Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 16: Remarks by Rebekah Franklin and performance by Brian Hodges with Kevin McTeague
When we think of classical string instruments today, we picture the violin, viola, cello, double bass, and the classical guitar. When thinking of early string instruments, we add things like the viola da gamba family, as well as the lute and its bass sibling, the theorbo, to our category. But, during the Baroque era, composers were still experimenting with string instruments, and one vein of this experimentation was attempting to create a variety of virtuosic middle-range instruments. This type of exploration by both composers and instrument makers gave us a lesser-known string instrument: the violoncello piccolo.
This instrument is a five-stringed cello, built with a smaller body than the average Baroque cello. The extra string is a high E string, adding virtuosic possibilities in terms of range and ease of reach for the player. It is held like a traditional cello, between the knees and, like the other cellos of its time, with no endpin. Its experimental cousin, the violoncello da spalla, is similar in range but is held on the left arm, like a violin or viola. German and Italian composers wrote numerous works for such contemporary instruments, with J.S. Bach including the “violoncello piccolo” in several cantatas (though some scholars argue that he could also have meant the da spalla). Bach’s sixth cello suite was also written for something like a violoncello piccolo, with that extra upper E string making the many virtuosic leaps and shifts much easier in terms of hand position than when played on a traditional four-stringed instrument. The violoncello piccolo you will see in this recording is a 2016 Jay Haide replica of a Baroque violoncello piccolo, including gut strings.
The piece you are about to hear is by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, Sonata in A major for violoncello piccolo and basso continuo, from Musikalisches Viererley. It is being performed on violoncello piccolo with traditional cello accompaniment. The score also features figured bass, so there could be additional harpsichord accompaniment if desired. As you watch the performance, you will be able to see the difference in size between the regular cello and the violoncello piccolo, as well as the piccolo’s extra string.
Perhaps the younger Bach was taking a page out of his father’s book by writing virtuosically for the high range of the cello, or a non-traditional cello, in this way. J.C.F. Bach was the sixteenth child of J.S. Bach. Born in Leipzig, he studied with his father and his cousin, Johann Elias Bach. As was typical for young Bach sons, he became a pupil at the St. Thomas School, and in either 1749 or 1750, the seventeen-year-old became the harpsichordist at the Bückeburg court of William, Count of Schaumburg-Lippe. Because of this, J.C.F. is often known as the “Bückeburg Bach.” He composed in most of the major genres of the day, including instrumental sonatas. As you listen to this piece for piccolo cello and basso continuo, you’ll notice the lovely Baroque-style continuo accompaniment and luscious ornamentation, but also the beautiful, orderly melody and changes of mood that would characterize the early Empfindsamer Stil, a style which C.P.E. Bach championed. J.C.F. Bach began experimenting in this style around 1770, the same year that this sonata was published.
The first movement, Larghetto, features numerous ornaments that, at times, disguise the slowness of the tempo. The upper register of the violoncello piccolo is used to great effect, as the soaring lines rise high above the low and middle register of the continuo cello.
The second movement, Allegro, is quick and energetic, with beautiful bariolage technique in the solo cello; this technique requires the player to rock back and forth quickly between strings, using the left hand to ground themselves on one pitch on the lower string, changing pitches on the upper. We actually see quite a bit of the violoncello piccolo’s range here, as several passages involve working down onto the lower strings in this movement.
Movement three is a Tempo di Minuetto, and one can imagine the graceful steps of dancers who inspired this style that carried over from the Baroque to the Enlightenment. Rather than writing a binary form as would be traditional for a minuet, however, Bach chooses a Rondo form. The first theme appears with various forms of ornamentation throughout the movement.
As you listen, bask in the mellow sounds of the violoncello piccolo. It is an absolutely delightful instrument to hear, especially when paired with Baroque cello. This performance by Brian Hodges and Kevin Teague is stunning. Enjoy!