Every cello is a time machine

A skilled musician can coax out ageless music from instruments that refuse to die.

No a cello is not an actual flux-capacitored Delorean that can take Marty back to November 5, 1955. But I consider these old instruments to be time-travel vehicles nonetheless, for both the musicians that play them and the audiences lucky enough to be there when they do.

A cello is one of the few objects humans create that improve with age. Old castles are damp, drafty and have bad plumbing. A 1915 circa washing machine is not a treasured appliance, except to a museum curator. Even wine goes bad eventually.


But a 300 hundred year old cello is not only prized for its pedigree (Stradivari, Amati, etc) but also because of its mature and richly nuanced voice. The quality of the sound is not diminished by old age. In the hands of a musician who understands its personality, an old cello takes us on a journey that makes time evaporate.


Musicians who play these old cellos regard them with the affection usually reserved for a lover. A lover with an incredible aural range closely aligned to that of the human voice - both male and female combined. The deepest cello sound is similar to a basso profondo - a tenor who can hold the lowest notes with authority. And a cello can also reach high notes with the agility and lightness of a coloratura soprano.


After years spent performing together, these instruments help define the musicians that play them and often become an integral part of their artistry.


The oldest surviving cello, the "King", built by Andrea Amati in 1538


The ‘big little violin’ - a brief history


Like many of my favourite things, (pizza and espresso also come to mind), the cello traces its origins to Italy.


Around 1530, some of the best violin makers in the Cremona region of Northern Italy turned their attention to crafting large bass stringed instruments that could be played in consort with the violin. They called this new creature a violone (large viola). It was bigger than the cello we are familiar with today because lower pitches were harder to achieve in a small form factor.


Andrea Amati created one of the first violones around this time. Amati finished a three-stringed bass instrument in 1538 that he would later paint and gild as part of a commission from King Charles IX of France. It became known as the “King” and was used in the royal court for more than 200 years.


Today it holds the distinction as the oldest surviving cello on the planet. Its voice is said to be remarkable, possessing a beautiful ‘full-throated sound.’


“There's an ease of performance no modern instrument can equal. The changes in the color of sound cannot be equaled."

String theory meets Plan B


The first strings used for these large bass violins or violones, were made of catgut. (Don't worry, no cats were harmed in the process.) The string was made from the natural fiber in the intestines of sheep or cows, and hence the term ‘cattlegut,’ which eventually got shortened to ‘catgut.’ While these gut strings produced a rich sound, when strung on the large violone frame, it limited the instrument to the role of bass accompaniment.


In 1659 wire-wound strings (with a thin gut core) were developed in Bologna. This innovation supported a higher string tension than pure gut, resulting in a finer bass and louder sound on a smaller body, which lead of a variety of sizes and shapes for early violones.


That changed in 1707 when Antonio Stradivari, experimenting in his Cremona workshop, standardized the size of these instruments with a version somewhere between the largest and smallest ones of the day.

He christened his design forma B. This new form factor was Stradivari's answer to the quest for a bass instrument that could also function in a solo role. His forma B standardized the specifications and was hailed as the “perfect design.”


Pretty good for a plan B.


The diminutive size of this form required a new name to distinguish it from the larger violone and it soon became known as a violincello (big little violin), which years later was abbreviated to ‘cello and then finally just to cello, at least in the English speaking world.


Stradivarius time machines


Here is a quick guide to some cello ‘time machines’ created by the most famous luthier of Cremona.


Stéphane Tétreault performs with the Countess


The Countess of Stainlein-Ex Paganini: A 1707 Stradivarius, sold for $6 million USD in 2012 and is currently under the watchful eye of Montréal cellist Stéphane Tétreault. Former owners include Nicolò Paganini and many others.


Bernard Greenhouse, an American cellist who owned and played it for 54 years reflected on his time with the ‘Countess’ this way. “There's an ease of performance no modern instrument can equal. The changes in the color of sound cannot be equaled."


The Davydov, another Stradivarius, ‘Forma B’ model from 1712. Its name originates from the renowned Russian cellist Karl Davydov who performed with until his death in 1889. It was also owned by Jacqueline du Pré who used it for recording in the 1960’s. But later the cello reacted badly to her aggressive playing style and she grew disillusioned with it.


Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall, 'coaxing' sounds from the Davydov (NY Times)

Yo-Yo Ma came into possession of the cello after Jackie's death, and remarked, "Jackie's unbridled dark qualities went against the Davydov. You have to coax the instrument. The more you attack it, the less it returns. Each sound stimulates the player’s imagination. You cannot push the sound, rather it needs to be released.”


The Piatti, Red Cello – One of Stradivari’s later cello, named after the Italian cellist Alfredo Piatti who owned it for 34 years until 1901.


The current owner, Mexican cellist Carlos Prieto did exhaustive research on the history of the Piatti, tracing through museums, cathedrals and places where the cello has travelled - from Cremona to a Joseph Hadyn premiere and even to taverns in Ireland where it likely partied.


Carlos Prieto

In the 20th Century it ended up in Nazi Germany in the hands of Francesco Mendelssohn, whose father was a nephew of composer Felix Mendelssohn. He smuggled it across the border into Switzerland - on his bicycle - and then to NYC, where Mendelssohn went into a downward spiral. He misplaced the cello at one point after a bad night, and it was almost taken away by a garbage truck.


It’s now safely held and estimated to be worth a small fortune. Prieto performs with it still and claims the cello enjoys returning to places it has previously visited.




A connection forged across time


It’s not hard to imagine how these instruments connect us to the time when they were created, and to the people and places they’ve influenced. When you hear a great cellist lovingly coaxing a low G sound from a three-hundred-year-old cello, you are sharing the same experience the as all the listeners that have come before you.


Much of the emotional responses we get from classical music are from compositions nearly as old as the instruments themselves. If you close your eyes while listening to a live performance of these masterpieces, you can easily find yourself transported back to the 18th Century.


No flux capacitors needed.