüner: 'Violoncello piccolo und Viola pomposa bei Johann Sebastian Bach: zu Fragen von Identität und Spielweise dieser Instrumente', BJb 1987, 85-112 [summaries in English, French]<<

Douglas Cowling wrote (April 3, 2007):
Thomas Braatz wrote:
< In the inventory of Bach¹s estate at the time of his death, a list of string instruments (Chapter VI) begins with violins and violas and then concludes with ³1. Bassettgen (6 rthl.), 1. Violoncello (6 rthl.), 1. dto (16 gr.) 1. Viola da Gamba (3 rthl.)². What else could this ³Bassettgen² that costs as much as a Violoncello be but a Violoncello piccolo? >
I remember a BBC radio documentary which proposed that Bach's ubiquitous "Toccata in D Minor" was in fact arranged from a now -lost suite for unacccompanied Vlc. Piccolo. I wasn't convinced that the toccata's figuration was non-organistic [sic?] but the reconstructed movement sounded quite wonderful on the vlc. piccolo.


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